Nursultan Nazarbayev has resigned as president of Kazakhstan after 30 years at the head of the oil-rich Central Asian country, but will retain outsized influence through his position as “leader of the nation”.
In an unexpected television announcement on Tuesday, Mr Nazarbayev, 78, said he had made a “difficult decision” to step down, signing his resignation on air.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, speaker of the upper house of parliament and a long-time ally of Mr Nazarbayev, will become acting president of Kazakhstan, a huge but sparsely populated country situated between Russia and China.
Mr Nazarbayev will by all indications still be pulling the strings. He said the “leader of the nation” title given to him by the servile parliament would allow him to continue as chairman of the influential security council and a member of the constitutional council. He also said he would remain head of the ruling party.
He did not explain why he was leaving his position, but his comments suggested that this would be the start of a transition of power to a handpicked successor.
“As the founder of the independent Kazakh state I see my future task as facilitating the coming to power of a new generation of leaders who will continue the transformations conducted in the country,” he said.
Mr Nazarbayev became first secretary of the communist party of Kazakhstan and its de facto leader in 1989. He was elected to a fifth consecutive term as president in 2015 with 97.7 per cent of the vote.
Tony Blair was paid millions of pounds to consult Mr Nazarbayev and advised him on how to manage his image after Kazakh security forces killed at least 14 striking oil workers in Zhanaozen in 2011.
David Cameron became the first serving British prime minister to visit Kazakhstan in 2013, leading a delegation that signed hundreds of millions of pounds of business deals while trying to avoid the thorny subject of the country's human rights record.
Mr Nazarbayev has been accused of a personality cult, as billboards with his likeness dot the country, and the state runs a museum dedicated to his life story in Astana, the capital he built from scratch on Kazakhstan's windswept northern plains in 1997.
He even wrote the national anthem and has more than a dozen books published under his name.
A presidential election scheduled for 2020 may now be moved up.
Rumours had been rife that Mr Nazarbayev was preparing to step down after he dismissed the government this year and asked the constitutional court about the presidential resignation process.
But the announcement caught many by surprise, including in Moscow, where Kazakhstan is regarded as a reliable ally.
Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, said Mr Nazarbayev's resignation was “serious, unexpected news” and said she planned to speak with the acting president on Tuesday.
But Mr Nazarbayev spoke with Vladimir Putin by phone before he made his announcement and agreed to keep in regular contact.
Mr Tokayev told the BBC in June that he didn't think Mr Nazarbayev would run in 2020 but would “be exercising tremendous influence” even if he was no longer president.
“The government apparatus quickly will quickly adjust under a new leader, but Nazarbayev's shadow influence will be preserved,” said political analyst Aidos Sarym.
“The process of transfer of power has begun in Kazakhstan, and he wants to be the guarantor of this process, he wants to be the main factor.”