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The Week In Russia: Do Kremlin Bosses Dream In Kazakh?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) could be looking for inspiration in the way his old Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbaev, has stepped down but is still keeping his irons in the fire.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) could be looking for inspiration in the way his old Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbaev, has stepped down but is still keeping his irons in the fire.

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Like those of tycoons, officials, and activists who have fallen afoul of the Kremlin, the trial of human rights defender Oyub Titiyev contained plenty of procedure and -- according to the defendant and his allies -- zero justice. And in resigning as president but keeping key roles, did long-ruling Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbaev just hand Vladimir Putin a cheat sheet for the 2024 Question?

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

All About The Process

There are several terms for "trial" in Russian: One of them is sud; another -- as you know if you’ve browsed in a Russian bookstore in the last 30 years, seeking something new to read but only finding that revolving stand with the same 30 or so paperbacks by Latin American and Central European authors such as Kafka -- is protsess: process.

That’s "court process" for short. And at courts in post-Soviet Russia, trials tend to be long on process – particularly at the end, when the judge can take hours or even days reading out a verdict that in the vast majority of cases is the same: guilty as charged.

That was certainly true of the trial of Oyub Titiyev, the head of the human rights group Memorial’s office in Chechnya, who was sentenced to four years in a type of penitentiary called a colony-settlement following a drug-possession trial denounced by Human Rights Watch as a “tragic farce.”

Oyub Titiyev in the Shali court earlier this month
Oyub Titiyev in the Shali court earlier this month

The verdict was never in doubt: Titiyev himself – a 61-year-old father of four who friends describe as a devout Muslim who does not drink or do drugs – predicted in a final statement at the court in the Chechen town of Shali that he would be convicted. It would take no law degree to see “the absurdity of this case,” he said.

But throughout the trial and when the time came time for a ruling, Judge Madina Zainetdinova adhered strictly to procedure, reading out the verdict as Titiyev – jailed since January 2018 -- stood in a courtroom cage and rested his elbows on a crossbar. It took more than nine hours, despite Zainetdinova’s deft speed-reading, and it was dark outside when she pronounced the sentence.

Trial Or Trolling

“The attitude was to show Titiyev, ‘Do you want everything by the book?’ Well, here you go. A little form of humiliation,” the British newspaper The Guardian quoted Oleg Orlov, a senior leader of Memorial who attended the hearing, as saying.

While rights groups, journalists, and other observers found some of the details of the prosecution’s case against Titiyev particularly outrageous or incredible, there was nothing new about a trial that follows procedure to the letter while grinding to an outcome that is widely believed to have been determined by Putin’s government in advance.

Tweeting from the hearing in Shali, Associated Press reporter Nataliya Vasilyeva pointed to a phenomenon she has “seen in every courtroom” from the second trial of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in 2010, to that of Titiyev: “The charges may be dubious, the bias to favor the prosecution clear, but they make the point of observing the most minute court procedures.”

Titiyev said that his trial had “broken records for hypocrisy and cynicism."

But at nine-plus hours, the verdict reading fell far short of setting any new marks.

In Khodorkovsky’s second trial, it took the judge four days to read the 800-page verdict and hand the long-jailed Putin foe six more years in prison; he served 10 years behind bars before he was pardoned, released, and removed from Russia in 2013.

In his first trial, the verdict lasted about two weeks, with a three-judge panel taking turns and the defense accusing them of reading as slowly as possible – trolling, that is, years before the term for the common practice became common.

Show Trials

And as the show trials of the Soviet era, um, show, the tendency to cloak injustice in letter-perfect adherence to process goes back to the '70s and beyond, at least as far as the Stalin era.

And it’s not limited to the judicial branch. Over two decades as president or prime minister, Putin has managed to maintain his place at the pinnacle of power without violating the Russian Constitution.

So far.

