Central Asia’s dictatorships look nervously at Uzbekistan

Central Asia’s dictatorships look nervously at Uzbekistan
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is looking to avoid the mistake of Karimov by trying to keep power very much in the family.
By Kanat Shaku and Naubet Bisenov in Almaty and Nicholas Watson in Prague September 4, 2016

With the death of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov opening up a power vacuum in Central Asia’s most populous state, and worries about civil unrest and jihadism filling it, the other autocrats in this majority Muslim region are nervously looking over their shoulders at what this means for their regimes.

Probably the most nervous should be Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has repeatedly said he would serve as president “as far as people trust me” and has not named a successor, fearing irrelevance when elites, investors and foreign powers start courting the future leader. Nazarbayev was designated the “Leader of the Nation” in 2010 and had the two-term limit abolished for himself in 2011 allowing him to stand for presidency indefinitely.

But Nazarbayev is looking to avoid the mistake of Karimov, who doesn’t appear to have anointed a successor, by trying to keep power very much in the family. In September 2015, Nazarbayev appointed his eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, to the post of deputy prime minister. The move reignited succession talk; Nazarbayeva, 53, a former deputy speaker of the Kazakh parliament’s lower chamber, has often been tipped to succeed her 76-year-old father, though critics have pointed to her lack of executive experience as the main hurdle to her leading the country.

Following the early presidential election in April 2015, in which Nazarbayev was re-elected with nearly 98% of the vote on a 95% turnout, Nazarbayeva was rumoured to be in line to become head of the western oil-rich Aktobe Region, the governor of which was said to be in danger of the sack as punishment for delivering one of the lowest votes for the president out of all regions. This would have provided her with the missing experience in governing.

Nazarbayeva’s prospects for succeeding her father were also once seen harmed by her former husband Rakhat Aliyev, one of the most hated figures in the Kazakh establishment. But his suicide last year in an Austrian prison paved the way for the president to consider his daughter as well as her eldest son Nurali, 31, who was deputy mayor of Astana, as potential successors.

When asked by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in June whether he could envisage a woman as president of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev replied: “Why do you think there cannot be women [presidents] in Kazakhstan? It is quite possible.”

He noted that women account for 51% of the country’s population of 17.8mn and there were a handful of women members of government, with 30% of MPs being women. “Thus it is quite possible, especially when there are prepared women. Bearing in mind that I have three daughters, I have special attitudes to women,” Nazarbayev added.

Keeping the presidency in the Nazarbayev family could be backed by many of the country's elite groups, who would prefer a smooth transition of power from Nazarbayev to either his daughter or grandson. The designation of a member of one elite group as successor over others could lead to conflict between rival groups vying for power.

“All countries in the region, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, have established a political system where issues of succession will, ultimately, be decided by various influential groups,” political analyst Andrei Chebotarev tells bne IntelliNews. “That said, only Tajikistan would be the most likely candidate to take the path of Azerbaijan when it comes to the transfer of power,” Chebotarev added, referring to the successful consolidation of power by President Ilham Aliyev upon his father’s resignation due to poor health in October 2003.

Rahmon and on and on...

Tajikistan is run by the relatively youthful 63-year-old Emomali Rahmon, who has long been grooming his son, Rustam Emomali, to be his successor. Tajik citizens voted in a referendum in May to approve amendments to the constitution that would allow the Tajik president to stay in power for life, abolishing a two-term limit for Rahmon with lifelong immunity from prosecution. The amendments also cut the presidential age limit from 35 to 30, enabling Rustam, now 28, to step in as successor should his father decide to step down by the time of the next election.

A less likely candidate is Rahmon’s eldest daughter, Ozoda Emomali. Ozoda, 38, was appointed chief of the presidential staff in January and a member of the upper chamber of Tajikistan’s parliament in May. However, this could be another set of moves at consolidating Rahmon’s overall family power for years to come. With the once biggest political opposition, the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, defenestrated, the referendum and other moves look certain to ensure the president’s family stays in power for the foreseeable future and thus puts an end to guesswork on who will succeed Rahmon.

Age-related worries seem less of a concern in the secretive and oppressive state of Turkmenistan. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, 59, succeeded in 2006 the man who ruled gas-rich Turkmenistan through the fall of Communism, Saparmurat Niyazov, with a cult-like status. During his reign, Niyazov declared himself “Head of All Turkmen” and named airports and buildings after himself.

If there were hopes that a saner regime would take over, those have been dashed by the past decade of Berdimuhamedov’s presidency. While he has reversed some of Niyazov’s crazier policies, such as naming certain months after family members, trying to create ice palaces in one of the world’s hottest countries and banning opera performers from the country, Berdimuhamedov has engaged in creating his own personality cult, including publishing 35 books on topics such as herbal medicine and carpets, while ‘winning’ rigged horse-riding competitions.

Human Rights Watch notes that, “There are no free elections in Turkmenistan, nor a free media, and citizens cannot freely protest in the street. Turkmenistan is one the world’s few countries that regularly bars thousands of its citizens from traveling abroad.”

