Analysis

The Winter of the Patriarch

Senior Fellow Nargis Kassenova contemplates Kazakhstan after the Nazarbayev era in a piece for Foreign Affairs.

The era of Nursultan Nazarbayev is over in Kazakhstan. Six days of tumult from the start of the new year brought an end to three decades of his authoritarian rule, first as president until 2019 and then as the “leader of the nation,” endowed with considerable powers and legal immunity for life. Mass protests flared on January 1 and led to unprecedented violence in a number of cities that left hundreds of people dead. The demonstrations and riots shook the regime that Nazarbayev had built and fortified over 30 years. They also gave his ostensible successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the impetus to finally pry the country from his grip.

Nazarbayev had made way for Tokayev when he stepped down from the presidency in 2019. At the time, the news had sparked elation and hopes for genuine change. But it soon became apparent that Nazarbayev was going nowhere. Tokayev renamed Astana, the capital city, Nur-Sultan to honor his predecessor. Nazarbayev remained the head of the ruling Nur Otan party and chair of the Security Council, a constitutional advisory body. He also kept representing Kazakhstan at major international meetings (his last such appearance came at the Commonwealth of Independent States summit in St. Petersburg in December 2021). There was no masking the fact that Nazarbayev still called the shots.

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The full text of this article is available via Foreign Affairs.

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Senior Fellow, Program on Central Asia, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies

Nargis Kassenova leads the Program on Central Asia at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.