Nursultan Nazarbayev, the last Soviet-era political heavyweight who was elected president of oil-rich Kazakhstan five times in widely criticised votes, voluntarily stepped down after almost 30 years in power.
“I decided to end my duties as president,” the 78-year-old autocrat, whose nation of 18 million borders Russia and China, said in televised remarks before signing a decree announcing his resignation on Tuesday.
He added he would still head the ruling Nur Otan (Light of the Motherland) political party and serve as lifelong head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council – thus retaining key positions in the halls of power that already lack political opposition critical of his increasingly authoritarian rule.
“It is an interesting Oriental move,” Dosym Satpayev, a political analyst based in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s financial capital, told Al Jazeera.
“A political spectacle took place – formally Nazarbayev is not president, but in reality he is at the helm.”
Nazarbayev said senate speaker and former prime minister Kassym-Jomart Tokayev would be acting president before the next presidential vote.
Nazarbayev’s fifth term expires in April 2019 and he made no announcement about a snap vote.
Another Central Asia analyst said Tokayev, a former diplomat and expert on China who served as prime minister in 1999- 2002, is the preferred successor.
“There is no one who can rule Kazakhstan better than Tokayev,” Daniilk Kislov, a Moscow-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera. “He is an experienced diplomat, administrator.”
Tokayev comes from the Elder Zhuz, a large tribal confederation in southern Kazakhstan, where nomadic traditions and affiliations immensely influence politics and daily life, Kislov said.
Nazarbayev struck an elegiac note during the unexpected televised address that resembled the 1999 resignation of ailing Russian president Boris Yeltsin.
“It is the people that gave me an opportunity to be the first president of independent Kazakhstan,” Nazarbayev said solemnly.
However, his opponents and international observers have for years lambasted Nazarbayev’s reelections. He won his last one in 2015 with almost 98 percent of the vote.
Just like Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB spy, the new Kazakh leader might well be a former security officer. For years, observers and insiders alleged Nazarbayev’s nephew, Kairat Satybaldy, may replace him.
Satybaldy, 48, is one of the leaders of the Nur Otan party and deputy head of the Committee for National Security, the main KGB successor agency. He has degrees in law, economy and oil engineering and is a practicing Muslim – a rare sight among politicians in Kazakhstan, where most people are only nominally Muslim.
“He is an influential figure that resembles Putin,” Satpayev said. “It is hard to say whether he will become a public figure that will take part in the presidential election. But he is very likely to remain a figure who will play a role during the transit of power.”
A Russian security expert said Putin “approved” Satybaldy’s candidacy.
“Nazarbayev showed him to Putin and got his ok,” the analyst told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
The question of succession has dogged Nazarbayev for years as his political opponents ended up in exile, political oblivion, jail or a graveyard.
In 2006, opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayuly was shot dead execution-style – along with his bodyguard and driver. Earlier that year, Zamanbek Nurqadilov, another opposition figure critical of Nazarbayev, was found at home with two bullets in his chest and one in his head.
Years later, Kazakh authorities said Sarsenbayev’s murder was ordered by Rakhat Aliev, Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law.
Aliev, a top security official and husband of Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga, was widely seen as his successor. But in 2007, he fell out with his presidential father-in-law and fled to Austria and was eventually arrested on murder and kidnapping charges.
He was found hanged in a prison cell in Vienna in 2015. Austrian authorities ruled his death was a suicide but some Kazakh observers alleged he was killed.
Kazakhstan’s immense hydrocarbon resources and location at the heart of Eurasia have already triggered political rivalries between Russia, China and the West – something observers dubbed “the new Great Game” – in reference to the geopolitical competition between czarist Russia and the British Empire over Central Asia.
Nazarbayev managed to show loyalty to Moscow and Beijing, getting preferences and investments from both sides. Analysts say under the new leader, the course will not swerve – while Nazarbayev is alive.
“But after his death Beijing and Moscow will be very worried,” Satpayev said. “Very much.”