Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev unexpectedly resigned on Tuesday after three decades in power, in what appeared to be the first step in a choreographed political transition that will see him retain considerable sway.
Known as “Papa” to many Kazakhs, the 78-year-old former steel worker and Communist party apparatchik has ruled the vast oil and gas-rich Central Asian nation since 1989, when it was still part of the Soviet Union.
Bestowed by parliament with the official title of “The Leader of the Nation”, he was the last Soviet-era leader still in office and oversaw extensive market reforms while remaining widely popular in his country of 18 million people.
“I have taken a decision, which was not easy for me, to resign as president,” Nazarbayev said in a nationwide TV address, flanked by his country’s blue and yellow flags, before signing a decree terminating his powers from March 20.
“As the founder of the independent Kazakh state I see my task now in facilitating the rise of a new generation of leaders who will continue the reforms that are underway in the country.”
But Nazarbayev, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he would retain key security council and party leader positions and hand over the presidency to a loyal ally for the rest of his term, which ends in April 2020.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, speaker of the upper house of parliament, will take over as Kazakhstan’s acting president for the remainder of his term in line with the constitution, Nazarbayev said.
Nazarbayev has no apparent long-term successor. His decision hit the price of Kazakhr bonds, while the London-listed shares of Kazakhstan’s biggest bank, Halyk Bank, tumbled 5 percent. The news also appeared to weigh on the Russian rouble. Moscow is Kazakhstan’s main trade partner.
The Kremlin said Nazarbayev and Putin had spoken by phone on Tuesday, but gave no details of their conversation.
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