The Great Succession Game: Central Asian leaders’ silence on succession plans poses a growing threat to stability in this volatile region.
(Business New Europe – bne.eu – Naubet Bisenov in Almaty – January 23, 2015)
In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where ageing leaders run one-man shows that suppress any hint of opposition, the issue of succession resurfaces every time the autocratic presidents are reported to have travelled abroad for medical treatment. That these leaders hide succession plans under a veil of secrecy adds to worries about stability once they depart the stage. Neither has indicated he will step down or groomed a successor, fearing irrelevance when elites, investors and foreign powers start courting the future leaders.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 74, and his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov, 76, have both ruled their respective countries single-handedly since obtaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. They were appointed by Moscow to head the countries’ respective Communist parties in 1989, which propelled them into the presidency. Apart from both presidents lacking male heirs and having only daughters, they are similar in that they both have chosen the authoritarian form of government with overly centralised powers and little tolerance towards dissent, freedom of speech and civil liberties.
Both presidencies have also been marred by brutal crackdowns on mostly peaceful protests: in 2005, Karimov’s government ordered troops to suppress a rally in the eastern town of Andijan killing officially 187 people (unofficial estimates put the toll in the hundreds); in 2011, Nazarbayev presided over the violent suppression of a protest rally by oil workers in the western town of Zhanaozen. Both tragedies now loom large over their legacies.
Despite both coming from similar Soviet apparatchik backgrounds, there has been a noted difference in economic systems they have imposed on their respective countries. Karimov has continued to pursue the planned economy, while Nazarbayev opted for building a free market economy, albeit one based on oil and gas, that has seen the country become a regional economic powerhouse accounting for over half of the combined economies of Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Likewise in foreign policy there have been marked differences. In contrast to Karimov, who has chosen an isolationist policy that prevents Uzbekistan from establishing stable friendly relations with its neighbours and global powers (with the exception of perhaps China), Nazarbayev adopted a “multi-vector” open foreign policy, which has allowed the country to balance national interests with those of Russia, the West, China, Iran and other powers.
However, the presidents share one significant trait: via various legislative tricks – Nazarbayev through his special status as Leader of the Nation, Karimov through endless amendments to the country’s constitution – both presidents are exempt from term limits. With both reported to have health issues, the prospect of the presidents dying in office in the absence of institutional mechanisms for the transfer of power and a lack of checks and balances within the political system mean they themselves pose the greatest threat to stability in their respective countries.
Succession scenarios in Kazakhstan
Historically, ethnic Kazakhs are divided into tribes, which in turn are grouped into zhuzes. The Great Zhuz, from which the incumbent president and some influential figures from his entourage hail, occupies the country’s south and southeast, and given the Soviet-era capital city of Almaty was their political fiefdom, they traditionally enjoyed favourable access to government jobs. The Middle Zhuz Kazakhs live in the country’s centre, north and east; the present capital of Astana is located in their historical lands. The Little Zhuz tribes live in the oil-rich west and are perhaps the most discontent with the current state of affairs, as there is a widespread belief the petrodollars benefit others more than them.
However, observers say there is little indication the historically-established clan system will play much of a part in any power struggle, as President Nazarbayev has tried to balance the interests of the regional elite groups in building the current system. For example, in 1997 he moved the capital from Almaty to Astana.
In October, the Kazakh Rating.kz research agency published a list of potential candidates that could succeed President 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 are: Almaty Mayor Akhmetzhan Yesimov, 64, and Prime Minister Karim Massimov, 49.
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 businessman Galimzhan Yesenov, whose fortune is estimated at nearly $450mn by Forbes Kazakhstan magazine. At the same time, Yesimov has next to no experience at the top level of government; the highest post he held was minister of agriculture and cannot boast a record of crisis management.
By contrast, Massimov is a veteran politician who is heading the government for the second time in the past eight years, with his previous tenure being the longest in the country’s modern history. 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 also 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 ethnic Uighur, although officially his ethnicity is identified as Kazakh. In 2007, his office threatened to sue a website for saying: “It should be noted, however, that Karim Massimov is Uighur by ethnicity.”
Says Rico Isaacs, senior lecturer in international studies at Oxford Brookes University: “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.” Isaacs, who has extensively studied the Kazakh political scene, tells bne IntelliNews 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 Kazakh Rating.kz survey, are: National Security Committee chief Nurtay Abyjayev, 67; the president’s nephew Kairat Satybaldy; and Speaker of the Senate Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, 61.
