Central Asia: succession planning in dictatorships


Kyrgyzstan aside, recent elections in Central Asia would appear to indicate that the regions’ leaders are aiming to stay in power for life. But what will happen to their regimes when infirmity strikes, wonders Luca Anceschi?


Luca Anceschi
15 March 2012

What lessons can we learn from the presidential election recently held in Turkmenistan? Apparently none if we focus on the domestic implications, with Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov re-elected as president with a landslide 97% of the vote. The Berdymuhamedov regime has now completed the process of consolidating its power; it can now be expected to focus on re-personalising Turkmen politics, filling the void left after the death of long-time dictator Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006. Certainly the campaign to create a cult of Berdymuhamedov’s personality is well under way.

Analysing Berdymuhamedov’s re-election from a regional perspective stimulates some interesting questions about the current trajectory of Central Asia’s post-Soviet political evolution. The vote of 12 February made a mockery of the institution of elections and this is a trend that has characterised Central Asian politics in recent years. Two of the three recent presidential elections in the region – Turkmenistan’s in February and Kazakhstan’s snap election held in April 2011 – have seen incumbents re-elected as a result of machinations from within the ruling regimes rather than an expression of popular will. In both cases there has been a high degree of regime interference in the electoral campaigns and many irregularities in the voting procedures.

On the other hand, the third electoral contest held in Central Asia in the last 12 months – in Kyrgyzstan in October 2011 – constituted the first smooth presidential transition to have ever occurred in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In an unprecedented decision, Roza Otunbaeva decided not to run for the presidential post, opening the field to ‘fresh’ candidates.

In the context of the transmission of power according to constitutional provisions, the Turkmen election represents an interesting element in Central Asian developments – obviously, for all the wrong reasons. The Turkmen vote constitutes yet another episode in the peculiar intersection between elections and authoritarianism that has so profoundly characterised the politics of Central Asia in the last 20 years. It crystallises authoritarianism as the rule to which Central Asian governance seems to conform. Finally, it consolidates the regional praxis that supports the hegemony of incumbent leaders.


Men on a mission. Presidents (L-R) Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov of Turkmenistan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan all appear to be pursuing lifelong reigns. None has a succession plan in place.

This latter point represents a critical element in the politics of Central Asia – one that in turn raises questions about the future stability of the region. As a rule, Central Asian leaders pursue monopolistic power and tend to stay in power for long periods of time. These factors underpin the political experience of the last two decades, during which regimes have failed to put in place practices for succession.

To date, three out of the five Central Asian states have experienced top-level leadership change since the achievement of independence. Turkmenistan’s power transition of 2006-2007 was initiated by the natural death of Niyazov, which set into motion a process of intra-elite struggle that ultimately saw Berdymuhamedov as its victor. Transitions in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were somewhat more traumatic. While a civil war led to the accession to absolute power of Emomali Rahmon (Tajikistan), popular unrest was behind the fall of the two successive Kyrgyz regimes, headed by Askar Akaev (2005) and Kurmanbek Bakiev (2010). In this sense, the election of Almazbek Atambaev to the Presidency of the Kyrgyz Republic is Central Asia’s only power transition occurred in adherence to constitutional dictates. The recent Kyrgyz case is therefore the exception to the norm: elsewhere the transfer of power has been determined by overt or covert competition amongst members of the regime, relatively violent episodes of popular unrest and even direct military hostilities.

If leadership change is an indicator of regime insecurity, then Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are Central Asia’s most stable political systems: Nursultan Nazarbaev and Islam Karimov have retained power ever since 1991. Similarly Tajikistan’s president appears to be in a relatively stable position: Rahmon has been in office since 1994, while he was Prime Minister from 1992 to 94. While it is too early to make any assessment of the nature of Atambaev’s regime in Kyrgyzstan, the Turkmen election has confirmed Berdymuhamedov’s plans to establish long-term rule, continuing Niyazov’s way.

'Central Asia’s cultural tendency towards dynasticism appears to be secondary to the personalism that characterises post-Soviet power in the region.'

