Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has been sworn in as Kazakhstan’s acting president, ending the nearly 30-year rule of Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has resigned but is still expected to maintain powerful influence in the country.
Toqaev, 65, a Moscow-educated former prime minister and foreign minister and the current speaker of the Kazakh Senate, assumes the presidency through what would have been the end of the 78-year-old Nazarbaev’s term in 2020.
After taking the oath of office at a joint session of both parliament chambers, the Mazhilis and the Senate, Toqaev said that Nazarbaev's "respected opinions" will be key in the Central Asian government's "strategic decisions" and proposed that the country's capital, Astana, be renamed after him.
"It is necessary to immortalize the name of our great contemporary -- the first president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbaev -- in the following way: Our capital must carry the name of our president and be called Nursultan," Toqaev said. "Nursultan Nazarbaev remains the only father of the nation for life."
Toqaev also proposed raising a monument honoring Nazarbaev in the capital and naming all central streets in every town and city in the country after him.
In announcing Toqaev as interim president, Nazarbaev said he "can be trusted to lead Kazakhstan."
Toqaev also served as a UN diplomat in Geneva and is fluent in Kazakh, Russian, English, and Chinese.
The U.S. State Department on March 19 expressed confidence that its “strong” relationship with Kazakhstan will continue after Nazarbaev’s resignation.
Washington looks forward to "continuing our work with Kazakhstan on a wide variety of issues," the spokesperson said.
"The United States and Kazakhstan enjoy a strong bilateral relationship, as demonstrated by President [Donald] Trump's historic meeting with President Nazarbaev last year, and we expect this momentum to continue," the spokesperson added.
Nazarbaev visted the White House in January 2018 for talks with Trump that focused on regional security, economic issues, and bilateral relations.
Kazakhstan received praise from Washington by voluntarily giving up its nuclear weapons following the fall of the Soviet Union and for providing logistical support to the U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan.
Even as he resigned, Nazarbaev pointed out that he has been granted the status of "elbasy," or leader of the nation, a title bestowed upon him by the loyal parliament in 2010.
"I remain chairman of the Security Council, which has been granted serious authority," he said, adding that he is also staying on as chairman of the Nur Otan party and as a member of the Constitutional Council.
"So I am staying with you," Nazarbaev said. "The concerns of the country and the people remain my concerns."
The roles he is keeping could allow Nazarbaev to retain a great deal of power.
A spokeswoman for the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, praised Nazarbaev for driving forward “modernization reforms, including constitutional reforms,” and for playing “an important role in promoting cooperation both regionally and globally, with a particular emphasis on promoting peace, stability, and security.”
“We look forward to a smooth transition in accordance with the constitution of Kazakhstan,” said the spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic.
Kazakhstan's presidential press service said that Nazarbaev had discussed his decision to step down as president in a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding that the two leaders "agreed to continue regular contacts in the future.”
As president, Nazarbaev has maintained close relations with Russia while courting investment from Europe, the United States, Asia, and other regions to develop Kazakhstan's plentiful oil and natural-gas resources.
An official of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, told Russian state-run TASS news agency that Russian space cooperation would continue with Kazakhstan following Nazarbaev’s resignation.
Russia has been leasing the Baikonur Cosmodrome from Kazakhstan since 1994, with a contract that runs until 2050. Russia pays $115 million annually for leasing the launch facility.
Rights activists and critics have said that Nazarbaev has persistently suppressed dissent, prolonged his time in office through undemocratic votes or referendums, and used the levers of power to neutralize potential opponents.