EURASIA BLOG: Kazakh, Uzbek leaders reignite talk of succession

By bne IntelliNews September 17, 2015

Naubet Bisenov in Almaty and Olim Abdullayev in Tashkent -


The issue of succession has become topical again in Central Asia’s largest countries – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – after the Kazakh leader appointed his daughter as deputy prime minister, while the Uzbek president was reported to have openly nominated his second daughter as his successor.

Local observers say that authorities deliberately reignite the discussion of this topic in order to distract attention from other problems, and that being tipped for the top doesn’t necessarily increase the chances of the fancied successors and can actually harm their ambitions.

Seeking a smooth transition

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on September 11 appointed his eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva to the post of deputy prime minister. The move will be pored over by those devoted to speculating about who will eventually succeed the 75-year-old Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Dariga Nazarbayeva, 52, is deputy speaker of the Kazakh parliament’s lower chamber, the Mazhilis, and has often been tipped to succeed her ageing 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, in which Nazarbayev was re-elected with nearly 98% of the vote on a 95% turnout, Dariga had been rumoured to be in line to become governor 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 “yes” votes out of all regions. This would have provided her with the missing experience in governing.

Dariga’s prospects for succeeding her father were also seen harmed by her former husband Rakhat Aliyev, one of the most hated figures in the Kazakh establishment. But his suicide earlier this year in an Austrian prison paved the way for Nazarbayev to consider Dariga as well as her eldest son Nurali, who is a deputy mayor of Astana, as potential successors.

The prospect of keeping the presidency in the Nazarbayev family will likely be welcomed by 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, Kazakhstan watchers fear, could lead to a behind-the-scene or even an open fight between rival groups, which would destabilise the political situation in the country and lead to a redistribution of wealth and business interests.

Questionable credentials

Kazakhstan watchers don’t see anything extraordinary in the catapulting of a person without any experience in government to such a high post and point out that such an appointment is not even unprecedented.

“I wouldn’t say her appointment is unprecedented because this also concerns her superior Karim Massimov who was also appointed at quite a young age and without sufficient experience to head the Cabinet of Ministers. Also look at the appointment of [Bauyrzhan] Baybek as mayor of the country’s largest city, Almaty,” Almaty-based political analyst Rasul Zhumaly tells bne IntelliNews. Dariga’s new boss, Prime Minister Karim Massimov, was first appointed deputy prime minister aged 36 in 2001 after a short spell as transport minister, while Baybek, 41, was appointed mayor of Almaty in August after working as deputy head of the ruling Nur Otan party for two and a half years.

Like Baybek, Dariga has dubious experience as a leader of the Asar Party, which later merged with Nur Otan, but she also set up and managed the Khabar media group. During her tenure in parliament she acted as a constructive critic of the government and, given her political ambitions she has now been given an opportunity to work in government in the complex sphere of social affairs, Zhumaly says.

“Time will tell how she manages this job but I doubt she will achieve impressive results not because of her personal qualities but because of chronic problems in the executive. I think the Kazakh government has a systemic problem and it is not about Dariga or Massimov but a crisis in the system of governance,” the analyst says. “There is nothing sensational in Dariga being a relative of the president and it is in line with a practice of regular rotations of apparatchiks. These endless rotations have had no significant impact on the development of the country or solving certain problems.”

There are two possible explanations for the appointment, Aidos Sarym, another Almaty-based independent political analyst, suggests: First, “the president is fulfilling his personal obligations before his family because there were complicated processes when Dariga was asked to tame her political ambitions and show understanding when Rakhat Aliyev fell out of grace and now it is time the president fulfilled his part of the contract,” he explains. “Second, there is need to badger the prime minister whose performance has deteriorated and is showing signs of fatigue. There are no people other than a member of the family to assume this role.”

Dariga Nazarbayeva will be responsible for the so-called social block, which includes social protection, health, education and culture. “This is a less promising area to gain political points; on the contrary, it is easier to gain political black marks. In my opinion it is a certain ceiling for Dariga Nazarbayeva beyond which her career will hardly grow,” Zhumaly says.

Her appointment to mediate the social sphere is hugely ironical as she once called disabled people “freaks”, and observers question her ability to act as a mediator. Dariga lacks ability to achieve agreement with people and she is not the best mediator out of all those available, Sarym believes.

“During her appointment neither her father who appointed her nor the prime minister who solicited the appointment explained why her appointment was important and why it is better than the appointment of any other citizen of Kazakhstan,” he complains. “In her previous capacity Dariga Nazarbayeva had always been a bad mediator who called disabled people ‘freaks’ and so on.”

Discussion is a tool of distraction

The analysts don’t think Nazarbayeva’s appointment qualifies her to put forward succession claims, although she does cherish ambitions that she has demonstrated from time to time in the past.

