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Passing on the authoritarian torch: power transition in Central Asia

Three decades after gaining independence, the Central Asian republics have recently experienced changes in their leadership. The rulers that were in charge before the collapse of the Soviet Union are, in most cases, no longer present and the countries are now led by their successors. The authoritarian nature of the regimes has resulted in a lack of transparency in the power transitions, but trends have already emerged in the ways these have occurred and may continue to take place in the near future.

The authoritarian Central Asian states, with the exception of Tajikistan, where Rahmon has been in power since 1992, have only of late started being ruled by a second generation of presidents. The Soviet-era rulers of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that steered their countries through independence and in the establishment of the states are no longer President. The Turkmen and Uzbek cases present similarities while the Kazakh scenario is different. Even though Emomali Rahmon did not rule the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) and participated in the transition to independence, like Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov who did rule their SSRs he can be considered to be the last ‘first generation leader’ still in power.

The changes in leadership that have taken place in the region’s authoritarian regimes thus far provide two separate approaches to the transition of power. On the one hand, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have witnessed the sudden death of their first presidents and their substitution by regime insiders in a short and opaque process that took place within their respective elites. On the other hand, Kazakhstan has experienced a gradual handover that is still taking place where the former president has officially resigned but still exerts most of the authority in the country. These different methods are a result of the countries’ characteristics as well as the strategic vision of their leaders.

Self-management within the regime

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have experienced opaque power transitions following the deaths of Niyazov and Karimov. Both regimes perpetuated themselves through insiders that had been part of their predecessor’s government and that reached power without much disruption, gradually establishing their own rule by purging potentially rival elements. Even though Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan went through a similar process, they had differences due to the nature of their regimes and leadership.

The lack of transparency that has shrouded the Turkmen regime since its inception makes it difficult to analyse in detail the events that led to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s rise to power. The death of Niyazov in 2006 was all but clear and, as a result of the lack of verifiable information, a number of rumours arose about his demise. Regardless of the way this happened, within hours of its official announcement, Turkmenistan’s then vice president and health minister was appointed head of state by the State Security Council and the Council of Ministers. This bypassed the constitutional order that stated that it was the chairman of the parliament, Ovezgeldy Atayev, who should have succeeded the president. A show, in the form of elections a few months later, confirmed Berdimuhamedov as Turkmenistan’s second president.

What is noteworthy in the Turkmen case is the prompt and efficient way in which the elite, reduced after years of a personalistic regime, united and elevated an unexpected candidate who was not Niyazov’s explicit choice nor part of his family. There was no significant opposition, as far as we know, to Berdimuhamedov’s rise to power, with the legitimate successor, Atayev, being detained and imprisoned shortly after Niyazov’s death. The lack of information makes it impossible to know what happened behind the scenes in late 2006, but what is clear is that a regime insider reached power in collusion with and supported by the country’s elites.

In Uzbekistan the result was similar although the process varied due to a wider range of candidates and power centres. Shortly after the sudden death of Islam Karimov in August 2016, his Prime Minister for 13 years, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, was named interim president. In a case that has some similarities with Turkmenistan’s, this role was meant for the chairman of the Senate, who declined it in favour of Mirziyoyev, in a move of questionable constitutional validity. This was the first battle in a fight for power between Mirziyoyev, Finance Minister Rustam Azimov and, the considered kingmaker, head of the security services, Rustam Inoyatov. In a gradual process in which different actors and clan politics intervened, Mirziyoyev was able to be elected president and cement his power in detriment of his two other rivals.

As in Turkmenistan, the deceased president was succeeded by someone from his inner-circle. However, in Uzbekistan, with different power centres, clan politics and a much larger and heterogeneous elite, the process was more uncertain and lengthy. It took Mirziyoyev months to be able to establish himself and even now there are elements within his regime that he has to balance out.   

In both cases, neither Niyazov nor Karimov had defined plans for their succession which resulted in a period of uncertainty and a transition that was decided within the elites. In addition, their respective families did not take place in the process, either voluntarily or involuntarily, and in some instances, like Karimov’s estranged daughter Gulnara, their situation worsened as a result. This last point, among others, is what Nursultan Nazarbayev seems inclined to avoid.

Kazakhstan’s piloted transition

Nursultan Nazarbayev is the only leader of a former Central Asian Soviet Republic that remains in power, although not nominally. Nearing his 80th birthday and having seen the situation that unfolded in neighbouring Uzbekistan after Karimov’s death and the lack of succession plans, Nazarbayev decided to act and ensure Kazakhstan would not experience the same after his demise. In order to achieve this, he decided for the power transition to take place during his lifetime and directed by himself; a first in Central Asian politics.

