On March 19, 2019, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev unexpectedly resigned, after serving as head of state for nearly 30 years. In an article published by the Carnegie Moscow Center, Russian expert Alexander Baunov analyzed the meaning of this resignation for Moscow.
According to Baunov, Nazarbayev's resignation is a "dress rehearsal" for the transfer of power that will take place in Russia in 2024. More specifically, the Kremlin will be able to observe in practice what proportion of power Nazarbayev will retain after leaving his post, and for how long. It is worth noting that Nazarbayev relinquished the presidency but not power, since he will continue to chair Kazakhstan's Security Council and will retain his position as leader of the Nur Otan party.
Baunov stated that while Nazarbayev "has not set for himself the task of trying out one option for Putin's future," his resignation is the result of a rivalry between Russia and Kazakhstan, in which the latter's competitive edge lies in its lack of confrontation with the West. He concluded: " The smooth and timely (by Asian standards) resignation of a leader is another way to show the world that Kazakhstan is a civilized modern country, whose president, who ruled for 30 years, still looks better than Putin, who has been ruling only 20 years, with a break, but inevitably will leave office only after Nazarbayev does."
Below is Baunov's article:
Nazarbayev and Putin (Source: Sputniknews.com)
The Kremlin Will Be Able To Observe In Practice What Proportion Of Power And How Long Nazarbayev Will Retain After Leaving The Post
"Previously, the informal authority of the leader of the nation, and the presidential post, which was the main instrument for creating this authority, existed in indivisible unity. Now they are separated. This system is similar to how a bank cell is accessed, with two keys, and because of the novelty of the construction, it is not clear how much power will remain with the presidential post and how much will go to the [next] leader who enters the post.
"Until yesterday, post-Soviet Central Asia knew only two types of transfer of power – the revolutionary system and the Soviet system. The first one is exceptional for Kyrgyzstan, the second (and more expected) one is more common for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
"Under the Soviet brand of transfer of power, the president ruled until his death, and then all the power, all its weight, went to the strongest contender for the empty post. The fact that we are talking about the transfer of all power can be clearly seen in how [former Uzbek president Islam] Karimov's daughter went to prison [on March 6, 2019, for violating the terms of her five-year house arrest], and how [former Turkmenistan leader Saparmurat] Niyazov's books ceased to be compulsory [reading]. In both cases, all the keys were transferred to the new owner.[ii]
"Kazakhstan is now trying to create a third model (a country always claims to be more free and developed than its neighbors). Therefore, it can be said that a dress rehearsal for the transfer of power in Russia is currently taking place in Astana – although the date of the Russian premiere has not yet been announced.
"Nazarbayev's resignation compares to Yeltsin's in 1999 on New Year's Eve [i.e. December 31, 1999]. But Yeltsin retired, and Nazarbayev is not. He will head the National Security Council, whose powers were greatly expanded in 2018.
"A similar option is being discussed, among others, as a new job for Putin, who should leave the presidency in 2024 (but maybe earlier), and likely would not completely relinquish power.
"The Kremlin had a great opportunity to observe the transfer of power in similar circumstances. The economies of Russia and Kazakhstan have a similar structure and a similar per capita GDP. This means that the population's standard of living, needs, and complaints are also similar.
"The two countries' political regimes are also similar: Kazakhstan has more control, while the Russian regime is more free, but both are versions of electoral authoritarianism, in which the head of state's legitimacy is confirmed in a multi-party but non-competitive elections.
"Both Kazakhstan and Russia are multinational multi-religious societies where European and 'traditional' conservative values are mixed in the official, Eurasian ideology. Both countries tolerate pockets of free press and relatively free discussion on the Internet.
"In the coming years, the Kremlin will be able to observe in practice how much power Nazarbayev will retain after leaving the post, which in the eyes of society was associated with full power, and for how long. Previously, the informal authority of the leader of the nation and the presidential post, which was the main instrument for creating this authority, existed in indivisible unity. Now they are separated. This system is similar to how a bank cell is accessed, with two keys, and because of the novelty of the construction, it is not clear how much power will remain with the presidential post and how much will go to the [next] leader who enters the post. It will not necessarily be equal – but, obviously, both cannot have 100%."
Nazarbayev's Resignation Is The Result Of The Russia-Kazakhstan Rivalry
"Russia has already experienced something similar during the Medvedev presidency, but there is an important difference – the possibility of Putin’s return to the presidency always hung over Medvedev. And now in Kazakhstan (and in Russia in the future), this possibility is no longer foreseen.
"[Kazakhstan] Senate chairman (and former prime minister and foreign minister) Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, who, under the constitution, will lead Kazakhstan until the elections, is not yet perceived as a full-fledged successor. Nazarbayev may continue to drag on, with the presidential nomination of someone considered to be his weighty heir, in order to keep the majority of the power.
"So far, this is not about early elections, but about the fact that Tokayev will remain in the presidency for another two years – until the end of Nazarbayev's current term. And during this protracted transitional period, Nazarbayev himself will select in the Security Council, under his own guidance, a future successor, whose name he himself may not yet know. Nothing will prevent Putin from doing the same.
"However, there are two risks. It is under such circumstances that even technical elections, a kind of nation-wide anointing of the tsar to a kingdom, begin to matter. First, the keeper of the second key, the successor, cannot be too weak and unknown – or people may not vote for him, or vote reluctantly, undermining the legitimacy of the whole structure. This is especially important for Russia, where authoritarianism is more loosely hinged, and direct support for Putin does not necessarily mean that a candidate will win even in local elections.
"Secondly, in societies (like Russia and Kazakhstan) that are accustomed to personalities and positions but not institutions, a cabinet, a pinwheel, a guard, or a flasher is one of the main ways of constructing informal authority – particularly if they are associated with the presidential post. As Russian voters sometimes say, you are a good person, but first become powerful, and then we'll vote for you.
"By the end of Medvedev's term, it was not so easy for Putin to return to the Kremlin. It caused a moderate split of elites, and street protests. In the Kazakhstan scenario of the return, there would be no protests, but a split of elites is much more likely: The guard of the second keeper of the key should appear interested in making him the first keeper of the key.
"Nazarbayev, of course, has not set for himself the task of trying out one option for Putin's future. His long-awaited, but unexpected, departure ahead of Moscow is rather the result of competition between Russia and Kazakhstan, in which the competitive advantage of the latter is the absence of confrontation with the West.
"The main rivals in the post-Soviet space are Russia and Ukraine. But this is a competition of political projects divided along the lines of freedom/non-freedom, Europe/Eurasia, democracy/authoritarianism, involving primarily politicians and intellectuals of both countries. Kazakhstan is competing with Russia over which is better at authoritarian modernization, more 'Singapore and South Korea.' It is not intellectuals who are competing here; it is officials and representatives of bureaucratic capitalism.
"Sometimes, Kazakhstan can show that it is ahead in this rivalry. In Kazakhstan, they opened a university offering English courses and diplomas of a foreign type; they created an economic zone with British law; they send managers to study at Western universities; they even now use the Latin alphabet. Also, there are no sanctions on Kazakhstan.
"The smooth and timely (by Asian standards) resignation of a leader is another way to show the world that Kazakhstan is a civilized modern country, whose president, who ruled for 30 years, still looks better than Putin, who has been ruling only 20 years, with a break, but inevitably will leave office only after Nazarbayev does."