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Qishloq Ovozi

The elevation of Nazarbaev’s eldest daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, to a Senate seat completes the list of key movements.

The hidden face of power in Central Asia came to the fore during Nursultan Nazarbaev’s visit to Samarkand, the burial site of his recently departed Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov. The Kazakh president cut a lonely figure while praying at Karimov’s tomb and used emotional tones in remembering the Uzbek leader, with whom he entertained a turbulent working relationship for over 30 years. While contemplating Karimov’s demise, how could Nazarbaev not be confronted by his own personal and political mortality? Was he not affected at all by the sight of the grieving Karimov family and by the absence of Gulnara, who was not allowed to attend her father’s funeral?

Analyzing regional politics through grand narratives that focus on more or less collective regimes, dominated by authoritarian elites with not-so-transparent transnational business interests, may be ultimately right but fails to capture in full the personal dimension of how power is understood, digested, and exercised across Central Asia. This personal dimension becomes even more crucial to investigate the era of aging leadership, while reflecting on the processes through which power is transferred within the regional states. This latter proposition might have just been lent some significant extra weight by a series of political developments that recently took place in Kazakhstan.

While Uzbekistan’s elites navigate through the post-Karimov transition, the Kazakh government embarked upon an extensive reshuffle whose official motive is the need to steer the country’s economy through a protracted period of crisis. In what is only apparently the latest edition of the game of musical chairs that has come to define Kazakh elite politics, Bakytzhan Sagintaev became prime minister, replacing Karim Masimov, reassigned in turn to head the KNB -- the National Security Committee. The appointment of long-term top cadre Imangali Tasmagambetov to a deputy ministerial position and the elevation of Nazarbaev’s eldest daughter, Darigha, to a Senate seat complete the list of key movements, while a series of more marginal appointments and dismissals followed on the tradition of instability that has permeated intra-elite relations in recent years.

We think that the series of government appointments completed from September 8-13 in Kazakhstan set in motion a post-Nazarbaev transition, putting into place a government team likely to manage the power transfer instigated by the president’s voluntary resignation -- which could come within months.

While this drastic take on the Kazakh reshuffle could be regarded as nothing more than speculation, the intersection of two key factors -- and a lot of Kazakhstan-watching -- convinced us that the recent government reorganization is more than routine. Timing is perhaps the most visible of these factors.

Less than two weeks separated Karimov’s funeral and Sagintaev’s appointment as Kazakh prime minister. As we will see below, Sagintaev has been groomed for a top job for at least one year, making his accession to power almost simultaneous to the elevation of Shavkat Mirziyaev to the helm of post-Karimov Uzbekistan more than coincidental. Rather, it appears to be a decision intended, more or less explicitly, to open up a new era. Nazarbaev, perhaps not accidentally, used the same expression -- a new generation of leaders -- to define both the emerging Mirziyaev regime in Uzbekistan and the Kazakh government shaped in the round of appointments recently approved by Ak Orda. Nazarbaev’s visit to Samarkand -- and the likely realization that his time at the helm is inexorably running out -- might have convinced the Kazakh leader to make public a series of intra-elite arrangements that have been sealed in the last 12 to 18 months. Placing Darigha Nazarbaeva in the Senate, as we will see below, might be integral to these arrangements.

There has been very little room for coincidental developments in Central Asia’s post-Soviet authoritarian experience. The scholars and the media outlets framing the international debate on Eurasian politics concluded that the regional regimes have borrowed from each other’s authoritarian playbooks, promoting the regional diffusion of authoritarian practices. Is it reasonable to categorically rule out that these regimes also borrowed short-term technologies of power, and particularly those that are crucial to solving political conundrums as complex as those linked to leadership succession? Framing an answer to this question identifies in turn the second factor that persuaded us of the extraordinary nature of the recent Kazakh reshuffle.

Imangali Tasmagambetov
Imangali Tasmagambetov

Whatever we may think of the Uzbek power transition, this process has been, at least to date, very orderly. Its adaptation to the Kazakh landscape, as some official media had already begun to acknowledge, might contribute to strengthening local stability at the difficult time in which the “first president” contemplates leaving office. Prearranged transitions become in this sense part of the process of regime preservation, inasmuch as appointing a transitional government now is an efficient way to deal with leadership change in the future. Insofar as post-Karimov Uzbekistan is ruled by a presidential candidate with potentially large appeal by virtue of his prominence (Mirziyaev) supported by an eminence grise who operates behind the scenes (Rustam Inoyatov), Kazakhstan’s recent reshuffle brought to the limelight a prime minister with an impeccable ethnic profile (Sagintaev), whose premiership is strengthened by an apparently ironclad alliance with the KNB leader (Masimov). The establishment of a transitional diarchy -- which we expect to adopt conveniently nationalistic agendas -- characterized both the Uzbek transition and the Kazakh government reshuffle, just as it did with the power transfer that, in 2006-07, resulted in the emergence of the Berdymukhammedov regime in post-Niyazov Turkmenistan. Combining presidential candidates featuring appealing profiles with strongmen operating in the shadow might hence be Central Asia’s solution to the political puzzle linked with the transition originating in the demise of the first generation of post-Soviet presidents.

