New Leader and Capital in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is a large country in Central Asia that borders Russia and China, as well as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. At the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan gained independence. During the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s capital was in Almaty, a city in southern Kazakhstan near the Kyrgyz and Chinese border. In 1997, the capital was moved to Astana, a formerly underdeveloped town in central Kazakhstan in the middle of the steppe. The president of Kazakhstan recently announced his resignation and the capital of Kazakhstan was shortly renamed.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev was the First Secretary of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and assumed the presidency of independent Kazakhstan. President Nazarbayev was the only leader of the independent state of Kazakhstan. Suddenly and without prior notice, President Nazarbayev announced his resignation in March 2019. In honor of President Nazarbayev’s retirement, the capital of Astana was renamed Nur-Sultan.

Two cases of leadership succession help contextualize this decision. Firstly, the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, died in 2016 while in office. Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova, is currently imprisoned after previously being placed on house arrest by her own father. Karimov’s other daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva  (who was previously in political good graces of her father), has also seen her political and economic fortunes threatened. More broadly, the elite in Uzbekistan have been embroiled in power struggles in light of the lack of a planned transition. 

Secondly, President Nazarbayev has previously reiterated his admiration of the Singapore model and Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew. Nazarbayev University, the preeminent university in Kazakhstan opened in 2010, established a partnership with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the outset. While Kazakhstan has never achieved the technocratism of Singapore, the model has been closely examined by the Kazakhstani leadership. A key take away is likely how the political party in Singapore, People’s Choice Party, has adeptly managed leadership successions and ensured the continuity of a one-party rule.

Taken together these examples, point to the utility in using a political party to manage leadership succession as well as how the appointment of the next leader can be used as a mechanism to preserve personal and family wealth as well as political ties.