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Qishloq Ovozi

Tatian Pikulina is one of thousands of ethnic Russians who have taken steps to leave Kazakhstan.

It seems there is a new wave of ethnic Russians departing Kazakhstan.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, reports that during the first nine months of 2015, some 19,000 Russians left Kazakhstan to take advantage of the Russian government's program to resettle ethnic Russians still living in other former Soviet republics.

And currently, there are long lines outside the Russian Embassy in Astana and the waiting list for an appointment for resettlement is months long.

Ivan Malykhin is a Russian from Kazakhstan who has decided to go to the homeland of his ancestors. He told Azattyq that when he first applied for resettlement the waiting period was two months."And when I went to pick up my documents the waiting period was longer, by several months. Those applying in June [wait] until January," Malykhin said.

Irina Smirnova, 24, is also planning on leaving her home in Karaganda and moving to Chelyabinsk. She told Azattyq that she had just finished university and wants to start her professional career in Russia.

There are apparently enough Russians now wishing to leave Kazakhstan for Russia that a "squatter" business has emerged, with people making appointments months in advance and then selling their appointment slots to Russians anxious to leave.

Skilled Workers

Given the Kazakh government's apprehension about its Russian population following the events in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists seized control of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014, the departure of large numbers of ethnic Russians could be seen as a plus for Kazakhstan. Ethnic Russians and other Slavs make up a majority of the population in areas along the Russian border in northern Kazakhstan.

But many of those leaving are skilled laborers, doctors, teachers, and other professionals and it is unclear how quickly Kazakhstan can find qualified people to fill these vacancies in the workforce.

The statistics committee in Kazakhstan's Economy Ministry told Azattyq that some 24,000 of Kazakhstan's ethnic Russians had resettled in Russia in 2014. Erbolat Musabekov from the statistics committee downplayed the significance of this latest departure of ethnic Russians from Kazakhstan. "These are not such big figure," Musabekov said, "in 2005, 2006, more people left -- 56,000, [even] 65,000."

The Russian Embassy in Astana told Azattyq that since 2007, some 375,000 people from Kazakhstan had been resettled in Russia. According to data from Russia's Federal Migration Service, nearly 30 percent of the repatriated Russians recently came from Kazakhstan.

Since 1991, the year Kazakhstan gained independence, the proportion of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan's population has fallen from 40 percent to just over 21 percent, according to the latest figures from the Economy Ministry.

Returning to the issue of the Kazakh government's concerns about ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan, it is worth noting that the exodus of Russians from Kazakhstan will not lead to a drastic decrease in the country's population. On February 9, Kazakhstan's Ministry of Healthcare and Social Development reported nearly 1 million ethnic Kazakhs had been repatriated to Kazakhstan during nearly 25 years of independence.

Azattyq also featured a video report in mid-January about people leaving Kazakhstan's northeastern city of Petropavlovsk for Russia. That video can be seen viewed here.

Based on material from Svetlana Glushkova of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service
A combo photo of (left to right) Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (left), Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, and Turkmen President Gurbanguy Berdymukhammedov

It seems a pattern of governance has emerged, or rather reappeared, in Central Asia: the dynasty. It's been clear for a long time that four of the five current leaders have no plans to leave office. But some of them are entering, or are well into, their twilight years of life and there are questions about their legacies, about what happens to their families after these leaders are gone.

The answer at the moment, in at least three of the five countries, seems to be: Keep the family in power, a second generation of leadership. The nepotism that was always present in Central Asian politics has become more obvious, more public, as of late.

To look at the Central Asian states' move toward dynasty, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel discussion.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Participating from Washington was Catherine Putz, Central Asia editor for Diplomat magazine; from London, Alisher Ilkhamov, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies; and from Bishkek, Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. I had something to say, too.

Excluding the Soviet period of the region's history, Central Asia has long been dominated by emirs and khans and their dynasties. Ilkhamov suggested the mentality for establishing family rule is a product of conditions in the region. Central Asia is traditionally rurally based and characterized by large extended families, "very much the household-based economy," Ilkhamov said. "Now we see the household economy and to some extent [a] household-based system of governance."

Ilkhamov used the example of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, who " grew up in a rural area and brought [a] pattern of lifestyle, relationship, [bringing] his entire extended family to the capital and tried to employ each of them."

Ozoda Rahmon
Ozoda Rahmon

In January, legislation was introduced in Tajikistan (and subsequently approved in February) striking term limits for the president, allowing Rahmon, who has already been elected president four times, to stay on indefinitely.

Swerdlow noted other legislation lowered the "age eligibility for running for president from the age of 35 to 30, and there's been some speculation that that was done specifically for his oldest son, Rustam Emomali, who is now 28 years old." Tajikistan's next presidential election is scheduled for 2020.