More elements pointing out to the extraordinary nature of the Kazakh reshuffle are located in the new leaders’ biographies, the circumstances surrounding their accession to power, and in a series of other elite movements completed in September, of which the appointment of a new head for Kazakhstan’s Central Electoral Commission is perhaps the most intriguing.

Bakytzhan Sagintaev’s September 8 appointment to prime minister was hardly surprising. Kazakhstan’s media have increasingly reported on Sangintaev’s activities as deputy prime minister throughout 2016. He has been the Kazakh government’s point man for delivering news on the country’s declining economic fortunes, but also on trade with China, the Trans-Caspian Corridor to renew trade with Ukraine via routes that avoid Russia’s territory, aid to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, agriculture, new Caspian port facilities and other matters. The media reports of his policy work seemed designed to publicize Sagintaev’s breadth of knowledge.

Sagintaev has also been a deputy director of LUKoilneftegazstroy projects in Kazakhstan and is on the board of directors at the state nuclear company Kazatomprom. He has served as governor of Kazakhstan’s industrial northeastern Pavlodar Province and was minister for regional development. He is also deputy chairman and member of the political council for the ruling Nur Otan party, which Nazarbaev heads.

In May 2016, Sagintaev was selected to chair the Land Commission, an ad hoc body tasked to mitigate the tensions that erupted after the enactment of the controversial legislation on public land actions. The 2016 antireform protests constituted a rare moment of visible instability in Kazakhstan’s relatively peaceful state-society relations. Sagintaev’s chairmanship confirmed that he was ultimately entrusted to play a crucial role in shaping the regime’s response to one of the most dramatic crises in Kazakhstan’s independent history, suggesting, at least to us, that he was to be regarded as a key member of the elites dominating the late Nazarbaev era. We hence regard the accession to the post of prime minister as a most natural conclusion for Sagintaev’s irresistible rise to power.

Sagintaev’s wife, Galiya, is the daughter of Karatay Turysov, a top official in Soviet Kazakhstan throughout the 1980s. Turysov was a mentor to Nazarbaev during this time. After independence, Nazarbaev rewarded Turysov by making him minister of tourism and sports (1991-1993) and head of the Central Election Commission (1993-1995).

Karim Masimov is now head of Kazakhstan's KNB, the National Security Committee.
Karim Masimov is now head of Kazakhstan's KNB, the National Security Committee.

Karim Masimov was moved from prime minister to head of Kazakhstan’s KNB. Masimov has roots in the KGB, during the Soviet era, and KNB after independence, so his appointment to head the security service represents a return to his former profession, albeit this time in the top position. Masimov’s first deputy in the KNB is Samat Abish Satybaldy-uly, Nazarbaev’s nephew. We heard many rumors suggesting that, behind the scenes, it is former head Zhumakanov who continues to run the KNB’s daily operations. The rationale for Masimov’s appointment is, in this sense, closely related to his long-term loyalty to Nazarbaev, who probably sees Masimov’s KNB tenure as a tool to balance out a series of intra-elite cleavages.

Also on September 13, Darigha Nazarbaeva was given a seat in the Senate. For now, she is one of Kazakhstan’s 47 senators but earlier speculation suggested that she would eventually become the Senate’s speaker, the cadre who becomes acting president in the event the president becomes unable to perform the duties of office. However, few see her as succeeding her father, though Darigha is likely to occupy a top government post after Nazarbaev ceases to be president.

In trying to gauge Nazarbaev’s possible intentions concerning his future as president, the most telling of the recent appointments may be moving Berik Imashev from Justice Minister to chairman of the Central Election Commission. Moving a justice minister over to head the CEC is not new in Kazakhstan. Onalsyn Zhumabekov made such a switch in 2005, when Zagipa Balieva moved from CEC head to justice minister. Imashev’s daughter Aida, incidentally, is married to Nurali Aliev, Darigha Nazarbaeva’s eldest child. Darigha, reportedly, did not attend the wedding.

Appointments of CEC chiefs have never come as part of a larger reshuffle of top officials such as that completed between September 8-13. There are no elections scheduled in Kazakhstan until the presidential vote in 2020.