In March 2019, Nazarbayev surprisingly resigned and called for early presidential elections to choose his successor. He had already designated the former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to take over, which he officially did after winning an election in which there was not much competition. A technocrat, Tokayev is considered to be a transitory figure, a bridge between Elbasy, as Nazarbayev is also known, and a longer-term head of state.

While Tokayev is nominally the president, it is Nazarbayev who still holds the reins of power in the country. Through his tailor-made position of Chairman of the Security Council, Nazarbayev is still in charge of the country, even more so after a series of reforms in October 2019 that granted him powers over key government appointments to the detriment of Tokayev’s authority. It is Nazarbayev who plays the role of head of state, attending different international summits in representation of Kazakhstan and meeting with his former counterparts, while Tokayev is relegated to the domestic sphere.

The transition in Kazakhstan is still unfolding and therefore it is yet to be known if it will succeed. Nevertheless, such process is being moulded by Nazarbayev himself. As a result, Elbasy is ensuring the position and wealth of his family within the new regime that will emerge after his demise. This includes situating his daughter Dariga as the head of the Senate, which some observers interpret as a signal she might end up becoming the country’s first female president, although there is little evidence to support it. However, by securing his family’s position and his legacy as the founder of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev has demonstrated to have a strategic vision that his Central Asian counterparts, so far, have lacked.  

Hereditary succession, a real possibility?

Two models have emerged thus far in the transition of power in Central Asia’s authoritarian regimes: Turkmenistan’s and Uzbekistan’s change from within and Kazakhstan’s piloted handover. However, a new method may start to take shape: hereditary succession. This is a process that is unknown to the republics, and to see it occurring in the region we have to look back at the beginning of the 20th century in the Emirate of Bukhara and Khanate of Khiva. Nevertheless, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan may be in the course of reviving this long-lost practice.

Among the Central Asian republics, Tajikistan is the only one who still is ruled by someone who got to power in the early 90s. Emomali Rahmon has been Tajikistan’s president since 1992, including the civil war, and it seems that he might be looking for his son Rustam to succeed him. To that effect, the 32 year old has already occupied a number of positions within the Tajik government, including heading the country’s main anti-corruption agency, being promoted to major general and, more importantly, being appointed mayor of the capital, Dushanbe, in 2017. At the same time, the parliament approved reducing the eligibility age from 35 to 30 for the presidency and the upper chamber. The parliamentary and presidential elections that the country will undergo in 2020 could be a stepping stone in Rustam’s political future, including Rahmon taking a step back like Nazarbayev to make room for his son.

Turkmenistan seems to be going in a similar direction. Berdimuhamedov’s son Serdar has been designated to multiple government posts in the last years, including member of the Mejilis (Turkmenistan’s legislative chamber), Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and governor of the significant Ahal region. His fast progression becomes more important when taking into account the questions surrounding his father’s health, including last summer’s rumours that he had died.

While the progression of both Rustam Emomali and Serdar Berdimuhamedov indicates that they are being groomed to succeed their fathers, this would be oversimplifying the situation. Firstly, it is unclear if the only objective behind Rahmon’s and Berdimuhamedov’s actions is to have their sons take over power. Positioning them well within the state, with enough power to be relevant in the case of regime change could be another aspiration. This would act as an insurance policy against other actors or political rivals who would want to undermine them and strip them of their wealth and influence. Secondly, even if the aim was for them to succeed their fathers, it is not clear that would be successful. Once the figures of Rahmon and Berdimuhamedov disappear, even if before they have ‘retired’ like Nazarbayev, there is no indication that the elites, even if diminished in Turkmenistan’s case in particular, would comply with their wishes and raise their children to power. Therefore, while hereditary succession remains a possibility in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, it is far from being a fact.

The transition of power in authoritarian states is always surrounded by uncertainty as the established procedures that dictate it are not respected due to the lack of democratic practises and institutions. So far Central Asia’s regimes have navigated this situation with swift, albeit opaque, transitions within the system, avoiding major disruptions for the state although not necessarily for the families and legacies of their former rulers. In this regard, Nazarbayev’s move last year opened a new possibility by pre-emptively controlling much of the transition before it actually happens, although it does not entirely guarantee its success. Lastly, a new trend seems to be emerging which is the prospect of hereditary succession. This last approach can be combined with the piloted transition but it is yet to be seen if it becomes a reality and, even if it does, if it will be ultimately successful. 

[Article originally published in Foreign Policy Centre]

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