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Kazakhstan's 'Gray Cardinal' Anoints Presidential Heir Apparent

Timur Kulibayev -- Kazakhstan's leader-in-waiting?
Timur Kulibayev -- Kazakhstan's leader-in-waiting?
The rumor mill never stopped churning when it came to recent concern about Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's health. Now it's generating a new wave of speculation.

If the long-ruling president were to unexpectedly leave office -- a question that has gained traction following reports that Nazarbaev recently underwent prostate surgery in Germany -- we now have an official hint at who would fill his shoes.

It appears that Timur Kulibaev -- the president's billionaire son-in-law -- would be the one to succeed Nazarbaev, according to an interview presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbaev gave to Russia's "Kommersant" daily.

Kulibaev is increasingly coming under attack from Nazarbaev's political foes because they "perfectly understand that if an extraordinary situation arises in regard with a sudden departure of the head of the state, Kulibaev himself would be able to continue the president's strategic course," Yertysbaev said.

Kulibaev has "vast managerial experience" even though "he has never worked in government and hasn't been the governor of a province," the presidential adviser said. The comments appeared to be intended to counter those who seek to "demonstrate that Timur Kulibaev is not capable of the top job."

Yertysbaev, however, maintained that there was no immediate cause for alarm. He said the president underwent a routine medical check-up, and was the picture of good health and energy.

The 44-year-old billionaire Kulibaev, who is married to Nazarbaev's second daughter, Dinara, has long been tipped as the president's potential successor -- among a number of other possible "candidates."

The speculation was further fueled when Nazarbaev recently appointed Kulibaev to head Samryk Kazyna, a state holding that controls major sectors of the Kazakh economy, including energy, transport, gold, and uranium.

Comments by Yertysbaev are usually taken seriously, and often signal what is going on in the corridors of power in Astana. The long-term ally of the president is nicknamed by some the "gray cardinal" of Kazakh politics.

Yertysbaev's prediction, however, appears to belie the law of the land. The Kazakh Constitution makes no allowance for a relative to take over in the event of the leader's sudden departure.

This is what the constitution states unambiguously in Section III, Article 48:

"In case of premature release or discharge of the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan from office as well as in case of his death the powers of the president of the republic shall be transmitted to the chairperson of the Senate of the parliament for the rest of the term; if the chairperson of the Senate is unable to assume the powers of the president they shall be transmitted to the chairperson of the Mazhilis of the parliament; if the chairperson of the Mazhilis is unable to assume the powers of the president they shall be transmitted to the prime minister of the republic."

-- Farangis Najibullah