At a testy press conference alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a summit in Germany at the end of August, Berdimuhamedov dismissed the question of human rights with his own rhetorical question: “Tell me which other country gives its citizens gas and electricity for free?”

“Free gas, perhaps (although there are reports that economic problems may soon curb this). But that’s where Turkmenistan’s freedoms dry up,” notes Hugh Williamson, director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of HRW.

With Rahmon looking to have secured a family dynasty in Tajikistan and Berdimuhamedov keeping a tight grip on power in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan is therefore the country where there is the greatest uncertainty over the ability of the ruling family to secure a smooth transition of power, and the biggest chance for another member of the elite to take over.

Outside the family

In October 2015, the Kazakh Rating.kz research agency published a list of potential candidates that could succeed Nazarbayev. According to a poll conducted by the agency among 38 “highly qualified specialists” of political and socioeconomic trends in Kazakhstan, the most likely candidates to success Nazarbayev were the ex-mayor of Almaty Akhmetzhan Yesimov, 65, and Prime Minister Karim Massimov, 51.

Yesimov, who lacks charisma but is believed to be somehow related to the president, has significant financial resources to leverage via his son-in-law, the businessman Galimzhan Yesenov, whose fortune is estimated at nearly $450mn by Forbes Kazakhstan magazine. On the other hand, Yesimov has next-to no experience at the top level of government; the highest post he held was minister of agriculture and he cannot boast a record of crisis management.

By contrast, Massimov is a veteran politician who is heading the government for the second time. Massimov is now seen assuming more and more important functions such as touring the regions – previously Nazarbayev’s preserve. The recent publication of personal details and pictures of Massimov's childhood could also be considered as some sort of promotion of his public image among domestic audiences.

Despite having extensive experience of doing the highest government job and plenty of crisis management experience, including negotiations with oil majors on the crucial yet hapless Kashagan oilfield project, Massimov lacks charisma and has a big image problem among ethnic Kazakhs – he is not regarded as a fluent speaker of Kazakh, one of the most crucial requirements set for presidential candidates. There is also a popular belief that he is an ethnic Uighur, although officially his ethnicity is identified as Kazakh.

“It’s evident that people in Kazakhstan feel that his ethnicity is a barrier to becoming president, despite all his experience, his inputs and the trust that the president has in him,” Rico Isaacs, senior lecturer in international studies at Oxford Brookes University, who has extensively studied the Kazakh political scene, told bne IntelliNews. Isaacs believes that a candidate’s ethnicity will trump all other considerations when it comes to choosing the next president, limiting the pool of potential successors to ethnic Kazakhs.

In the second tier of potential successors, according to the Rating.kz survey, were: former National Security Committee chief Nurtay Abykayev, the president’s nephew Kairat Satybaldy, and Speaker of the Senate Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev.

According to the poll, Abykayev could play a role in any forcible transfer of power due to his influence over the country’s security apparatus, but he is extremely unpopular among the elite and little known to the general population.

Tokayev, as a former diplomat, is considered a compromise candidate that would satisfy the interests of elite groups,
 but he lacks the political and financial resources of other potential successors. As speaker of the Senate, according to the constitution, Tokayev would assume the presidential powers in the case of Nazarbayev's incapacity or sudden death for the rest of the presidential term.

Further down the list of potential successors is the current defence minister, Imangali Tasmagambetov. He enjoys Nazarbayev’s trust, has political influence and possesses financial resources amounting to $650mn through his son-in-law. Tasmagambetov is also extremely popular with the Kazakh intelligentsia and population: his tenures as mayor of Almaty and Astana, and governor of the oil-rich Atyrau Region are widely recognised as successes. Nonetheless, his recent appointment as defence minister is seen by some experts as a demotion, because the defence sphere has been rattled by corruption scandals that could taint his political career.

Notably, the ranking did not include potential candidates from outside the current elite, such as the opposition, Kazakh nationalists and a small but growing group of Islamists. “The authorities have done everything to neutralise the opposition,” Kazakh opposition figure Amirzhan Kosanov said, “but it doesn’t mean the idea of an opposition figure and fatigue with an immovable government doesn't exist in the minds of ordinary Kazakhs.”

Kazakh nationalists, unlike their counterparts for example in Russia, are a liberal lot and the prospect of a Western-leaning, liberal government in Kazakhstan would inevitably prompt a negative reaction from Moscow. Despite lacking Moscow’s approval and legal channels to participate in government, “any well known and influential member of the opposition in certain circumstances and conditions could lead the fight for power,” Kosanov concluded.

In that light, observing Uzbekistan’s forthcoming power-shift is “particularly important [for Kazakhstan], since Uzbekistan’s elites are similarly non-monolithic as the elites in Kazakhstan,” independent political analyst Chebotarev notes, though he believes that “Uzbek elites are more unified, while Kazakh elites tend to engage in internal conflicts”.

Therefore the threats of in-fighting within the ruling elites of Central Asian dictatorships, along with the silence on succession plans, may mean that the often perceived Central Asian stability is shown to be merely an illusion.