Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president who has ruled Kazakhstan with an iron fist since independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, suddenly announced his resignation in a televised speech on March 19, thus officially opening a succession race that has been the elephant in the room for years in the oil-rich central Asian country.

Mr Nazarbayev indicated the speaker of the Senate, Kassym Jomart Tokayev, as his interim successor until the next presidential elections, which are expected at the end of the five-year presidential cycle in 2020, unless early elections are called.  

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“We put Kazakhstan on the map where there was never such a country,” Mr Nazarbayev said in his speech.

During his nearly 30 years tenure, Mr Nazarbayev steered the country out of the Soviet Union, closed major early deals with international oil companies that made his rule legitimate in the eyes of the international community, and achieved stability through a combination of authoritarianism, market economy reforms and multi-vector foreign policy. His approach paid off in terms of growth and investment, turning Kazakhstan into central Asia’s most successful economy and one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

Rumours about a possible succession plan have been increasing in recent years in line with speculation about Mr Nazarbayev’s health, and his sudden resignation finally unlocks a debate around the future of the presidency.

“In the long run it’s good news for investors as it sets the foundation for a smooth transition, preventing the risk that somebody tries to take power away from Nazarbayev by force,” says New York-based foreign investment advisor Edward Mermelstein.

Looking at the succession itself, it remains to be seen whether “he will be replaced by someone as powerful as he has been, or rather that this is the beginning of a more democratic transition in the country which is not very likely given the need for security for a country surrounded by major global powers [like Russia and China]”, Mr Mermelstein adds.

Amid similar uncertainties, neighbouring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan managed to achieve a smooth transition when on the deaths of their independence leaders, Karim Islamov and Saparmurat Niyazov respectively. Mr Tokayev is slated to take over powers from March 20 and handle a new, delicate transition for the region.