A year after his election to a six-year fourth term, the abrupt resignation of an even longer-ruling president in another former Soviet republic has once again trained a spotlight on Putin’s future plans and thrown the 2024 Question – barred from running for reelection that year, will he seek to stay in power anyway, and if so, how? -- into sharp relief.

The long-lasting leader is Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, who was the Communist Party boss of Kazakhstan before Putin even returned home from his KGB posting in Dresden, East Germany and entered politics -- sort of -- as an adviser to Anatoly Sobchak, the late mayor of the city then still called Leningrad.

On March 19, at age 78, Nazarbaev announced he was stepping down but not away -- resigning as president but staying on as chairman of the ruling party and the powerful Security Council. Oh, and also keeping his status as “Elbasy,” which translates as Leader of the Nation and comes with lifetime immunity for himself and his family.

But wait, that’s not all!

Kazakhstan’s capital -- as well as streets in all of its cities and towns, if his so-far loyal successor’s “proposal” goes through -- will almost certainly soon be named after Nazarbaev, despite protests against the change.

Nazarbaev “exchanges the tedious minutiae of day-to-day governance for a position which combines security, prestige, and the scope to intervene in politics when he wants, ignore it when he can,” as analyst Mark Galeotti put it. “This may well be Vladimir Putin's dream scenario.”

But will he live the dream?

It seems likely that Putin, 66, would welcome a similar kind of semiretirement, with maybe a hemi- or demi- thrown in – especially if he watches over the next couple of years and sees that it’s working out well for his older acquaintance.

Such an arrangement might be much easier to put in place or more palatable than two of the other scenarios that are widely seen as potential ways for Putin to keep hold of Russia’s reins beyond 2024: abolishing term limits or heading up a closer union between Russia and Belarus.

Wouldn’t Want To Be You

The latter, regardless of how well hidden the real details of the arrangement might be, would require the consent of Belarus. For the foreseeable future, that means the consent of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who is two years younger than Putin and has been in power for about six years longer.

While Moscow has substantial economic leverage over Minsk, that consent could be next to impossible to obtain – as Lukashenka seemed to suggest when he said, during a rumor-stoking three-day visit with Putin in Sochi in mid-February, that the two countries “could unite as early as tomorrow” if their people wanted it.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) speaks with Putin in Sochi on February 15.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) speaks with Putin in Sochi on February 15.

But Belarusians decidedly don’t, he said back at home a couple of weeks later, when he stated that “98 percent of Belarusians would vote against becoming part of Russia."

Still, taking the helm of a beefed-up union with Belarus is one of the “options being explored” for Putin, Bloomberg reported on March 21. “Some within the ruling elite are pressing the Russian leader to remain president for as long as possible,” it said, citing three people close to the Kremlin who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Six More Years?

The second scenario -- scrapping the constitutional limit of two straight presidential terms and staying in the Kremlin until 2030, when he turns 72 – would badly damage Putin’s seemingly cherished record as a leader who can claim to play by the formal rules of the game, even if he breaks them informally and sometimes (such as with the takeover of Crimea in 2014) seems to want that known.

Plus, serving another six-year term as president may be something Putin – who is not shy about claiming he works hard, and in fact has sought to stress that by calling himself a “humble servant” and a “galley slave” – just does not want to do.

Galeotti thinks so. Putin’s goal, he wrote, might be “to find some way of, like Nazarbaev, ascending to this mystical position of power without responsibility either when his present term expires in 2024, or maybe even before, if the stars are right.”

But former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma wrote a book called Ukraine Is Not Russia, and that’s also true of Kazakhstan.

Unlike with Nazarbaev, “Nobody’s certain Putin could pull off a transfer of power without triggering destabilizing infighting among rival Kremlin camps that currently is held in check by his rule,” the Bloomberg article said. “The political and personal risks to Putin are high.”

In some ways, Nazarbaev had laid more groundwork for his gambit than Putin has to date.


National Leader

The Kazakh leader – whose face is often framed by the sun on the national flag in photographs – was granted “Elbasy” status by parliament in 2010, after an elaborate dance in which he claimed not to want it.

