It was a busy day for the authoritarian regimes of Central Asia, as the death of Uzbekistan strongman Islam Karimov last week continues to resonate across the region.
In one day Uzbekistan appointed Prime Minister Shavhkhat Mirziyoev as acting president following the death of Karimov last week, bringing the speculation over the succession to a speedy end. In Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Massimov was not so lucky and was replaced by Bakhytzhan Sagintayev, a long time ally of Kazakh president’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayev. And in Armenia Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan resigned following a month of public protests.
Uzbekistan’s Mirziyoev was the favourite to succeed Karimov, who had ruled the Central Asian republic since even before independence almost exactly 25 years ago. He is said to be “quick to anger” and is expected to continue Karimov’s oppressive policies that have earned Uzbekistan one of the worst human rights records in the former Soviet Union.
In Kazakhstan, commentators speculated that Sagintayev’s appointment as prime minister could be an attempt by President Nursultan Nazarbayev to prepare for his succession, and prevent the instability in neighbouring Uzbekistan infecting Kazakshstan. Massimov’s replacement, Sagintayev, is seen as an ally of Nazabeyev’s daughter and could smooth the transmission of power on the president’s death.
Massimov is a competent pair of hands who was brought in to oversee the economy following the collapse of oil prices that has hit Kazakhstan hard. But he 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. Massimov was therefore demoted to head the country’s secret services (KNB).
Nazarbayev is one of the oldest leaders in the region and has repeatedly said he would serve as president “as far as people trust me”. He 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.
The reshuffle in Kazakhstan may be designed in part to reassure the existing fractions that the country will not be destabilised in the event of the president’s death. However, Sagintayev has only been appointed acting prime minister, according to the decree, so it remains unclear if this is a permanent change or if there will be more changes.
Karimov made no plans for succession at all but the rapid appointment of Mirziyoev as acting president suggests a consensus has been reached. Uzbekistan’s constitution demands that a fresh presidential election must be called within three months of the death of the president. It is hard to image Mirziyoev not winning these elections now he has control of the state’s media and “administrative resources” as acting president.
In Armenia, Abrahamyan’s position had been undermined by protests in July, which were sparked off by the seizure of a police station by an armed group of veterans, who were determined to stop any potential compromise over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. President Serzh Sargsyan appears to have sacrificed another of his henchmen in an attempt to appease protesters angry with his regime’s corruption and economic record.
The prime ministerial changes in Central Asia follow on from a similar reshuffle in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin recently fired his old friend and longstanding head of the presidential adminstation Sergei Ivanov, replacing him and several other key posts with some fresh yound blood, all noted for their loyalty to Putin personally.