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New Kazakh president calls to rename capital for long-time leader

Kazakhstan’s Senate chairman Kassym-Jomart Tokayev takes the oath as Kazakh interim president during a ceremony in Astana on March 20, 2019. (Photo by STR / AFP)

Kazakhstan’s new interim president was sworn in Wednesday following the shock resignation of the country’s long-time ruler and immediately proposed renaming the capital after his predecessor.

The Central Asian nation’s senate also appointed ex-leader Nursultan Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga as speaker, setting her up as a potential contender to succeed her father.

The previous senate chief, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, took office as interim president in a pomp-filled ceremony in the capital Astana less than 24 hours after Nazarbayev, the only leader an independent Kazakhstan had ever known, suddenly announced he was stepping down.

Tokayev, 65, will serve out the rest of Nazarbayev’s mandate until elections due in April next year, though the former president retains significant powers in the country he ruled for nearly three decades.

In his first official act, Tokayev proposed that Astana — the gleaming new capital Nazarbayev erected in the country’s vast steppes — be renamed “Nursultan” in his honour.

Tokayev told deputies Nazarbayev had “shown wisdom” by deciding to step down, a rare move in ex-Soviet Central Asia where other leaders have stayed in power until death.

“Yesterday the world witnessed a historic event,” Tokayev said, hailing Nazarbayev as a visionary reformer.

“The results of an independent Kazakhstan are there for all to see,” Tokayev said. “I propose… naming the country’s capital Astana in honour of the first president.”

Futuristic capital
Astana replaced Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty as the capital in 1997 and was transformed from a minor provincial town into a futuristic city.

Its name means “capital” in Kazakh and there has long been speculation it could at some point be renamed after the leader who shaped it.

Nazarbayev, 78, ruled Kazakhstan since before it gained independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

He steered the country through a major transformation, developing huge energy reserves and boosting its international influence, but was accused of cracking down on dissent and tolerating little opposition.

Nazarbayev will continue to enjoy significant powers thanks to his constitutional status as “Leader of the Nation”, life-time position as chief of the security council and head of the ruling Nur Otan party.

Tokayev appeared to be in pole position to take in the long term until senators voted shortly after his swearing-in to name Nazarbayeva, 55, as their new chief.

She is the most politically prominent of Nazarbayev’s three children and has long been mooted as a potential successor.

Kazakhstan’s deputy prime minister from 2015 to 2016, Nazarbayeva has significant influence over the media.

Analysts said it was too early to declare a clear frontrunner to become the next elected president, with the recently named prime minister, 53-year-old Askar Mamin, another possible contender.

Seat warmer or contender?
Tokayev, the interim president, has a strong diplomatic record dating back to the Soviet period and has twice been foreign minister.

This should go some way to reassuring Kazakhstan’s major partners including China, the European Union, Russia and the United States that the move will not threaten key relationships.

But analysts are in two minds over whether he has the attributes to take the job beyond the term that Nazarbayev would have served.

As Tokayev alternated between Russian and Kazakh in his speech in the parliament on Wednesday, he appeared notably more comfortable in Russian.

Independent political analyst Dosym Satpayev said that language skills are closely scrutinised by Kazakh speakers tired of the dominance of Russian.

“In terms of Kazakh language, we cannot say that Tokayev is as comfortable as the first president. This is an important issue in the long-term as over 60 percent of the population is Kazakh and this demographic is expanding,” Satpayev said.

But Satpayev also said that Tokayev’s diplomatic skills had helped him forge a careful career path through an elite prone to clannishness and regionalism.

“He is capable of negotiating between different groups and taking different interests into account. He lacks popular recognition to some extent but he is a heavyweight in the bureaucracy.”

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