"I made a decision to resign as president", Nazarbayev, 78, said in his televised address to the nation.
Whoever ultimately succeeds Nazarbaev as president next year will certainly at least need the approval of the former steel worker and long-time Communist Party member who has ruled Kazakhstan with a steady but iron hand since 1989. "And for Central Asia this is something incredible", Suzdaltsev told AFP.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, speaker of the upper house of parliament, will take over as Kazakhstan's acting president for the remainder of his term in line with the constitution, Nazarbayev said.
He also remains head of the country's Security Council, and will for life given a law passed in May.
Nazarbayev enjoys a strong working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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Tokayev, 65, is a Moscow-educated career diplomat fluent in Kazakh, Russian, English and Chinese who has previously served as Kazakhstan's foreign minister and prime minister and could be a front-runner for the ruling "Nur Otan" Democratic People's Party in 2020. In the 2015 election, he took almost 98 percent of the vote.
Nazarbayev has been serving as president of Kazakhstan for 28 years, since the office was created on 24 April 1990.
A huge country the size of Western Europe, Kazakhstan has vast mineral resources and enormous economic potential.
On field trips to Kazakhstan EURACTIV has discreetly asked what would happen if Nazarbayev died and Kazakh interlocutors have often mentioned Tokayev as the natural heir in such dramatic circumstance.
He has maintained a delicate balance between Russian Federation and the West, leading Kazakhstan to join a Russia-dominated economic alliance of ex-Soviet nations, but cultivating close energy ties and other links with the West.
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His announcement came a year ahead of the country's next scheduled presidential election and amid growing frustration over falling living standards.
Tokayev has previously served as the foreign minister, deputy prime minister and prime minister, and United Nations deputy secretary-general.
While Nazarbaev is not leaving the scene altogether and will still hold many levers of power in Kazakhstan, the country will have a new president.
In those days, Kazakhstan was a backwater region best known for prisons, nuclear testing sites and being the home of the launch facility of the Soviet space program, the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha, has in the past also been mentioned as a possible replacement for her father.
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Another possible future leader of the country is Karim Masimov, 53, who was prime minister twice and also served as Nazarbaev's chief of staff. In April 2015, he was re-elected with nearly 98% of the vote and he also holds the title of "Leader of the Nation".