Putin certainly seems to want something similar. But substantial Kremlin efforts to give him an informal “national leader” mantle have had mixed results: People used the term fairly frequently for a while a few years ago, but then all but abandoned it – and since last summer, when he failed to avoid the fallout from a pension-reform plan that is raising the retirement age in a country where many never reached it in the first place, his poll ratings have looked less than national-leaderish.

And while critics say Putin has consolidated power by sidelining opponents, stifling dissent, muzzling the media, and cheating at elections, most Russians have more experience with political plurality than their counterparts in Kazakhstan, where the authoritarian Nazarbaev has ruled with an iron fist since before the Soviet collapse of 1991.

One measure of how large the two leaders loom in comparison to one another can be found in the initiative to rename the Kazakh capital Nursultan.

Proposed by Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev shortly after he was sworn in as interim president on March 20, it was approved by parliament shortly after that, with no discussion by the public or officials in Astana itself – though tens of thousands of people have signed an online petition against the change, and a small protest was held outside the mayor’s office on March 21.

In Russia, the Kazakh initiative generated jokes reflecting wariness about any attempt to honor Putin in such a massive way while he is alive: “Thank god we already have a city named Vladimir,” one of them goes, referring to a regional seat east of Moscow that is named after a 12th-century leader of Russia’s precursor state and served as its capital for a time.

For Putin, another potential obstacle to a smooth transition from the presidency to a different but still secure and powerful role is the issue of a successor.

Like Father, Like Daughter

In Kazakhstan, Nazarbaev may go the family way. His daughter Darigha Nazarbaeva, 55, is a former deputy prime minister and was made head of the upper parliament house the day her father stepped down, putting her in the No. 2 position in Kazakhstan’s political hierarchy just over a year before a new presidential election is due.

Putin has assiduously shielded his two grown daughters from public scrutiny throughout his years in power, and any move to thrust one into the fray would be met with skepticism by that same public.

Amid a lack of obvious successors from the ranks of the government or parliament today, one of the most prominent – Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev – was already used to hold Putin’s place in the Kremlin in 2008-12, when he stepped aside and did a stint as prime minister to solve the problem of term limits.

Any move by Putin to bring former President Dmitry Medvedev back could meet resistance from a portion of the populace and rival factions in the elite.
Any move by Putin to bring former President Dmitry Medvedev back could meet resistance from a portion of the populace and rival factions in the elite.

There is talk that Putin could call on Medvedev again – a familiar face at a time when many Russians may fear instability – and steer him back into the Kremlin to do the dirty work, as he is already doing as prime minister, in charge of the troubled economy and vulnerable to blame when things go bad -- while Putin steps into a more ethereal role.

But millions of Russians eager for greater freedoms were deeply disappointed when Medvedev seemed to promise change but then switched places again to make way for Putin’s return to the Kremlin, leaving many with the impression that they’d been had. A move to bring him back could meet resistance from both a portion of the populace and rival factions in the elite.

'Only Envy'

Looking to his legacy, Putin may want to leave the presidency in 2024 or earlier – and thus claim to be playing by the rules even if he bends them by forging a powerful role, say, at the State Council, a largely ceremonial body that analysts say he might strengthen and use as a power base if he does leave the Kremlin.

But handing off the presidency, even to a carefully chosen successor, could expose Putin to the risk of being sidelined as the rival factions he balanced off against each other while in office jockey for power and money.

Putin “may find himself caught between a desire to preserve political legitimacy by making way for a successor and the challenge of keeping control of the system of power he’s built up over nearly two decades,” the Bloomberg article predicted.

“Putin can only envy” Nazarbaev’s moves to preserve his authority and cement his legacy while handing over day-to-day decision-making, it quoted Arkady Dubnov, a Moscow-based journalist and analyst who specializes in Central Asian affairs, as saying. “It won’t work for him.”

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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