Swerdlow also recalled that Rahmon's daughter "is now going to be chief of staff of the presidential administration." Rahmon appointed his 38-year-old daughter, Ozoda, to that post on January 27.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev was among the first of the Central Asian presidents to bring relatives into government. Nazarbaev, like Uzbek President Islam Karimov, has no sons.* Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, the husband of eldest daughter Darigha, started working in the state tax agency in 1996. In less than 10 years, Aliyev, who studied medicine, was the first deputy foreign minister of Kazakhstan and was widely mentioned as the successor to his father-in-law. It did not work out that way. (We'll get to that soon.)

Nazarbaev and his daughter Darigha attend a concert to celebrate his victory in the presidential election in Astana on April 27, 2015.
Nazarbaev and his daughter Darigha attend a concert to celebrate his victory in the presidential election in Astana on April 27, 2015.

Darigha was a businesswoman, but after the turn of the century she became increasingly involved in politics. She's been a deputy in parliament since 2004. In 2015, she was named deputy prime minister. On December 26, 2015, Nazarbaev appointed his 37-year-old nephew Samat Abish to be first deputy chairman of the National Security Committee (KNB). Nazarbaev's grandsons, from the Rakhat-Darigha marriage, are Nurali Aliyev, 31, the deputy mayor of Almaty, and Aysultan Nazarbaev, 25, a graduate of Sandhurst Military Academy in Britain who currently works in Kazakhstan's Defense Ministry.

In Turkmenistan, it is more difficult to get a picture of what is happening with succession. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's grandson, Kerimguly, has appeared on state TV several times, usually with his grandfather. Kerimguly is far too young to be president, but such information (as is occasionally pried out of Turkmenistan) hints that Berdymukhammedov's son Serdar is being prepared to one day ascend to the presidency.

Tahir explained that Berdymukhammedov's son-in-law, Ykhlasgeldy Amanov, was the country's representative on energy issues in London and the president's sister is a suspiciously successful businesswoman in the Ashgabat area.

The situation is very different now in Kyrgyzstan, but that country was headed in the same direction, twice. Two children of Kyrgyzstan's first president, Askar Akaev, ran in the 2005 parliamentary elections and both won seats. Akaev's successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, made his brother Janysh head of security and then made his son Maksim essentially head of the country's economy. Maksim was in his early 30s at the time.

You Can Pick Your Friends But You Can't Pick Your Family

Putz observed that "seeding the government with relatives and the extended family works up until the point that it doesn't, and when it doesn't, it kind of falls apart in a grand fashion."

There have already been some examples of what can go wrong. Swerdlow pointed to the case of Uzbek President Karimov and his eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, who some once believed was a potential successor to her father. Karimova's use of social networks to accuse Uzbek officials of being enemies of her father and her criticism of her mother and sister were widely reported (outside Uzbekistan) and led to a spectacular downfall that ended in her being put under house arrest in Tashkent, where she remains.

Swerdlow said: "These family feuds...are the scandals and controversies that make these rulers look most vulnerable."

That was certainly true with Kazakhstan's Rakhat Aliyev. Convicted of the gravest crimes back in Kazakhstan -- including plotting to overthrow the government and his former father-in-law, President Nazarbaev -- Aliyev stayed in Europe and unleashed a torrent of allegations about Nazarbaev, including shady business deals, corruption, and sanctioning attacks on perceived government opponents.

Falling Apart In Grand Fashion

Rahmon and Berdymukhammedov seem headed toward clean hereditary transfers of power. Nazarbaev seems to be depending on a combination of a loyal successor combined with an inner circle of family members. Karimov once hoped for as much.

It is worth remembering that former Kyrgyz President Akaev was chased from office right after his two children were elected to parliament. Kyrgyzstan's people were unhappy for many reasons and the election of the president's children to parliament merely added fuel to the fire. The same for former President Bakiev, who was ousted from office about six months after he appointed his son Maksim to head Kyrgyzstan's economic development. Discontent was growing and these family appointments just angered people further.

The environment where these Central Asian presidential offspring have grown up also does not lend itself to great hopes for the countries of the region. As Putz said: "When it comes to handling challenges...the people in power haven't had to fight for their ideas to get where they are. They [just] had to tap their patronage network."

Taking that a bit further, the Central Asian leaders today have no claim on their countries past the fact they are the rulers because they have been the rulers. With the exception of Kyrgyz President Almaz Atambaev, all of the Central Asian presidents were originally put in their posts by someone more powerful than they were. They are not the heroes of a revolution, or noted public figures who worked their way to power. There is no historic bond or claim that can ensure the respect shown to the currents leaders would easily transfer to their kin.

The panel discussed these issues in greater detail and other matters also. An audio recording of the discussion can be heard below:

Majlis Podcast: Nepotism And Dynasty In Central Asian Politics
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* Karimov does have a son, Pyotr, from his first marriage, but Pyotr has reportedly not been in Uzbekistan for more than two decades. It is fairly well known that Nazarbaev does have other children, including a son, from his second and third wives who both live outside the country.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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