Nazarbayev: I stepped down in the interest of the people of Kazakhstan

Nazarbayev, seated in the panel but better visible from the screen, speaks at the opening of the Astana Economic Forum 2019. [Georgi Gotev]

This article is part of our special report Kazakhstan: New political realities.

The first President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was the main speaker and the centre of attention at the 12th edition of the Astana Economic Forum on Thursday (16 May). To a wide international audience, he provided explanations for his recent decision to step down.

On 19 March, Nazarbayev surprisingly resigned and announced that the Speaker of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, will serve as interim leader before the next presidential election.

Kazakhstan stunned: President Nazarbayev surprisingly resigns

Kazakhstan’s first and only president so far, Nursultan Nazarbayev, surprisingly resigned on Tuesday (19 March) and announced that the Speaker of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, will serve as interim leader before the next presidential election.

On 9 April, Tokayev set 9 June as the date of the early presidential election and said the vote was “absolutely needed” to ensure “continuity, predictability and stability”.

Kazakhstan’s transition takes place according to Nazarbayev's plan

Kazakhstan’s ruling Nur Otan party unanimously nominated on Tuesday (23 April) Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as its candidate for the 9 June presidential election. The first President of the country Nursultan Nazarbayev said he had planned this move for years.

Seven candidates are running for the election, but diplomats say Tokayev is likely to win by some 70% of the votes. The country has invited international observers, including from EU countries.

Nazarbayev retains sweeping powers in the country of 18 million people as the official “national leader”, chair of its security council and head of Nur Otan. He hasn’t disappeared from public view and has represented Kazakhstan at the recent Belt and Road summit in China.

The Astana Economic Forum is a brainchild of Nazarbayev, one of many. The event is a talk show at a very high level, with heads of states, leaders of international organisations and Nobel prize winners, as well as panel discussions at a more expert level.

As usual, Nazarbayev was at the centre of attention while President Tokayev was present without taking the floor.

Speaking in Russian, as usual, Nazarbayev said the situation in the world was worrying, mentioning the US-China and the US-EU trade disputes, the rise of populism which he called “a permanent trend”, and the sanctions confrontation, particularly visible between the US and Russia.

To this, he added the risk of a collapse of nuclear deterrence agreements and the resulting arms race, saying that the tendency was worrying and wouldn’t bring any good to anybody.

Nazarbayev said dialogue was needed between the USA, Russia, China and the EU, calling them “those on whom the fate of mankind depends”. Another idea he expressed was the creation of a “common security territory” on the basis of the OSCE members.

A third idea he mentioned was an “investment dialogue” between the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Kazakhstan is a member, the EU and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

The first president of Kazakhstan reminded that his country has served as an effective platform for negotiating difficult international issues, and suggested that it could again be the host of initiatives of the kind he outlined.

“It is necessary to move from the unproductive regime of sanctions to direct dialogue between the leaders of the key countries of the world,” Nazarbayev said.

As a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, Kazakhstan indirectly suffers from Western sanctions against Russia.

“The time has come to discuss the way out from the geopolitical crisis between USA, China, Russia and the EU,” Nazarbayev told the audience, in which these countries were represented by their ambassadors or even higher guests. He repeated that Kazakhstan is making its capital available for such talks.

He didn’t mention the name of the capital, which was recently named Nur-Sultan after him.

Nazarbayev further explained his decision to leave the post of head of state. He argued that since Kazakhstan’s independence from the former USSR, the results were good both on the internal and external field. But he added that transition of power was ongoing, in accordance with the Constitution, “in a calm, peaceful way”.

“I am grateful to my fellow heads of state, politicians from the entire world, who wrote to me, who called me, to express support for this step,” he said, speaking about his decision to leave office.

He said the presidential elections would guarantee the country’s future sustainable development, and that he believed Tokayev was the best-prepared candidate. As for his part, he said he would continue to participate in “the strategic vectors of the development of the country, including the internal and foreign policy”, by supporting the new president.

Diplomats say Nazarbayev was very likely to remain the dominant figure and that by stepping aside he was in a better situation should the country’s economic situation worsen.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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