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A new authoritarian succession model being tested in Kazakhstan

The news of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation as president of Kazakhstan announced on March 19th 2019 sent shockwaves across Eurasia. No post-Soviet leader has attempted a similar transition since 1991.

March 21, 2019 - Mariya Y. Omelicheva - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, may soon be known as Nursultan Photo: Alex J. Butler (cc) flickr.org

Outside the post-Soviet space, many authoritarian leaders have aspired to retain significant political clout upon their wilful resignation, but few have succeeded in it. Although truly unprecedented, this model of succession has been in the making for some time. Well-conceived and, so far, perfectly orchestrated, it was designed, in part, to avoid the Uzbek and Kyrgyz succession scenarios where the new leaders quickly moved against the family members and close associates of their predecessors for solidifying their own rule.

Nursultan Nazarbayev ran uncontested in five consecutive presidential elections and won all of them by margins greater than 90 per cent. Following the 2005 presidential election, the Kazakh parliament eliminated term limits for the first president and in 2010 Nazarbayev received a life-long immunity from any prosecution as well as the title of “Elbasy” (leader of the nation). Yet, Nazarbayev’s 30-year rule has been marked by the incessant competition over control of Kazakhstan’s extensive natural wealth and the industries that extract and process these resources. By steering his family members and supporters into some top business and government positions, Nazarbayev managed to establish control over strategic sectors of Kazakhstan’s economy that he used for buttressing the patronage networks and stabilising his rule. Frequent reshuffling of political elites has also allowed Nazarbayev to prevent the emergence of a powerful competitor with too much economic and political power in his or her hands.

To thwart the emergence of a too powerful successor threatening the intra-elite stability that the former president skilfully maintained, Nazarbayev instituted a constitutional reform that devolved some presidential powers to the parliament in 2017. The following year, the Kazakh legislature dominated by the pro-presidential party, Nur Otan, passed a law granting a constitutional status to the country’s security council and approving Nazarbayev as the council’s head for life. These arrangements allow Nazarbayev, who retained the post of the security council’s chairman after his resignation, to remain an influential power broker in Kazakhstan. Concurrently with the new security council’s bill, a new law restricting the outflow of capital from Kazakhstan’s banks came into effect in July 2018. This new regulation was approved at Nazarbayev’s insistence and widely viewed as his effort to limit the freedom of the wealthy Kazakh oligarchs to stash their money abroad. In this way, the Kazakh elite is less likely to accept the risks of political destabilisation that will affect the country’s economic wealth and economic interests of the upper class. 

With these arrangements in place, domestic politics of Kazakhstan will be business as usual, especially in the short run with the interim president, former senate speaker Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, carrying out dutifully the initiatives and programmes of the former president. Although things may heat up in advance of the 2020 presidential election, Nazarbayev still possesses ample formal and informal authority to steer Kazakhstan in the direction he wants without the concomitant responsibility for the consequences of his policies.

Nazarbayev’s resignation removed all uncertainty about the succession but generated a new uncertainty about his successor. It is unlikely that the former president will allow the key executive post go to a non-family member. Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Darigha Nazarbayeva, who was thrusted into a prominent role as speaker of Kazakhstan’s Senate a day after her father’s resignation, appears to be a likely future candidate. And, with the majority of the “Nazarbayev generation” (18-29-year-olds) embracing the values of Kazakhstan’s personalistic regime and the practices and policies associated with it, including nepotism, no democratic breakthrough can be expected in the near future.

As for the foreign relations, Nazarbayev’s successor is unlikely to depart from the multi-vector foreign policy masterminded by the former president. Nazarbayev pioneered this approach in 1992. Under his leadership, the country played a careful balancing act with Russia, China, the European Union and the United States that allowed Kazakhstan to enjoy considerable autonomy, benefit economically and politically from the multitude of foreign relations and helped maintain a great power equilibrium in the Central Asian region. The interim president Tokaev is a wise choice. A career diplomat known in political circles in Moscow, Washington, Brussels and Beijing is fully capable of maintaining a balance in Kazakhstan’s relations with its major partners. His successor, however, may have a more difficult time sustaining the balancing act with the US increasingly paying less attention to the region and China making greater economic inroads in Kazakhstan. Greater integration with Russia will make the Kazakh economy more susceptible to the ebbs and flows of Russia’s economy and China’s anti-Muslim practices and hostility toward Kazakhs from Xinjiang may ignite nationalist sentiments in the republic.

No country in the world wishes Kazakhstan an unstable succession. Its longstanding internal political stability, relative economic prosperity and its multi-vector foreign relations have been central to security and the fragile power equilibrium in Eurasia. Destabilisation or weakening of post-Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan would be detrimental to the regional architecture. Clearly, Elbasy hopes to reign in the succession model of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Deng Xiaoping in China. And, there are good chances that he will succeed.

Mariya Y. Omelicheva is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas and author of Democracy in Central Asia: Competing Perspectives and Alternative Strategies (2015) and Counterterrorism Policies in Central Asia (2011).

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