Interestingly, none of Central Asia’s current leaders has made plans for succession. While this understandable for the relatively young Berdymuhamedov (b.1957) and Rahmon (b.1952), it is puzzling that the older leaders – Nazarbaev (b.1940) and Karimov (b.1938) – have chosen not to publicly endorse a successor. Here Central Asia’s cultural tendency towards dynasticism appears to be secondary to the personalism that characterises post-Soviet power in the region. Paradoxicallly, therefore, in this sense the Kazakh and Uzbek regimes look perhaps the least durable, as it is not clear that they will outlast their current leader.

Indeed, Central Asian leaders appear to overstep the mark in terms of wielding power, monopolising it to an extent that militates against nurturing successors. This was certainly the case in pre-2006 Turkmenistan, where Niyazov’s options for intra-elite succession were reduced by the President’s paranoid distrust of his political associates, while dynastic succession was limited by his estrangement from his own family.

Similarly, dynasticism appears not to be an option for Nazarbaev and Karimov, as both leaders do not have a direct male heir in their current family ranks (although Karimov has a son from his first marriage). Although the presidents’ daughters – Dariga, Dinara and Aliya Nazarbaeva; Gulnara and Lola Karimova – are recognisable figures in their countries (yet not necessarily popular), it seems unlikely that they could become frontrunners in a top-level power transition. If Gulnara Karimova was once thought to be in a privileged position to succeed to her father, her chances have significantly decreased after 2010, when questions surrounding her business interests circulated.

Meanwhile succession based on family ties has been widely anticipated in Kazakhstan. At different times, Rakhat Aliyev – Dariga’s ex-husband – and Timur Kulibaev – Dinara’s current spouse – were presented by Kazakhstan-watchers as Nursultan Nazarbaev’s potential heirs. Interestingly, they have both now fallen out of favour with Nazarbaev: while former Deputy Foreign Minister Aliyev has now become a staunch (and very vocal) opponent to his former father-in-law, Kulibaev was recently dismissed from his post as head of Samruk-Qazyn, Kazakhstan’s Sovereign Fund.

In spite of their reluctance to nominate a successor, both Nazarbaev and Karimov have begun to deal more publicly with the limitations that age is inevitably imposing on their power. In an official visit to Germany in early February 2012, Nazarbaev answered several questions from German journalists about the state of his health. The president’s openness on the subject contrasts with his government’s reticence over rumours of prostatic surgery Nazarbaev reportedly underwent in July 2011.

Karimov, on the other hand, dealt indirectly but publicly with his own mortality in a major parliamentary speech in December 2010, when he outlined a new succession procedure to be applied in the event of his death of incapacitation. Presidential concerns with age are also thought to underpin the recent (December 2011) decision to shorten the Uzbek presidential term from seven to five years. This decision may bring about a presidential election as early as this year. Some observers have commented that the aim of the current, shorter term may be to identify a successor – current Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev appears to be the front runner – and negotiate an exit strategy, ensuring that Karimov and his family can step away without fear of violent or punative retribution. Another possible explanation for the shorter term is that it could simply be another subterfuge, aimed at prolonging his time at the helm.

Whatever decision Karimov reaches on the scope of his next mandate and whatever course Nazarbaev’s health takes, political succession in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is no longer a matter for another day: it now represents the impending reality of a not-so-distant future. The stability of the two major political systems therefore appears at risk, as neither leadership has made arrangements to face the tasks posed by the departure of long-term leaders. If Nazarbaev and Karimov do not reverse this trend by placing the issue of succession at the centre of their remaining time in power, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will find themselves immersed in the same uncertainty that surrounded Turkmenistan following the death of Niyazov.

Although pre-arranged succession measures do not guarantee regime security against the emergence of instability, the Central Asian experience tells us that the lack of succession arrangements can result either in widespread instability or in the perpetuation of authoritarian practices, a situation that ultimately puts the local population between a rock and a hard place. This is exactly the scenario the citizens of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan want to avoid when their leaders exit the stage.

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