Maria Merkulova's Blog

Succession as an option?

July 19, 2013

Out of five Central Asian countries two still have the same leaders for more than 20 years, one faced its president’s death and transition from one “cult of personality” to another. As remaining eternal leaders age, more and more rumors about their successors rise from the media.


Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan face a situation when their leaders are not young - Nursultan Nazarbaev was born in 1940, Islam Karimov - in 1938, both of them are past over their 70’s. Both of them in the past declined the idea of staying in power until the last day of their lives. Nevertheless, Nazarbaev and Karimov are still in the presidents chairs, moving slowly to a scenario of Saparmurat Niyazov, former president of Turkmenistan who died in 2006 still being a president. To understand Nazarbaev’s and Karimov’s concerns one need to take a closer look in Niyazov’s case and remember some theoretical principles of politics.


Case of Turkmenistan

During his presidency Saparmurat Niyazov formed a “cult” of himself and a strongly depending on his will system of governance. Though he once publicly spoke against lifetime presidency, as some other Central Asian presidents did, he got his lifetime occupation in 1999, when a “Narodniy Soviet” (People’s Council) - an institute he created to control the state bypassing the parliament - gave him a right to be a head of the state with no time limitations.[1] Niyazov had several serious health issues, so the rumors about his successor were circulating constantly during the last years of his life.  Different names were called, and among them was a name of a person, who actually became a new president of Turkmenistan - Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Rumors called Berdymukhammedov Niyazov’s “son of shame” and sometimes his “personal doctor”, at the time of Niyazov’s death Berdymukhammedov was a first deputy prime minister and health minister[2], meaning that according to Turkmenistan’s law there was another person, who, in case of a president’s death, had to fulfil presidential duties - a head of parliament (Mejilis) - Ovezgeldi Ataev. Ataev was taken into custody by the Security Council, and Berdymukhammedov was chosen as a head of Peoples Council, changing the constitution to held an earlier presidential elections.[3] It’s hard to call Berdymukhammedov a successor, because even if there were some rumors, there is no evidence that Niyazov chose him as one. Arresting Ataev and concealing the news about Niyazov’s death make Berdymukhammedov look more like a figure, chosen by small group of elites after Niyazov’s death.

The example of Turkmenistan shows several important question, that Niyazov faced concerning the idea of successor.

First one is “Who?” - there is a wide range of requirements that a successor should meet. This person has to be a moderator of different interests, a trustful continuer of the “general line”, he should be a guarantor of peaceful retirement (not in jail) for those who is in power now. In a system where a leader can trust no one and has paranoiac thoughts to find such a person is a hard quest similar to finding a “Person” with a lantern in a daily light.

Second one is “When?” - an authoritarian leader usually is not ready to present a successor to the public too early. Nevertheless such leader needs to check people’s reaction to an idea of a person X as a successor, he still has to counterbalance this introducing of successor with showing that he himself still has power. Otherwise who needs an old powerless president when there is a younger and ambitious successor.

The third question is “How?” - and here there might be a range of different possible scenarios such as a resignation, new elections and strong support for the successor (Russian scenario), as well as waiting scenario, resulting in a death scenario. In case of “waiting till death” scenario Turkmenbashi chose, the leader has no actual control over who becomes a successor, a situation may turn out differently. However, this scenario is the easiest in terms of responsibility - you don’t need to worry about your future after resignation. In fact, you don’t need to worry about anything.


Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

Niyazov’s case created a precedent in Central Asia, after 2006 media and political analysts started to see a possibility of the same scenario in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Nowadays, media in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan sometimes publish articles on prospective successors, trying to guess, who is going to replace an elderly president. This search for a successor is inevitable, even when a possibility of Turkmenistan’s scenario is rising as no actual successor is being introduced and leaders get older.

Lists of successors usually are made from a range of relatives, ministers and politicians spinning around the leader. For Kazakhstan most often used names are: Timur Kulibaev (Nazarbaev’s son-in-law and businessman), Dariga Nazarbaeva (president’s daughter and politician), Imangali Tasmagombetov (akim of Astana) and Karim Masimov (head of president’s Administration). Sometimes you can see new names there, but this list is nearly the same since the ostracization of Rakhat Aliev, former number one candidate for succession and also former husband of Dariga Nazarbaeva. Nazarbaev himself strongly dislikes visible struggling among political and economic elites, so if somebody becomes too insolent in this struggle he usually interfere. Having a wide range of possible successor actually can help him to remain key figure, because since they struggle, they are not planning something against him. Karimov’s main list consist of two names: his daughter Gulnara (who avoids politics) and Rustam Azimov - deputy Prime-minister and Minister of Finances. Relationships between these possible successors are unclear, they seems to be rivals but publicly reject this thought. Also, Gulnara Karimova has huge problems with her public image and don’t participate in politics, so it’s unclear, why she still is counted as a possible successor.


Analyzing Nazarbaev’s staying in power, as well as Karimov’s, one need to remember, that in a system which has a high level of dependency upon a certain person, it’s not only this person’s will to stay in power. There are also some groups who face huge losses in business and capital in case of change of the leader. Every transition can bring a redistribution of resources, that can lead to another one, then another one and to Kyrgyzstan nowadays reality. Kyrgyzstan’s example of how poor governance can emerge without a charismatic leader and how unsatisfied groups of interest can lead a state to years of instability might stand in front of all Central Asian leaders’ eyes. Returning to “Who?-When?-How?” questions the most rational scenario might be to find a successor. Anyway, both Karimov and Nazarbaev changed constitution to provide them protection from any charges for what they’ve ever done on the president’s post. At this point in an ideal world a controlled succession can work. As the world isn’t ideal, we face a series of “contras”. First and foremost - a controlled succession would mean that a successor doesn’t have his own political will. For Central Asian public it would mean that such a new leader is not worth to obey and respect. Secondly, if a successor is strong - he’s not controllable, those in power can face resources redistribution, criminal charges and discharge from their positions. Thirdly, a truly charismatic new leader can not be a consensus figure, elites will be divided by such person. When you care about stability as Nazarbaev and about safety as Karimov you’re not willing to try this successor scenario, because there is no win-win situation. Succession is still an option, but not the best one, and certainly not the painless one for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.



[1] Niyazov, Saparmurat by Lenta.Ru [Available at]

[2] Turkmenistan chooses Niyazov’s successor, RIA Novosti 27/12/2006 [Available at]

[3] Berdymukhammedov Gurbanguly by Lenta.Ru [Available at]


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