Gone but not forgotten: Kazakhstan after President Nazarbayev

As Kazakhs prepare to elect their new president on June 9, following the surprise resignation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev after three decades in power, FRANCE 24 reporters travelled to this rapidly changing Central Asian country.


Kazakhstan without Nursultan Nazarbayev? The idea was unthinkable until recently, as the Kazakh leader seemed a crucial figure in the politics of his country. A pure product of the Soviet state apparatus, this former apparatchik came to power in the aftermath of the fall of the USSR. Since 1991, he has been elected by a large majority five times in polls denounced as fraudulent by the international community.

It therefore seemed a surprise when, on March 19, Nazarbayev announced his resignation in a televised speech, without giving any reasons. Analysts believe the 78-year-old wanted to take advantage of his old age and not "die as president" like his Uzbek neighbour, the authoritarian leader Islam Karimov, who passed away in 2016.

Personality cult

In reality, Nazarbayev seems to have planned his retirement some time in advance. In 2010, a law enshrined the title of "First President" in the constitution, granting him life immunity, banking secrecy and several other juicy privileges. Other legal provisions ensure that he is consulted on all important political decisions. As a symbol of this enduring influence, the first measure of his appointed successor and interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was to rename Astana, the country's futuristic capital, "Nur-Sultan", after the outgoing president.

Nazarbayev – who was nicknamed "Elbassy", the Leader of the Nation - was no less an unusual leader in Central Asia during his close to thirty years in power, combining authoritarianism with political openness. Although he has decided to officially step down, dissenting voices continue to be silenced and his personality cult remains omnipresent in Kazakhstan.

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