"I made the decision to terminate my powers as president", Nazarbayev said, speaking on national television channels addressing the people of Kazakhstan.
Nazarbayev, 78, has led the former Soviet republic since 1989, first as its Communist leader and then as president.
The speaker of the country's senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, will be an acting president until a new president is elected.
"I see my future task as ensuring the coming to power of a new generation of leaders who will continue the transformations being carried out in the country".
Though leaving the presidential post, Nazarbaev will retain many other influential positions in the Kazakh government, leaving many to wonder if he's really giving up power.
"A safe and calm transfer of power" in Kazakhstan is paramount for the whole region as it remains "the definitive nation in Central Asia", she said.
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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. Before announcing it officially, he called Russian president Vladimir Putin, his closest foreign ally, to deliver the news. "He participated in the development and adoption of all programs", Nazarbayev said.
Aliev, a top security official and husband of Nazarbayev's eldest daughter Dariga, was widely seen as his successor.
"There is no one who can rule Kazakhstan better than Tokayev", Daniilk Kislov, a Moscow-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
He added he would still head the ruling Nur Otan (Light of the Motherland) political party and serve as lifelong head of Kazakhstan's Security Council - thus retaining key positions in the halls of power that already lack political opposition critical of his increasingly authoritarian rule. He won presidential elections in 1991, 1999, 2005, 2011 and 2015. "More disturbingly, it may lead some in other countries - read Russian Federation but also China - to try to get involved so as to dominate the next generation [in Kazakhstan]". Worldwide observers have long judged elections in Kazakhstan to be neither free nor fair.
Nazarbayev's government pushed through a number of popular policies in recent months - including raising public-sector salaries and forcing utilities to cut and freeze tariffs - stoking speculation that he was preparing for a re-election bid.
Members of Nazarbayev's family have stakes in some of Kazakhstan's most lucrative assets, including Halyk Bank and firms in sectors ranging from telecoms to fuel trading.