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.
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 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)