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 with the elite groups and little known to the general population. Tokayev, as a former diplomat, is considered to be 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 case of Nazarbayev’s incapacity or sudden death for the rest of the presidential term.
Of the president’s relatives considered as potential successors by those polled, son-in-law Timur Kulibayev and eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva both lack experience of doing political jobs, which means they also lack political influence. Nazarbayev’s nephew Kairat Satybaldy, like Kulibayev and Nazarbayeva, possesses significant financial resources and has the best chance of succeeding Nazarbayev compared with the other two, according to the survey.
Further down the list of potential successors is the current defence minister, Imangali Tasmagambetov, 56. He has a good chance of becoming Kazakhstan’s next president, as he enjoys Nazarbayev’s trust, has political influence and possesses financial resources (through his son-in-law Kenes Rakishev with an estimated $650mn fortune). 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. 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. But given the circumstances, the appointment shows Nazarbayev is trusting him with the reform of the armed forces, the state of which has acquired particular significance given the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine, which has worried Kazakhs about Russia’s attitude toward their country and its Russian-speaking population.
Ultimately, though, all this conjecture about candidates’ experience and financial resources could be moot. Amirzhan Kosanov, a Kazakh opposition politician, dismisses the rating of potential successors because ultimately Nazarbayev himself will decide on who will succeed him. “We can talk endlessly about particular names, but the decision will anyway be taken by Nazarbayev himself,” Kosanov tells bne IntelliNews.
The opposition politician points to the strengthening of a triumvirate of PM Massimov, Astana Mayor Adilbek Dzhaksybekov and acting State Secretary Nurlan Nigmatulin, but stresses that “Tasmagambetov, in contrast to them, enjoys real electoral support,” Kosanov says.
Isaacs agrees: “He is potentially the only one with a degree of charisma and popularity and he has some popular appeal so people can relate to him,” the academic says of Tasmagambetov. “That kind of appeal, of course, represents a threat to Nazarbayev, especially when we talk about his time as akim [mayor] of Almaty.”
Even though Isaacs questions the methodology of the ranking of potential presidential successors, he believes it is a useful tool to understand and put in context what has been going on in the country over the past few years, because “we don’t really know what is going on behind closed doors.”
Notably, the ranking doesn’t 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,” Kosanov says, “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.”
He suggests that despite lacking 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.”
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. Nationalists showed their teeth when they mobilised against the concept of a “Kazakhstani nation” that was being pushed by the government-sponsored, unelected Assembly of Kazakhstan’s People in 2010. Nationalists instead argued for titular status for ethnic Kazakhs. As a result of the opposition, the government abandoned the idea.
In February 2014, pandering to nationalists, President Nazarbayev floated the idea of turning Kazakhstan into a “Country of Kazakhs”, which invited ridicule at the time and subsequently became a much more dangerous policy when Russia vowed to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers everwhere in the same way it is doing in eastern Ukraine. In August, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to warn Nazarbayev and his successor against diverging from Astana’s current pro-Russia policy, saying that present Kazakh statehood was all about Nazarbayev. “He made a unique thing. He has created a state on a territory where there had never been a state,” Putin said. “Kazakhs didn’t have statehood.”
Karimov carried off
The succession situation in neighbouring Uzbekistan is similar to Kazakhstan in that it will end sooner rather than later, but different in that he is increasingly being isolated from running the country and today doesn’t hold any real power.
With Karimov yet to formally accept (or decline) the Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party’s nomination to stand for another term in the forthcoming presidential election on March 29, his “mafioso and cronies” are trying to keep firm control to ensure a smooth transfer of power when he suddenly dies, one observer living abroad tells bne Intellinews.
Exactly for this reason, the Uzbek president’s eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, was last year stripped of her assets and placed under house arrest, the observer, who requested complete anonymity, says. “It is impossible to predict which member of the elite will be installed when Karimov departs because the country is so isolated,” says the observer, “but it is important who will succeed him in that it depends on the person whether he or she will start reform.” Any reform, though, will be economic: “It’s too early to talk about political reform in Uzbekistan, no one is ready for it.”
Despite being a resource-rich country – Uzbekistan is the world’s 17th largest producer of natural gas, ninth largest producer of gold and sixth largest producer of cotton – the country’s citizens are incredibly poor. GDP per capita was only $1,900 in 2013 against $13,200 in Kazakhstan.
