Accessibility links

Breaking News

Kazakhstan Shows Managed Transition Not The Smoothest Path In Central Asia

The transition from Nursultan Nazarbaev (left) to Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has already been bumpier than Kazakhstan's elite may have hoped.
The transition from Nursultan Nazarbaev (left) to Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has already been bumpier than Kazakhstan's elite may have hoped.

After Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev announced his retirement on March 19, it quickly became apparent that Kazakhstan's elites had a plan for the succession.

The next day, Senate Chairman Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, veteran Kazakh politician and longtime Nazarbaev friend and loyalist, took the oath of office as interim president. Toqaev praised Nazarbaev's leadership and proposed renaming the capital Astana in his honor. On March 23, three days after taking office, Toqaev signed the decree renaming the capital Nur-Sultan.

On April 9, it was announced the presidential election was being moved up from 2020 to June 9, 2019. On April 23, the ruling Nur Otan party held its nominating congress. Nazarbaev spoke, throwing his support behind Toqaev as the party's candidate for president and urging others to do the same. The 600 delegates attending the congress voted unanimously to make Toqaev the party's presidential candidate.

None of the six candidates registered to run against Toqaev in the presidential election has a chance of defeating the chosen successor.

But not everything has gone according to plan, it seems.

Some people in Kazakhstan have pushed back, protesting their seeming lack of choice in electing the country's next leader.

This is Kazakhstan's first transition of leadership, but it is not the first change of presidents in Central Asia.

There are some interesting comparisons between transitions of leadership in other Central Asian states and what is happening now in Kazakhstan. And one of the most interesting conclusions that could be drawn from these comparisons is that managed succession from a living president to hand-picked successor is the riskiest way to transfer power.

It is an example that countries such as Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, both of which seem to be considering family succession, should be watching closely.

How It Worked In Other Countries

During nearly 28 years of independence, there have been only two peaceful transfers of power from a living president to a successor. Both happened in Kyrgyzstan.

Roza Otunbaeva became Kyrgyzstan's interim president after the April 2010 revolution. Otunbaeva's case is unique since from the start, she indicated her position was only temporary and she would not seek to be elected, or publicly support any candidate, in the country's October 30, 2011 presidential election. She stepped down on December 1, 2011, when Almazbek Atambaev took the oath of office.

According to the constitution adopted in 2010, a Kyrgyz president can serve only one six-year term. Atambaev did step down at the end of his term, but not before attempting to see his own candidate elected president.

This was Central Asia's only example of a managed transition of power from a sitting president to a successor, until the recent situation in Kazakhstan. The Kyrgyz model did not end well.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov (right) and his predecessor, Almazbek Atambaev
Sooronbai Jeenbekov (right) and his predecessor, Almazbek Atambaev

Atambaev chose Sooronbai Jeenbekov to be his heir apparent. Jeenbekov was a former governor of the southern Osh Province, an important factor in Kyrgyzstan, where a balance of north and south has always played a crucial role in national unity (Atambaev is from the northern Chui Province).

Jeenbekov had been named prime minister in April 2016 and was a member of Atambaev's Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK). During the presidential campaign, Atambaev indicated that if elected, Jeenbekov would continue Atambaev's policies. There were some suspicions Atambaev intended to remain the real power in government with Jeenbekov as a figurehead.

If that was Atambaev's intention, he miscalculated badly. Jeenbekov won the October 2017 presidential election. But within six months of assuming office, Jeenbekov removed nearly all the top officials left from Atambaev's administration. Some officials who served during Atambaev's administration were detained and charged with corruption. Atambaev has criticized Jeenbekov several times, starting in late March 2018, and the SDPK has split because of the Atambaev-Jeenbekov feud.

However, critics and supporters of Jeenbekov could rightly say that Jeenbekov is at the least not a tool of Atambaev, and that might have contributed to the relative calm Jeenbekov has enjoyed since becoming president.

Transitions of leadership in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan occurred after the deaths of longtime leaders.

When Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, died in December 2006, he was succeeded by the virtually unknown health minister, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, through a process that to this day remains a mystery.

