Post-Soviet Central Asia: The Changing Politics Of Leadership Transition

The entrenchment of authoritarianism in Central Asia might survive the demise of the first generation of leaders

Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populated state, is due to celebrate its next Presidential election in 2015. The biggest question mark surrounding the Uzbekistani consultation is related to the incumbent’s decision to participate: should Islam A. Karimov, first (and only) President of post-Soviet Uzbekistan, opt to file a candidature, there will be very limited room to end his tenure at the helm of the Uzbekistani state. No alternative candidate—coming from within or, less likely, beyond the regime ranks— will have a chance to unseat Uzbekistan’s longterm president. Karimov, in other words, is most certainly expected to remain president for life.

This latter proposition captures in full the fundamental conundrum that, in the last five years or so, has come to characterize the political landscape of the Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). To date, no regional state has established a viable procedure to ensure the smooth completion of political transitions, leaving the fate of leadership change in the hands of incumbents. This failure has come to compromise, in the medium term, the effectiveness of regional governance, as the ageing authoritarian leaders have preferred to engage in conservative policies rather than introduce much-needed socio -political change.

This conundrum has virtually frozen the political landscapes of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan— the key constituents of Central Asia’s political community. Throughout the post-Soviet era, the two republics have been dominated by the figures of I.A. Karimov (Uzbekistan) and Nursultan A. Nazarbaev (Kazakhstan). The careers of Central Asia’s elder statesmen, interestingly, unfolded in parallel trajectories: both appointed at the helm of their respective republics in the Gorbachev years, Karimov and Nazarbaev carefully managed the transition to independence to establish the consolidated authoritarian regimes over which they continue to preside in the mid-2010s.

The Kazakhstani political discourse is currently dominated by speculations on the presidential succession. The ageing president (b. 1940) has entered another term in office in April 2011, when he won yet another election. Interestingly though, Nazarbaev’s electoral triumph—even one of his opponents did apparently vote for the incumbent, who was re-elected with a stunning 95.5 percent of votes—opened a phase of inexorable decline for the Kazakhstani regime: although Nazarbaev is firmly at the helm, his age and (reportedly) poor health have encouraged the spread of rumors on the presidential succession.

Nazarbaev himself has refused to publicly announce a successor, and, in his later years in power, opted to focus on legacy-building rather than engaging openly with the issue of leadership change. Inevitably, this perceived vacuum paved the way for many speculations on Kazakhstan’s future leadership. A significant number of élite members have been jockeying for positions of power in the lead-up to the inevitable leadership change. The focus of the international community, on the other hand, remained firmly concentrated on Nazarbaev’s immediate family, and particularly on daughters Dinara and Dariga, who are nevertheless unlikely to take the lead after their father’s demise. Focus on the “First Family” does ultimately reveal the peculiar nature of power diffusion in Nazarbaev’s Kazakhstan, where the Central Asia’s traditional tendency for dynasticism has been subjugated to the logic of power personalization established by the incumbent president. A pre-arranged, extra-familial succession, in this sense, appears to be a very likely outcome for the post-Nazarbaev transition. Interestingly though, this scenario is contested by the (small) internal opposition, which is timidly pointing out to Kazakhstan’s republican nature when outlining its preferred tool to engage with the post-Nazarbaev transition: a free and fair election.

To a very similar extent, the “democratic” option seems an unlikely outcome for leadership transition in Uzbekistan. In this context, the highly authoritarian nature of Uzbekistani politics prevented the establishment of any form of internal opposition: the leadership transition, in other words, will be almost certainly orchestrated from within the regime ranks.

Recently, however, an increasing number of international observers advanced relevant doubts in relation to the president’s actual capacity of appointing a successor, arguing that the Karimov regime is more fragmented and unstable than its Kazakhstani counterpart. There is no better way to elaborate upon the latter proposition than by focusing on the many misfortunes experienced by one of the president’s daughters, Gulnara Karimova. A successful pop star, a globally recognized twitterata, and a wealthy businesswoman, Gulnara has recently fallen from favor: having lost most of her assets, the once-successor-inwaiting is now under house arrest, with virtually no prospects of rising to the top of Uzbekistani politics. Gulnara’s brutal treatment might be an indicator of Karimov’s limited influence vis-a-vis the choice of his own successor: other forces, internal to the regime but not totally aligned with the president, might have orchestrated the marginalization of the president’s daughter. This context, ultimately, offers a relevant perspective to make sense of the recently announced constitutional reform that enhanced the powers of the Uzbekistani prime minister. With Gulnara under arrest, no opposition allowed to operate freely in the country, and a big question mark hovering over Karimov’s health, long-term Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev might somehow appear as the current front-runner in Uzbekistan’s relatively imminent transition. The lessons learned throughout the only orchestrated transition experienced in Central Asia to date, however, indicated that, when it comes to relatively unexpected leadership change, unpredictable outcomes are not to be ruled out.

