ONCE A STRONGMAN has been in power for 30 years, it is reasonable to assume he will only leave office in a coup or a coffin. But Nursultan Nazarbayev, the 78-year-old who has run Kazakhstan since 1989, is trying to find a third way. On March 19th he took to the airwaves to announce his retirement as president of the oil-rich Central Asian country. The announcement was a surprise, and marks the end of an era not just for Kazakhstan but for the region: Mr Nazarbayev is its last Soviet-era leader left in power. When the former steelworker ascended to the leadership, Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union. He presided over independence in 1991 and has governed with untrammelled authority ever since.
A showman to the last, Mr Nazarbayev signed his resignation decree with a dramatic flourish on live television. It was time, he said, to hand over the reins of power to a younger generation. But the announcement is less a graceful bowing-out than a manoeuvre designed to allow the soon-to-be-ex-president to micromanage the transition to a new leader, just as he has micromanaged every other aspect of Kazakh politics for so many years. Mr Nazarbayev has a special legal status that grants him considerable post-retirement powers. The Leader of the Nation (his official title) will still chair the Security Council, which gives him direct sway over the armed forces. He also enjoys the right to intervene in policy-making for the rest of his life. He is also immune from prosecution for actions taken in office. His and his family’s assets cannot be seized.
Get our daily newsletter
Upgrade your inbox and get our Daily Dispatch and Editor’s Picks.
Rumours had long swirled that Mr Nazarbayev was putting these arrangements in place in order to prepare for his retirement. Yet his physical and mental health seem robust; there had been no inkling the announcement was coming this week. Fully half of Kazakhstan’s 18m citizens have never known any other leader.
Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, the 65-year-old chairman of the Senate, will assume power for the rest of Mr Nazarbayev’s term, as the constitution stipulates. He will be sworn in on March 20th. New elections are due to be held at the end of next year, although an early vote is not ruled out. Mr Nazarbayev did not name a preferred long-term successor, although it seems inconceivable that he does not have a candidate in mind. That could be Mr Tokayev or another, younger lieutenant, such as Askar Mamin, 53, who was promoted to prime minister in a recent cabinet reshuffle.
The new president will certainly not emerge from the ranks of the opposition, since Mr Nazarbayev has hounded it out of existence. His preferred successor will almost certainly saunter into office after a rubberstamp election—although perhaps not with the 98% of the vote that Mr Nazarbayev is supposed to have won last time. Presumably, Mr Nazarbayev does not intend a big political opening, or he would have started one while still in office himself. As he reassured his people when announcing his momentous decision: “I will be staying with you.”