This article is part of our special report Kazakhstan: recovery and renewal.
Kazakhstan’s veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev turns 80 on Monday (6 July) but the streets in the Central Asian country are set to be empty as a new period of lockdown begins and celebrations of his birthday and the national ‘capital day’, have been cancelled or moved online.
The octogenarian stunned the world stage in March last year when he suddenly announced he would be stepping down as president of the post-Soviet country, a post he had occupied from 24 April 1990 until his resignation on 19 March 2019.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor, was elected as the country’s new leader on 9 June 2019 with 70% of the votes, a rare example in the post-Soviet space where leaders often spend many years in power until they pass away.
From the early stage of its post-Soviet transition, Kazakhstan has consolidated strong state control with the 1993 constitution, which gave the president wide-ranging executive powers.
The transition in the ninth-largest country in the world but with a population of about 19 million people remained gradual.
Nazarbayev, who usually won well over 90% in previous elections is still very present in the political life and active in the various foreign affairs formats, holding the honorary title of “Leader of the Nation.”
In October last year, Tokayev signed a decree confirming that high-level appointments such as cabinet ministers, heads of various security forces and regional governors are subject to consultation with the chairman of the Kazakh Security Council, a position Nazarbayev occupies for life.
As the new president took office, the country continued its path of “controlled democratisation” with more liberal legislation on peaceful assemblies.
With a relative success measured against setbacks in other cases of recent nation-building in the post-Soviet space, Kazakhstan sought a delicate balance between its Northern neighbour, Russia, and opportunities in the East and West, an approach it described as “multi-vector diplomacy.”
Kazakhstan, a founding member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, has advocated for stronger trade ties internationally and spearheaded a rapprochement between the trading bloc and the EU.
Under Nazarbayev’s rule, Kazakhstan stayed in the centre of attempts to foster regional integration, with the first significant summit of Central Asian states hosted by the country’s capital in March 2018.
At the second meeting of Central Asian leaders last year, despite no longer heading Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev continued to represent Kazakhstan and was chosen as the honorary chairman of the consultative meeting.
Tokayev also maintained Nazarbayev’s central defence policy position of nuclear disarmament and arms control. During his rule, Nazarbayev closed the nuclear weapons test site of Semipalatinsk in northeast Kazakhstan and gave up the nuclear arsenal inherited from the former Soviet Union.
“Yelbasy [“Leader of the Nation”], as an experienced and respected politician, from the high tribune of the UN, urged his colleagues to use nuclear energy exclusively for peaceful purposes,” Tokayev wrote in a recent op-ed.
Tokayev himself is a career diplomat who served as director-general of the United Nations Office in Geneva, and as a personal representative of the UN Secretary-General to the Conference on Disarmament.
In 2017, Kazakhstan inaugurated a Low Enriched Uranium Bank, which the EU, one of the project’s biggest donors, hailed as a “success for international cooperation” on nuclear non-proliferation.
Nazarbayev’s birthday also coincides with national celebrations of Capital Day, with the planned city — which was last year renamed from Astana to Nur-Sultan — turning 22.
The streets of the capital are set to be mostly empty, however, as a new 14-day lockdown that started on Sunday to battle a new rise in coronavirus cases will keep residents at home and see physical events cancelled or moved online.
Nazarbayev, who himself just recovered from COVID-19 last week, has encouraged people to follow quarantine rules.
“The difficult period that we are going through today is a test for all humanity,” Nazarbayev said in a statement.
“Remember, the doctors are doing everything they can for us. However, how to prevent infection with this disease is largely up to each person personally.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]