Zhumaly suggests that authorities deliberately provoke the discussion of the issue of succession from time to time in order to distract the public’s attention from topical issues such as the devaluation and the economic crisis. “In reality the incumbent president does not consider real scenarios of succession by definition and he has repeatedly said that he is not going to retire any time soon. Neither Dariga nor other figures are seriously being considered as potential successors at the moment,” he said.

Sarym shares Zhumaly’s sentiment: “My understanding is that Nursultan Nazarbayev has not tightened his grip on power over these past 25 years in order to give it away to someone. He believes he will live for a long time and he’s got strong health,” he says. “Power is sacred in our country and we have a personality cult and governance is linked to one specific man, so the emergence of any other person will shatter the state apparatus.”

Words and deeds

During his re-election campaign in March, President Nazarbayev criticised the state apparatus he himself created as nepotistic “teams consisting of relatives and friends employed along the principle of regionalism not professionalism”. Now the spokesman for Nazarbayev, Dauren Abayev, defends Dariga’s appointment as “fulfilling meritocratic principles”.

“This is not first time we observe the discrepancy between what Nazarbayev is saying and what is happening in reality. For example, the devaluation and the statements Nazarbayev made that Kazakhstan would not give up its interests in the [Russian-dominated] Customs Union and that it would only benefit from the union, but we can see what has happened in reality. The same is with the situation about nepotism,” Zhumaly says.

“By this appointment the president voided all his criticism of nepotism and corruption in the civil service and national companies. We have put an end to meritocracy and to a system which is supposed to foster cadres,” agrees Sarym. “The appointment shows fighting nepotism has stopped being a priority. It means that he was not serious when he spoke about it.”

Behing-the-scenes game

While observers in Kazakhstan are still guessing what Nazarbayev’s succession plans are, observers in Uzbekistan have started openly talking about President Islam Karimov’s second daughter as his designated successor. One such observer claims that the ageing Karimov, 77, gathered his closest lieutenants in April and announced that “by the next presidential election he will transfer his post to a new, younger and energetic successor who will satisfy all parties concerned” and that “I believe you won’t be against if during my last term we will gradually prepare Lola for this mission”.

He writes under the mysterious pseudonym “Usman Khaknazarov” – a name popular in Uzbekistan in the early noughties for exposing government corruption – which has been resurrected on the opposition People’s Movement of Uzbekistan’s website, run by Muhamad Solih, Karimov's Islamist rival in the 1991 presidential election.

Lola Karimova-Tillyayeva is Karimov’s second daughter and Uzbekistan’s permanent delegate to Unesco in Paris. “In contrast to [Gulnara], she possesses diplomatic restraint and modesty, and in international circles she has a positive image,” Karimov was quoted as saying by Khaknazarov.

Apart from Karimov, the meeting was apparently attended by the Chief of the National Security Service (SNB), Interior Minister Adkham Akhmedbayev, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev, and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, according to Khaknazarov. This means that the leak and the exact quotes come from one of Karimov’s most trusted associates.

“This sort of story that she has been chosen as a successor is invented in order to ruin all her chances,” an Uzbek observer living abroad, who requested complete anonymity, tells bne IntelliNews. “This shows that some forces are trying to make sure that she doesn’t become a successor.”

The observer also questions whether Karimov, while still remaining a nominal president, retains any power in the “mafia” system he has developed in Uzbekistan during his quarter-century-long rule. “In Uzbekistan there is a mafia-style system with Karimov and some other bosses who control their spheres of interest. It is a big question how much power Karimov enjoys now,” the observer says. “There is some balance between elite groups and they need him because he is part of the system and they support him in order to prevent the crash of the system.”

The observer suggested that a behind-the-scenes game is now being played by these elite groups not to allow one of the daughters to succeed Karimov. Gulnara, the president’s disgraced eldest daughter, who is believed to be under house arrest since February 2014, has been removed from the competition after she fell out first with his mother and sister Lola and later with her father.

“They are now trying to remove Lola, too,” the observer suggests. “Only a person who is already part of the system and who enjoys sufficient influence in the system and who will be able to establish himself after Karimov’s departure will be able to become a successor.”

Unlike in Kazakhstan, where elite groups will be likely to rally behind a neutral figure from the presidential family in order to ensure stability after the eventual departure of Nazarbayev, in Uzbekistan elites groups will not accept Lola as a figurehead because she doesn’t fit into the system, even though her businessman husband Timur Tillyayev and his family will stand behind her, the observer believes. “Elite groups understand that if they install Lola as head of state they will install her husband’s clan, which is why it will hard for them to accept her.”

“Instead of casting light on the future of the country, this leak shows that the situation in Uzbekistan remains unpredictable and volatile,” the observer concludes.

EURASIA BLOG: Kazakh, Uzbek leaders reignite talk of succession

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