When he stepped down in 2019, he was able to choose his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and kept significant power as head of the security council and general behind-the-scenes powerbroker. He retained his official title of Elbasy, or leader of the nation. Astana, the capital city he ordered built in the heart of the Kazakh steppe, was even renamed in his honour. To Nazarbayev, it must have seemed like he had found an answer to the problem vexing ageing autocrats across the region: how to step aside in old age without risking retribution. Vladimir Putin and others were doubtless watching with interest.
The events of the past few days might suggest that different lessons should be drawn. Statues of Nazarbayev, meant to be monuments to his legacy, have been torn down by protesters. Instead of chanting “Elbasy”, many angry Kazakh protesters are now chanting “Shal ket” – or “Old man, out!”