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By Irina Malyuchenko.

The question of a presidential successor for the current incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev has many people inside and outside the country concerned for the future of Kazakhstan. Having reached the top leadership position before the Soviet Union collapsed, Mr. Nazarbayev remains the first and only President of the Republic of Kazakhstan since independence in December 1991.  More than two decades on, Nazarbayev is 72 years old and still in power, yet it remains unclear how and when his position can be transferred to a new political leader.

The process and outcomes of political power transfer to the “post-Nazarbayev” era will have significant impact on the international relationships and balance with the two superpowers in Central Asia – China and Russia. For Russia, Kazakhstan is an arena to exert political influence through the control of the transportation corridors, dominance in foreign trade turnover, and participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. For China, Kazakhstan represents an energy-supplier, product market and a partner for the security of China’s Xinjiang autonomous region. Kazakhstan is the centre of the strategic play of the great powers as it is the most developed and stable state in the region

With presidential power change in Astana, Russia will face a dilemma: whether to support the old political elite (loyal towards the Kremlin) or rely on a potentially different one. The new leadership may not be associated with the Soviet political legacy unlike the current post-Soviet ruling elite. New elites are likely to be formed from: a) the recognised opposition such as parliamentary members of the political party Ak Zhol; b) the family members of the current president and ruling families (perhaps Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter – Dariga Nazarbayeva); c) foreign opposition (such as Mukhtar Ablyazov – former Minister for Energy, Industry and Trade living in the UK, Timur Qulybaev – former Chairman of the Management Board of Samruk-Kazyna National Welfare Fund living in Austria, or Viktor Khrapunov – ex-minister for Energy and National resources, ex-mayor of Almaty living in Switzerland).

Almost all of these scenarios of power succession challenge Russian and Chinese standing in the region as the Kazakh ruling elite is directly involved in oil and gas deals with both states.

The change in the ruling elite will weaken Russian influence and create a power vacuum in the country, creating new room for China’s interests in Kazakhstan and opening new inroads for China in oil and gas sectors of the Kazakh economy. These circumstances will allow China to continue its domestic economic and energy reforms as well as

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consolidating its “great power” image in Central Asia. Over the next five to ten years China will use this favorable political climate for its economic benefit, but in the long term Beijing will aim at strengthening its political and ideational influence in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan went through a peaceful transition of power in the beginning of the 1990s. There is no guarantee, however, that the same will happen after the change of the current president. Facing this dilemma, Chinese strategy is likely to maintain the security of its frontiers with Kazakhstan and do everything in its power to avert instability in Central Asia. Stable Kazakhstan is a guarantee of security for Chinese interests in oil and gas pipelines going through Kazakh territory. Kazakhstan’s uranium deposits and transport routes provide security for the whole of China. It is time to observe closely any adjustment of China’s foreign policy to Kazakhstan’s power transition in the near future.

Irina Malyuchenko is a graduate researcher at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Academy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). Her research interests include Kazakhstan’s diplomatic relations, energy security and Central Asian and international relations.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors

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