After the September 2, 2016 announcement that Uzbekistan's first president, Islam Karimov, died, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power through a similarly opaque process.

Though both Berdymukhammedov and Mirziyoev were officials in first presidents' administrations, they were not seen as obvious successors.

Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that when both men campaigned for the presidency, even though it was obvious they would win the presidential elections, they promised to make changes that would improve their people's lives in an attempt to win public support. Once elected, both cleared out many of the top officials they inherited from their predecessors.

The first transitions of leadership in Kyrgyzstan came as the result of revolutions, in 2005 and 2010. Part of the reason for the increasing hostility toward the first president, Askar Akaev, and second president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was their attempts to cement their hold over the office of the president, and bring their children into government. Akaev's. daughter Bermet and son Aidar won seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections. Bakiev's son Maksim was placed in charge of Kyrgyzstan's economy.

Quite naturally, those who came to power in the wake of these revolutions vowed to make significant changes to the unpopular policies of those ousted from power.

Tough For Toqaev

Toqaev's situation differs significantly. First, amendments made to Kazakhstan's constitution more than 15 years ago essentially give the country's first president the right to continue ruling the country. Toqaev might become president, but so long as Nazarbaev -- or "Elbasy," the leader of the people -- is still alive, it is Nazarbaev who has final say over almost all policy matters.

Second, there is the idea that Tokaev, who turns 66 on May 17, is only a transitional figure, holding the presidential position for someone else who is not yet ready to take over as Kazakhstan's president. Some of Nazarbaev's relatives have been mentioned as ultimate successors.

Third, and probably most important, Toqaev is promising to continue Nazarbaev's policies. Put differently, Toqaev is vowing not to change anything.

But it was the hope of change that helped Berdymukhammedov, Mirziyoev, Bakiev, and Atambaev get support, or at least patience, from the people of their countries early on in their terms in office. And all of them did make some positive changes in their first months as president. As long as Nazarbaev is alive, Toqaev is in a situation where he dares not make any big changes that could be interpreted as correcting Nazarbaev's failed policies.

Is Toqaev just keeping the chair warm for Darigha Nazarbaeva (right), as has long been assumed?
Is Toqaev just keeping the chair warm for Darigha Nazarbaeva (right), as has long been assumed?

It is hardly surprising then that for some people in Kazakhstan, particularly younger people who want something different, this managed transfer of leadership that seems to guarantee the status quo, keeping the top people at the top and leaving everyone else where they are now, is unattractive.

Expressions of discontent have already been seen in social-media campaigns in Kazakhstan, such as "We have a choice!" or "Nur-Sultan is not my capital, Toqaev is not my president, Darigha [Nazarbaeva, Nazarbaev's eldest daughter] is not my Senate speaker," or "Get out old man!"

Another slogan comes from a banner held by activists along the route of the Almaty marathon on April 21 that read "You cannot run away from the truth." And there was the banner hung on an Almaty overpass that quoted Kazakhstan's constitution: "The only source of state power is the people."

Examples of transfers of leadership in Central Asia to date show that to work smoothly, they must be accompanied by at least the possibility of change and improvements that would affect the majority of an individual country's population.

Some people wondered if Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha, might become Kazakhstan's president sometime soon, or perhaps Nazarbaev's nephew Samat Abish. Popular resistance to the appointment or election of a relative of Nazarbaev would likely be more than the resistance seen against Toqaev's impending presidency.

Managed transition to some people in Central Asia, perhaps many people there, means the rich get richer with the likelihood that the poor, the majority of the people, get poorer.*

It is a big problem for Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev at the moment. But it could also be a problem for Serdar Berdymukhammedov or Rustam Emomali if they attempt to succeed their fathers in, respectively, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

* For the record, since 1995 I've heard people in Central Asia tell me that a change of leadership just brings new empty pockets to fill. When I look back now, I see little difference. Leaders who stay in power for a long time, and the elites who cling to them, simply buy new clothes with bigger pockets.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

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


Blog Archive