Kazakhstan renames capital after retiring leader Nazarbayev as new president Tokayev takes office

Acting President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev takes part in a swearing-in ceremony during a joint session of the houses of parliament in Astana, Kazakhstan March 20, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 20 March 2019
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Kazakhstan renames capital after retiring leader Nazarbayev as new president Tokayev takes office

  • Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took office in a pomp-filled ceremony less than 24 hours after Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down
  • Tokayev immediately proposed changing the name of the Central Asian nation’s capital

ALMATY: Kazakhstan’s new president was sworn in Wednesday following the shock resignation of the country’s long-time ruler and in his first official act renamed the capital after his predecessor.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took office in a pomp-filled ceremony less than 24 hours after Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only leader an independent Kazakhstan had ever known, suddenly announced he was stepping down.
Tokayev immediately proposed changing the name of the Central Asian nation’s capital from Astana to Nursultan, or “Sultan of Light” in Kazakh, and parliament approved the change within hours.
The senate also appointed Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva as speaker, setting her up as a potential contender to succeed her father.
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.
Tokayev told lawmakers that Nazarbayev had “shown wisdom” by deciding to step down, a rare move in ex-Soviet Central Asia where other leaders have hung on to 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,” he added.
Nazarbayev changed the capital from Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty to Astana in 1997, transforming it from a minor provincial town into a futuristic city of skyscrapers rising from the steppes.
Its name meant “capital” in Kazakh and there had long been speculation of a renaming after the leader who shaped it.
The city is central to government propaganda highlighting the achievements of Nazarbayev’s reign and his journey to build it was recently the subject of a state-funded film, “Leader’s Path: Astana.”
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 over in the long term until senators voted shortly after his swearing-in to name Dariga 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.
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.
Tokayev “is a safe pair of hands, he is a loyal presidential lieutenant,” said Kate Mallinson, a Russia and Eurasia expert at the London-based Chatham House think-tank.
Kazakhstan-based analyst Dosym Satpayev described Tokayev as a “heavyweight” but said he lacked popular appeal.
As for Kazakh society’s reaction to Dariga Nazarbayeva, it “would be mixed to say the least,” Satpayev said.
“A candidate from the family would be controversial and Dariga does not speak the state language, Kazakh, as well as her father,” he said.
Satpayev also pointed to another Nazarbayev relative — nephew Samat Abish, a high-ranking security official who rarely appears in public — as a potential contender from inside the family circle.
“This would be something like a Putin scenario, wherein a connected figure appears from the shadows at the last moment,” Satpayev said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sudden emergence following Boris Yeltsin’s sudden retirement in 1999.
The new leader will need to tackle growing discontent over falling living standards after Kazakhstan’s economy was hit by the 2014 drop in oil prices and western sanctions against Russia, a key trading partner.


Disputes over Kabul guest list threaten Afghan peace meeting

Updated 44 min 26 sec ago
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Disputes over Kabul guest list threaten Afghan peace meeting

  • Taliban mocks government ‘wedding party’ delegation
  • President’s isolation in peace process continues

KABUL: A crucial meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban on how to end the war could be dead in the water before it begins, as disputes and disarray broke out over the guest list.

The landmark meeting, due to be held in Doha at the weekend, will bring together senior government officials from Kabul and the insurgents for the first time in the peace process.

But the Taliban has already said it will be meeting these delegates in the Qatari capital as private individuals, not as representatives of the administration.

The Taliban dismisses the government in Kabul as a puppet of the West, refusing to meet its representatives and isolating President Ashraf Ghani from peace talks that have previously been held with the US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and other parties.

And, days before the Doha ice-breaker is due to start, the government’s guest list of 250 has angered some and drawn ridicule from others, including the Taliban. Some on the list have said they will not go.

Kabul’s list comprises political elites, family members of war victims, tribal chiefs, former government officials, members of civil society as well as state officials. There are also 52 women on the list.

The Taliban is sending a delegation of 25.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said Qatar had “no plans for accepting so many people from Kabul and neither is such participation normal in such conferences.”

The event was “an orderly and prearranged conference ... not an invitation to some wedding or other party at a hotel in Kabul,” he said in a statement.

The Taliban furthermore said it would be talking to delegates as “private individuals” and not as government representatives, and that only a limited number of individuals would be selected as final participants in the talks.

Some of those on Kabul’s list said they would not go.

Atta Mohammed Noor, a northern regional strongman whose ties with President Ashraf Ghani have hit an all-time low, said the government had drawn a “narrowly mined” list that included Ghani’s favorites.

He is boycotting the talks.

Amrullah Saleh, who has served in top security positions and is Ghani’s first deputy for the presidential elections, is also staying away despite being on the list.

“I remain grateful to President Ashraf Ghani for adding me on the list of speakers to represent … Afghanistan in the Doha conference,” Saleh said in a statement.

“However, I won’t attend. The Taliban is the only and the biggest obstacle to peace as it continues a campaign of massacre and destruction.”

The UN Security Council earlier this week condemned the Taliban’s spring offensive, which would only result in “more unnecessary suffering and destruction” for the Afghan people.

The Security Council urged “all parties to the conflict to seize the opportunity to begin an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue” and negotiations that resulted in a political settlement.

But an intra-Afghan dialogue will be difficult to achieve even without the Taliban’s resistance to the government, and senior journalist Tahir Qairy pointed to the differences in Ghani’s circle.

“There is not even a shared and mutual understanding between the president and his future hopeful VP” on the meeting, he told Arab News.

Another journalist, Mujib Mashal, tweeted: “Afghan delegation’s departure ... has been delayed as the list issue has become a big mess - 1st among each other & now with Taliban. But event at this point is still on for Saturday morning start (though list issue will be hard to resolve between now and then).”

He later tweeted that the line-up had been a divisive issue for the political elite in Kabul. “Peace talks overlapping with national elections means every little move is caught up in domestic political jostling, every player wanting a piece.”

If the Doha meeting goes ahead it will be the first major interaction between the Taliban and members of Ghani’s government, although the group met Afghan politicians in Moscow earlier this year.

The Doha meeting following several rounds of closed-door talks between the Taliban and US diplomats in recent months, where the two sides made progress over the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban agreeing to not allowing Afghan soil to be used against any country.

On Wednesday, Ghani addressed many of the participants heading to Doha.

“You are undertaking a mission for which our nation has waited almost for 40 years, and that (mission) is a dignified peace,” he told them.

“For the first time, we have the opportunity to hold comprehensive debates with the opposite side,” he said, flanked by former President Hamid Karzai and other prominent members of Afghanistan’s political elite.

Lawmaker Hafeez Mansoor, one of those going to Doha, told Arab News the meeting was aimed at “building trust between the sides and an opportunity to have them express their feelings on how the war can come to an end.”