Many expect Nazarbaev to remain president until the time of his death, following the regional praxis established by Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan, Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, and of course Islam Karimov. It may, however, be worth remarking that should Nazarbaev step down from office voluntarily, he will retain significant power and influence.

The constitutional amendments introduced in 2000 and 2010 guarantee the rights of the “First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan” to such an extent that Nazarbaev would still, in fact, be leading the country even after his resignation. Amendments and supplements to the legislation “On the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan -- the Leader of the Nation” give Nazarbaev the right to address the people of Kazakhstan, parliament, government agencies, and officials on matters of “state construction, domestic and foreign policy and national security.” He would also be a member of the country’s Constitutional Council and the Security Council.

There is also a raft of guarantees against insult, investigation, and prosecution. Nazarbaev “cannot be brought to responsibility for actions committed during exercising of powers of the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and after their termination.” Additionally, “Bank secrecy and integrity of the bank accounts of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan -- the Leader of the Nation and members of his family living together with him is guaranteed.”

The issue of his legacy remains central to any speculation on the president’s voluntary retirement -- imminent, eventual, or hypothetical this decision may actually be. His political legacy has visibly concerned Nazarbaev since the earliest days of independence. He has unveiled strategies running through 2020, 2030, and then 2050, in which he set ambitious agendas, economic as well as social, aimed at placing Kazakhstan among the world’s Top 30 economies. Under Nazarbaev, Kazakhstan has significantly increased its energy clout, has become a leading grain exporter, and the world’s top uranium producer. The standard of living and average income in the country have significantly improved, far outstripping Kazakhstan’s Central Asian neighbors. Nazarbaev considers himself the Father of the Nation; many could say with good reason that he has overseen the creation of a successful country.

The post-Zhanaozen years, however, have seen the progressive erosion of Nazarbaev’s image of success. While Kazakh politics has become more authoritarian, the economy has been shrinking, hit as it was by a dual crisis that involved a rapid collapse in oil production and a sharp contraction in energy revenues. Living standards are declining and the socio-economic gap between Kazakhstan’s urban centers and its rural areas is widening. His legacy now appears to be in danger.

The emotional wave resulting from Karimov’s death re-created a set of political circumstances in which Nazarbaev’s voluntary resignation from office would enhance and cement his reputation, both at home and internationally, immediately and historically. Kazakhstan’s legislative framework is designed to preserve the presidential power even after a voluntary abdication from the presidency. Looking at the Kazakh transition from this perspective, and considering that a (relatively) younger elite is inevitably rising, the September reshuffle seems more than a routine exercise.

Luca Anceschi is a lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow; RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service contributed to this report
(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL)
Uzbek migrant workers in Moscow. (file photo)

Qishloq Ovozi is pleased to welcome Joanna Pares Hoare and her review of a book edited by Marlene Laruelle on the always important topic of migration, both within Central Asia and to destinations outside the region. Joanna's bio is below but her work made its way to the Qishloq via CESMI. Please visit their website.

Laruelle, Marlene, ed. (2013), Migration And Social Upheaval As The Face Of Globalization In Central Asia, Leiden and Boston: Brill

On August 27, 14 young women labor migrants from Kyrgyzstan were killed in a fire at a print works where they worked in Moscow. The tragedy of their deaths brought home the enormous risks facing many labor migrants when they leave their homes to seek work and other opportunities in Russia and elsewhere. In Kyrgyzstan, this tragedy has also prompted much soul-searching and public discussion. What does it mean to be a nation that cannot offer its young people a viable future within its own borders, and has to send them abroad in order to ensure their and their families' survival?

Published three years ago, this edited collection does not seek to answer difficult questions of this sort, brought into such sharp relief by this tragic event in Moscow. It does, however, go a long way toward providing the contextual analysis needed to begin to address them. Divided into four sections -- Flows, Remittances, And Government Policies; Migratory Strategies As Patterns Of Adaptation To Social Upheaval; An Evolving Social Fabric: Mobile National And Individual Identities; and Impact On Gender Relations: Masculinity And Femininity In Flux -- the book presents a series of fascinating studies of the processes, from the micro up to the macro, that are fueling the mass movement of people within and beyond Central Asia.

At the macro level, every chapter includes analysis of the harsh socioeconomic conditions that constitute the principal 'push' factors for migration in the region's three "sending countries" (i.e., countries that send economic migrants abroad) -- Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- both from village to city, and outward to Russia, Kazakhstan, and further afield. Given the timing of this book it is not surprising that two chapters look specifically at the effects of the 2008-09 financial crisis on migration and remittance flows.

