Rise of First Daughter in Kazakhstan Fuels Talk of Succession


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MOSCOW — The oldest daughter of Kazakhstan’s longstanding, autocratic president was elected Parliament speaker on Wednesday, fueling speculation that she would succeed her father as the country’s ruler after elections next year.

The appointment of Dariga Nazarbayeva came a day after her father, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had led the oil-rich Central Asian nation since 1989, when it was still part of the Soviet Union, made the surprising announcement that he was stepping down as president.

Mr. Nazarbayev, 78, retained significant power, however, as head of the Security Council and the ruling party. It remained unclear whether someone from his close circle of political advisers or from his family will emerge to run the opaque system.

“They have opened an era of uncertainty,” said Marlene Laruelle, the director of the Central Asia Program at George Washington University in Washington.

Mr. Nazarbayev may seek to maintain a family hand on the tiller, analysts said, to protect its considerable assets and its impunity.

“It would mean a continuation of the system,” said Nargis Kassenova, a fellow at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

Ms. Nazarbayeva might not emerge as the first choice, however, not least because of a messy divorce that played out on the international stage and the death of her former husband in an Austrian jail cell.

An amateur opera singer who sometimes performs on public occasions, Ms. Nazarbayeva, 55, has been in and out of the government for years, including serving a stint as deputy prime minister.

She and her husband, Rakhat Aliyev, a surgeon, amassed a fortune by controlling a media and banking empire. Mr. Aliyev was one of the country’s most powerful and loathed men, holding senior posts in the domestic intelligence agency and the foreign ministry, as well as serving as head of the tax police.

Things first started to go wrong in 2004, when his reported mistress, a Russian television personality, was found dead on a Beirut street, having fallen from a tall apartment building.

In 2007, Mr. Aliyev, then ambassador to Austria, criticized his father-in-law for altering Kazakhstan’s Constitution to allow him to remain president for life.

Within a month, Mr. Aliyev was stripped of all his government posts and soon afterward, he maintained, forcibly divorced as well as separated from his three children. Some European nations began investigating him for money laundering.

In Kazakhstan, he was convicted in absentia of various crimes, but Austria refused to extradite him. Mr. Aliyev married an Austrian women and produced a book called “Godfather-in-Law” that accused Mr. Nazarbayev of running the country like a mafia don.

Mr. Aliyev was eventually forced to surrender to the Austrian authorities, who decided to try him in the kidnapping and murder of two Kazakh bank officials.

Before the case went to trial, however, he was found dead in February 2015, hanging from a coat hook in the bathroom of his solitary prison cell in Vienna. Austria ruled the death a suicide. He was 52.

Any presidential election campaign by Ms. Nazarbayeva would likely revive that chapter, which opened a window on nepotism, corruption and other sordid practices within Kazakhstan’s elite.

In the meantime, however, the country affirmed the personality cult around Mr. Nazarbayev even as he stepped aside from the day-to-day running of the country.

Mr. Nazarbayev handpicked his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a former prime minister and foreign minister, who had been Parliament speaker until anointed as acting president.

Mr. Tokayev, 65, used his inaugural address on Wednesday to encourage young Kazakhs to be more active in the development of their country. He also called on Parliament to change the name of the capital, Astana, to Nursultan, and for all towns to rename their main streets after Mr. Nazarbayev.

Parliament, with Mr. Nazarbayev watching the proceedings from the highest seat in the house, voted 145 to 0 to rename the capital.

The change did not exactly come as a surprise. The university that opened in Astana in 2009 soon became Nazarbayev University, while a network of elite grade schools are called the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools.

The airport in the capital was named for him on his birthday in 2017.

Nazarbayev, the last surviving president in Central Asia to have steered his country to independence after the Soviet Union collapsed, often jailed political opponents or journalists who criticized him.

Analysts suggested he stepped aside to organize an orderly transition that would preserve his legacy, and because the country’s economy had stagnated in recent years, despite its massive oil reserves.

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