On 21 December 2006, official sources announced the death of Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s long-term president and Central Asia’s most eccentric leader. During his later years in power, many observers connected the wider stability of Turkmenistan with Niyazov’s permanence in power. In this sense, the authoritarian stability ensured by Niyazov’s mercurial rule was expected to come to a more or less abrupt end at the very moment of the leader’s demise. The transition to power instigated by Niyazov’s relatively unexpected death did however unfold in a surprisingly smooth trajectory. In less than 24 hours after the leader’s death, the regime had proceeded to arrest the constitutionally mandated successor, Parliament speaker Ovezgeldy Atayev, to regroup around the figure of Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, one of Turkmenistan’s Deputy Prime Ministers and a relatively unknown élite member. Berdymuhamedov’s accession to power was sanctioned by an orchestrated multi-candidate election— the first in Turkmenistan’s history—that saw him emerging as the dominus of post-Niyazov Turkmenistan on 14 February 2007.

There are two major conclusions that can be drawn by this cursory analysis of the postNiyazov transition. First, Berdymuhamedov’s rise to power was smooth, but not entirely legitimate, as the regime marginalized the mandated successor to shape the transition in line with the internal power play. Interestingly, the eventual winner has to be considered as an outsider in Turkmen politics: Berdymuhamedov was never listed amongst Niyazov’s likely successors, and he maintained a low profile in the Cabinet while occupying a relatively marginal ministerial position (Health and Pharmaceutical Industry). Despite the many unconfirmed rumors, there is no substantive evidence to conclude that Turkmenistan’s second president was endorsed by the late Niyazov: Berdymuhamedov’s accession to power, in this sense, has to be considered as the function of his alliance-making skills.

The 2006–2007 transition, furthermore, did not have any significant impact on the quality of Turkmen governance. Although it failed to replicate the brutality and many of the eccentricities experienced under Türkmenbashi, post-Niyazov authoritarianism did ultimately remain quite extreme. To date, Berdymuhamedov has continued to rule Turkmenistan in non-democratic fashion, crashing internal and external opposition, exerting an oppressive control over the media, and even venturing into the launch of a cult of his own personality. In this sense, the Turkmen transition witnessed a change in the state’s leadership, but not in its governance methods. Ultimately, it cannot be linked to a process of regime change, insofar as no liberalization of the domestic political landscape has followed the demise of Niyazov and the emergence of a new leadership.

And this is exactly the risk that we might incur in if we are to equate regime change to leadership change when reflecting upon the impending transitions in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan: there is no certainty to suggest that future leaders in Astana and Tashkent will endeavor to liberalize their respective political landscapes. In this sense, the entrenchment of authoritarianism in Central Asia might survive the demise of the first generation of leaders, as the political experience of post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan has somehow indicated.

The Kyrgyz Republic remains to date the only Central Asian state to have experienced multiple changes of leadership. Inaugural president Askar Akayev was toppled by a popular revolution in March 2005, when demonstrations erupted all over the country to protest against the unprecedented level of corruption reached by the regime. The accession to power of Kurmanbek Bakiyev did not however bring about more transparent governance, as the post-Akayev regime soon began to imitate the diffused practices of nepotism and state-capture that its predecessor implemented during the 1990s and early 2000s. Ultimately, Bakiyev’s extremely corrupted regime was also the victim of popular discontent, as a second revolution erupted in April 2010 to topple the leadership in Bishkek. The 2010 Kyrgyz Revolution, after the brief interim presidency of Roza Otunbayeva—the only Central Asian leader to have willingly relinquished power in the postindependence era—led to a complete revision of the state’s constitutional infrastructure and the abandonment of a strongly presidential electoral system. This was perhaps the only instance of regime change that Central Asia has experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary era is currently making its (relatively) initial steps, with President Almazbek Atambayev governing over an increasingly unstable and fragmented system.

While there is certainly no recipe to improve the quality of governance after a change in the leadership, the political experience of post-Soviet Central Asia seems to indicate that local leaders have failed to identify even the most rudimentary praxis to ensure smooth, constitutionally enshrined transfers of power. The political transitions emerged to date in the region (Turkmenistan in 2006–2007, Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010) did all take place after traumatic events. This systemic failure might indeed explain why Central Asia-watchers (and perhaps the local population too) are taking a long, big breath before venturing in the cloud of uncertainty surrounding the impending transitions in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Luca Anceschi

Lecturer in Central Asian Studies, University of Glasgow. His book Turkmenistan’s foreign policy— Positive Neutrality and the Consolidation of the Turkmen regime (Routledge 2008) represented the first book-length account of Turkmen foreign policy published in Western languages.

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