Four of the Central Asian presidents came to power during Soviet times in the 1980s as heads of the Communist Party’s republican branches. Tajikistan’s Imomali Rakhmonov came to power in 1992 and was named president two years later.
Why are the Central Asian leaders reluctant to leave office?
Muhammad Solih, the leader of the banned Erk opposition party of Uzbekistan, was the only challenger to Uzbek President Islam Karimov during the 1991 presidential election. He was eventually forced to flee the country and received political asylum in Europe.
In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, Solih said that if a president steps down in Central Asia he will lose not only political power, but also economic control. But the most important reason for those leaders to stay in office, Solih said, is a concern they have about their personal security in their postpresidency lives.
“They fear what the people’s attitude towards them might be if they leave office. This is the reason. If we take the case of the Uzbek president, it is more probable that retaliation will come from his allies [and not from the people]. Overall hatred towards [Karimov] is very visible [in Uzbekistan],” Solih said.
Karimov has ensured a string of privileges and benefits for himself in the event that he would leave office. In 2003, the Uzbek parliament approved the law on "Fundamental Guarantees on the Activities of Uzbek Presidents,” which gives former presidents and their immediate family members such privileges as life-long immunity from any criminal or legal prosecution. The law reads, “Ex-presidents cannot be detained, nor can they be subject to interrogation and search.” Once a president leaves office in Uzbekistan he becomes a senator for life. All ex-presidents and their relatives are also given life-long, state-funded personal security.
If Karimov were to leave office, he would be entitled to retain the current Tashkent suburban presidential residence. Future presidents would also receive such residences. Upon his death, his widow would receive a special pension regardless of any other sources of income she might have.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev have also secured similar laws in the event that they should also one day become former presidents.
Turkmen leader Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov has secured a presidency-for-life for himself, though, from time to time, he calls on the parliament to hold presidential elections.
Niyazov most recently did that on 2 February, when he said the country should see its next presidential election in 2008 or 2009 and that there should be at least three candidates. He also told lawmakers that the mandate of future presidents should be restricted to two terms.
"Presidential elections will be held, God willing. We will have at least three or four people [candidates] that will participate in the elections. They have the right to serve two presidential terms, as it says in our supreme law, in our constitution. If one becomes president for two terms, five years each, it is 10 years [in total]. Let’s not make it any longer than that. See, you did that [made an exception] for me because I am the first president. Let’s continue working a little bit longer. But for the [new] president, God willing, if there is a person who can honestly work and be popular among the people, then we will have a competitive election," Niyazov said.
When one of the Central Asian leaders steps down, it will change the political picture of the whole region. Kyrgyzstan may become the first Central Asian country to have a new president should Akaev decide not to run for reelection in the vote scheduled for October.
In the early days of independence Akaev was known as a proponent of democracy and Kyrgyzstan was known as an "island of democracy” in Central Asia. But the island has subsequently shrunk or even sunk altogether as presidential authority has been increased. The Akaevs’ control over various sectors of the economy has also increased greatly. Therefore, some observers say, his clan would not let him step down even if he wanted to because they are afraid of losing economic power if they lose political power.
Stephen Young, the U.S. ambassador in Bishkek, has gone on record as encouraging Akaev to step down. He has repeatedly given statements saying the United States would like to see a political succession in Kyrgyzstan.
The head of the Organization for Secuirty and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Center in Bishkek, Markus Mueller, also commented on a possible change of leadership in Kyrgyzstan. "I can't speculate on this," he said. "He, the president himself told me that he would not run [for another term in office]. He said [this to me] and he [also said it] several times, both in Germany and here. I can only believe that he is telling the truth -- that if he says so, he would not run [again]."
Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said that one of the most likely developments the Central Asian countries could see is the current presidents choosing an heir from their clans. “I think, [they will choose an heir] only from their clan since the political systems in Central Asia are highly clannish," Ryabov said. "[An heir] must be a high-ranking person from the clan, he must know all secrets of the clan, so to speak. He should also be able to make political decisions. It’s very important.”
Solih says it may be very hard for an Uzbek president to choose an heir from his clan. “[Uzbek President] Karimov doesn’t trust those people because he knows they are waiting for a moment when Karimov’s position weakens," he said. "Then they will be the first to betray him. It is his own fault because he has appointed those people who can’t speak the truth, who can’t criticize the president. I think there are no people in Karimov’s immediate surroundings [who he can appoint in place of himself].”
Solih said the only possible way out for Karimov is to start political reforms and economic liberalization as soon as possible so that he can rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the Uzbek people and the international community.