The high levels of poverty and unemployment drive millions of Uzbeks to work abroad. Karimov’s successor will need to steer the country’s planned economy towards the free market in order to improve living conditions, thus avoiding great social upheaval and reducing social tensions. However, if the political situation is freed up too hastily without any economic improvement, the new authorities will find it hard to control “masses of hungry and angry people”, the observer notes.
Unlike Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan doesn’t have any strong personalities in politics except for two or three people, and Karimov’s relatives are unlikely to join the fight for power. In the past, Uzbek politics was the preserve of competing groups representing regional elites, which have since become intertwined and each player is concerned only about protecting their business interests.
The president’s eldest daughter Gulnara had been involved in a massive campaign to promote herself as a future leader in the media controlled by her, and in spring 2013 she made her presidential ambitions public. At the same time, Gulnara engaged in a dangerous game of discrediting the chief of the powerful National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov, 70, as well as one of the most liberal and influential members of the Uzbek government, First Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov. But it was when she started a media war against her younger sister Lola Karimova-Tillyayeva and her mother Tatyana that her common enemies colluded to use against her investigations by Swiss and Swedish prosecutors into alleged bribery and money-laundering involving Gulnara’s business associates. She was placed under house arrest with almost no contact with the outside world in February 2014, which marked her fall from her father’s favour. In September Uzbek prosecutors announced that they had opened a criminal investigation into her alleged membership of an organised crime ring that was involved in blackmail, extortion, document forging and misappropriating state stakes in a number of enterprises.
Gulnara’s downfall may intensify the succession battle, but could also serve as a warning to members of the elite about how precarious their situation is. “Azimov’s presidential chances depend on how skilful he is as a politician, on his personal ambitions and on how he assesses his chances of getting the highest post or just staying in the system to have some influence,” the Uzbekistan expert says of Azimov, an economist believed to be the most pro-Western top official. “It’s hard to judge how strong he is within the elite and whether the system will allow him to implement a pro-reform agenda.”
In contrast to Azimov, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev is not seen as an independent politician but an executor of the system’s day-to-day management. Despite being part of the system, Mirziyayev lacks the intelligence to contest the presidency, so he is “not a desirable” candidate, given his “animalistic excesses” in dealing with people during his time as a regional governor, the expert believes.
While Inoyatov, as the security chief and the longest serving Uzbek top official, might not be seriously considered as one of the main contenders because of his own health problems, he might be instrumental in the choice of successor because he enjoys great influence.
According to the Uzbek constitution, in case of the president’s incapacity or sudden death, presidential powers are transferred to the speaker of the Senate, until the election of a new president within three months. The current speaker of the Senate, little- known Ilgizar Sobirov, could be a temporary figure until the system finds a suitable candidate to be elected in a presidential poll. In Turkmenistan, the sudden death of Saparmurat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi, in December 2006 didn’t lead to the transfer of presidential powers to the then speaker of the Turkmen parliament, Ovezgeldy Atayev, as the constitution requires; instead, he faced criminal charges and the parliament endorsed Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov as the sole candidate for president. A similar scenario could well be repeated in Uzbekistan.
While nationalists are the outside contenders in any power struggle in Kazakhstan, it is Islamists who could challenge the Uzbek regime, and indeed that of neighbouring Tajikistan, where a relatively youthful 62-year-old President Emomali Rahmon holds untrammelled power.
Uzbekistan saw a rise in Islamism in the early 1990s soon after independence, as many rediscovered Islam as part of their identity. But a crackdown by the authorities forced political Islam underground and many followers, especially among the youth, have since become radicalised. Two Uzbeks – Juma Namanganiy and Tohir Yuldosh – set up a radical Salafi group in 1991, which was re-established as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 1998 with the aim of overthrowing Karimov and setting up an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. In February 1999, there was a series of bombings in Tashkent that the authorities blamed on Islamists, in particular the IMU. In 1999 and 2000, the IMU made two attempts to penetrate the Uzbek part of the Fergana Valley via Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In fact, hundreds of Central Asian jihadists are reportedly fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and sensing a power vacuum should any of these ageing regional leaders suddenly die, they could return to wreak havoc.
Thus these Central Asian leaders’ grip on power and their deliberate silence on succession plans give rise to a legitimate question: does this silence represent the biggest threat to stability in their countries?