Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has abruptly resigned after nearly 30 years in office, but will continue to head the ruling party and keep his lifetime post as chairman of the influential Security Council.
"I have decided to end my duties as president," Nazarbaev said in a televised address to the nation on March 19, speaking hours after his office said that he would make an important announcement.
"This year I will have held the highest post for 30 years," said Nazarbaev, 78, who has headed the energy-rich country since before the Soviet collapse of 1991. "The people gave me the opportunity to be the first president of an independent Kazakhstan."
He said that that the speaker of the upper parliament chamber, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, will hold presidential authority for now. The next presidential election is due to be held in 2020.
Nazarbaev said that he will remain at the helm of the ruling Nur Otan party and will stay on as chairman of the presidential Security Council, roles that could allow him to retain a great deal of power.
In July 2018, the Security Council's status was changed from consultative to constitutional, increasing its authority, and Nazarbaev became its chairman for life.
Many in Kazakhstan saw those changes as a sign that Nazarbaev was seeking to ensure that he would maintain his grip on power if he stepped down as president.
Rights activists and critics say 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.
Nazarbaev was last elected in 2015, securing a five-year term after moving the date of the vote up from 2016 in a move was widely seen as an attempt to strengthen his grip on power.
With the death of autocratic Uzbek President Islam Karimov in 2016, Nazarbaev became the only leader of a former Soviet republic to have held power since before the U.S.S.R. fell apart in 1991.
While his announcement was unexpected, there had been several signs that he might be considering stepping down as president.
In early February, Nazarbaev set off speculation about his intentions by asking Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council to provide an official interpretation of an article from the country's constitution that deals with the termination of presidential duties.
His resignation followed unusually persistent protests in which demonstrators in several cities across the country of some 18.7 million have accused the government of ignoring the needs and demands of ordinary people.
The protests were spurred in part by anger and grief over the deaths of five children from a single family in a house fire in Astana, the capital, on February 4.
The predawn fire destroyed a tiny family home in Astana while both parents were away working overnight shifts, killing five girls aged 3 months to 13 years.