78-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s leader since the break-up of the Soviet Union, announced his resignation on March 19. The speaker of the upper house of parliament Kassym-Jomart Tokayev will serve as acting president until Nazarbayev’s current term expires next year. Rather than going into full retirement, however, Nazarbayev will continue as head of the Security Council and as chairman of his Nur Otan party. Nazarbayev’s new informal position was further evidenced when Tokayev, upon assuming office, changed the name of the capital city from Astana to Nursultan.
As most of Kazakhstan is arid land, most of its 18 million population live either in the relatively verdant steppe of the north or the mountain foothills of the south. Over half of the country’s inhabitants are ethnic Kazakhs, but the northern plains are also home to millions of ethnic Russians. Partly owing to its wealth of natural resources, Kazakhstan has been able to sustain living standards close to those of Russia. Its Central Asian neighbours are rather less affluent. Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, which includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.