Will the power transition in Kazakhstan become a model for Putin?

The Bell

The resignation of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is trying to retain control while handing power to a designated successor, is a very important moment for the Kremlin. Nazarbayev, 78, is the last remaining leader of a post-Soviet country who has been in power since the fall of the USSR in 1991. The Kremlin will closely monitor events in Kazakhstan as Putin decides whether to remain in power, or hand power over to a chosen successor.

The Bell asked (Rus) political experts how Nazarbayev’s resignation might impact the post-Soviet world and if it could be a model for Putin. Here is a short summary of what they said:

  • Nazarbayev discussed his decision with Putin ahead of time. The official version is that the conversation took place several hours before the Nazarbayev went public, but it is likely Putin knew before then. In the fall of 2018, Putin and Nazarbayev met twice in one month, and have spoken by phone three times since then.
  • If Nazarbayev is successful, it will be the first example of a controlled handover of power in the post-Soviet space since Boris Yeltsin’s resigned to make way for Putin. Another example is Azerbaijan, but Haydar Aliyev gave control to his own son.
  • Nazarbayev’s exit is not good for the Kremlin because it creates certain expectations in relation to Putin. If even absolute rulers like Nazarbayev step down, then what are we waiting for? In order to avoid such comparisons, the Kremlin might try to stress parallels between Nazarbayev and Yeltsin, suggesting Kazakhstan is lagging far behind Russia.
  • Putin’s inner circle will definitely watch the political transition in Kazakhstan, but it is unlikely that they will use it as a model in 2024, when Putin’s current term as president comes to an end. Not only is the Russian elite very different to the Kazakh elite, but the situation in Russia is less stable: for example, Kazakhstan doesn’t have powerful regional leaders, like Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya. No one knows how Kadyrov would react if a such a transition was launched in Russia.

Why the world should care

It is very tempting to suggest that events in Kazakhstan foreshadow what a future transition of power in Russia might look like. But it is not that simple. There are significant differences in political culture between the two countries — and Putin is not Nazarbayev.

Support The Bell!

The Bell's Newsletter

An inside look at the Russian economy and politics. Exclusively in your inbox every week.