Drastic Impact

Erica Marat, in her chapter Labor Migration During The 2008-2009 Global Economic Crisis, assesses these effects at the regional level, while Saodat Olimova considers the Tajik situation in To Stay Or Not To Stay: The Global Economic Crisis And Return Migration To Tajikistan. Both conclude that the downturn in the Russian economy had a drastic impact on the level of remittances sent back to the sending countries Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, although remittances had returned to pre-crash levels by 2010-11. However, this was not brought about by a mass return of labor migrants to their home countries (as many experts had predicted would happen), for the simple reason that most could not afford the journey home. In fact, Marat's analysis found that the number of people leaving for Russia actually went up in 2009, as families in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan suffered the effects of the crash on remittances and on domestic economies.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

At the micro level, Nafisa Khusenova's chapter on The Feminization Of Tajik Labor Migration To Russia explores the role of traditional institutions of migration such as avlod (a patrilineal line of descent uniting an extended family, traced back several generations) in Tajikistan in determining who leaves for Russia and when at the level of the extended family. Khusenova also considers the way that women in Tajikistan are now being "pushed" into migrating by difficult socioeconomic conditions, despite the fact that gender norms in Tajikistan mean female migrants face condemnation and disapproval.

Aspirations, Social Status

Elsewhere, in two chapters on migration within and from Uzbekistan, (From Uzbek Qishloq To Tajik Samarkand: Rural Depopulation As A Migration Of Identity and Economic Migrations From Uzbekistan To Moscow, Seoul, And New York: Sacrifice Or Rite Of Passage?), Sophie Massot considers how individual and family aspiration -- for increased social status as well as material gain -- shape the decision to migrate, factors also considered by Stephanie Belouin in her chapter on Projects And Migratory Strategies Of Women Belonging To The Tashkent Intelligentsia.

Interwoven are accounts of the effects of migration from and within this region on these societies, considering a wide range of factors. In her chapter, Sophie Hohmann draws together an assessment of the various impacts of migration on health in Tajikistan, encompassing the heightened risk of labor migrants in Russia contracting HIV and various sexually transmitted diseases, the "brain drain" of doctors from Tajikistan that has left the health system on the point of collapse (a theme taken up again by Khusenova), and internal migration as a factor in poor infant and maternal health outcomes, as young married pregnant women move between village and city and fall between health-care providers.

Madeleine Reeves' fascinating exploration of Migration, Masculinity, And Transformations Of Social Space In The Soh Valley, Uzbekistan "considers ... the way in which migration decisions are shaped by situated understandings of appropriate male and female behavior on the one hand and, on the other, how migration itself becomes constitutive of normative ideas about masculinity and femininity" (p. 308). In a community where the majority of families have at least one person who has migrated, migration affects every aspect of social relations, right down to how a son is seen to be fulfilling his duties toward his parents, and to intimate relations between wives and husbands.

Sense Of Identity

Several chapters deal with the profound effects of migration -- or of the desire to migrate -- on an individual's sense of identity, who they are and where they belong in the world, including those by Adeline Braux (Azerbaijanis In Russia: An Imagined Diaspora?), Luisa Piart (Transition, Migration, Capitalism: Female Uzbek Shuttle Traders In Istanbul), and the chapters by Sophie Massot, Sebastien Peyrouse, and Stephanie Belouin.

The historical context is also given due consideration throughout, reminding the reader that Central Asia has long been a region of migration, voluntary and forced. This has included the seasonal movements of nomadic populations, and the waves of migration from other parts of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

The exodus of "Europeans" from Central Asia in the early 1990s and today's mass movement of migrants from village to city, and to Russia and further afield, are the outcome of these earlier movements, as well as representing their continuation. For instance, one "pull factor" drawing internal migrants to cities in the 1990s was the availability of cheap urban housing that had been vacated by departing Russian-speaking populations. These themes are explored in depth in chapters by Aida Aaly Alymbaeva (Internal Migration In Kyrgyzstan: A Geographical And Sociological Study Of Rural Migration) and Sebastien Peyrouse (Former Colonists On The Move: The Migration Of Russian-Speaking Populations).

As Marlene Laruelle points out in her introduction, Central Asia has until now mainly been overlooked in international studies on migration. This edited collection is an important first step in rectifying that omission, and will also be of great interest to any reader keen to further their understanding of contemporary Central Asian societies.

Joanna Pares Hoare holds a PhD in development studies from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Her doctoral research considered gender and civil society in Kyrgyzstan, and how these concepts have been shaped and 'operationalized' by international development actors. Currently, she works as a researcher at Amnesty International.
The views expressed in this book review do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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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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