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Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's surprise announcement turned out to be not so surprising -- amendments to the constitution.

Kazakhstan's main television channels quickly cleared primetime broadcasting space on January 25 when it was suddenly announced that President Nursultan Nazarbaev would speak to the nation on a matter of great importance. Nazarbaev's surprise announcement turned out to be not so surprising -- amendments to the constitution.

He had already brought it up in an Independence Day speech in mid-December, and on January 11 he created a working group from representatives of parliament, the government, the Supreme Council, and other state organizations, headed by presidential chief of staff Adilbek Zhaksybekov, to work out how to transfer some presidential powers to the parliament and the government.

The changes themselves are not very significant but the fact there are changes is important. President Nazarbaev turns 77 on July 6 this year and his speech was about a transition and a reminder the post-Nazarbaev era might not be too much further in the future.

To look at the speech, the reaction of Kazakhstan's people, and what it might or might not portend for Kazakhstan's future, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, a panel, to review what just happened and where these events might be leading the country.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Kazakhstan, veteran freelance journalist and photographer in Central Asia Edda Schlager joined. Also from Kazakhstan, journalist for the bne Intellinews.com website Naubet Bisenov participated. Our friend Dr. Luca Anceschi, lecturer in Central Asian studies at Glasgow University in Scotland, took part. This is a fascinating time in Kazakhstan, so I was happy to jump into the conversation also.

Schlager started by describing January 25. "Social media went quite hot in the afternoon because there was an announcement by the state-led media here in Kazakhstan that there will be this huge announcement by Nazarbaev in the evening," she recounted.

There was intense speculation about what might be coming. But Schlager said, "This speech was quite short and not so specific as we expected...he told [viewers] there are some changes to the constitution."

The specific proposed amendments were published the next day. Bisenov said, "What I can see is only some light, cosmetic changes to the relations between the government, the parliament, and president."

Bisenov noted that one change gives parliament the right to nominate candidates for key posts in the government, but "parliament is stuffed with representatives of the ruling party and other loyal parties...this is just a formality in my opinion."

But Anceschi said the significance of the proposed constitutional changes was that they are "not for the first-generation leader [but] rather for the second, so in that sense he [Nazarbaev] has acknowledged the fact that he's not going to be there forever."

Bisenov said there was another explanation for the speech, and the changes: "Kazakhstan has been experiencing a very serious crisis in the past two years and I think all this is part of distraction of public opinion to real problems."

Officially the amendments are now up for public discussion.

But as Schlager said, "People have economic problems after these devaluation moves during the last two years" and "I see that people are not really interested in politics."

The average citizen might not be closely following the changes in the domestic political scene, but the elite certainly are. And there have been many changes -- reshuffles, arrests -- starting back in September 2016, right after the president in neighboring Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, died at age 78, and continuing into January.

Anceschi suggested these changes could be "in order to create an establishment that is more conducive to preservation of power in a post-Nazarbaev era."

As far as the constitutional amendments, Anceschi said, "This is not going to lead to a democracy but we have to recognize that [even though] the actors on the scene may eventually change, the play will always be the same [and] it's a very authoritarian one."

It does not appear the amendments will be put to a national referendum; they will simply be adopted.

The panel discussed these and other aspects of the speech, the proposed changes to the constitution, and the possible significance for Kazakhstan's future. The Majlis also provided a chance to discuss the work on transition in Kazakhstan I was proud and pleased to co-author with Dr. Anceschi last September.

My thanks to members of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, for our many conversations about this topic.

You can listen to the full discussion below:

Majlis Podcast: Nazarbaev's Exit Strategy
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Listen to or download the latest Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis podcast on iTunes.

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

Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev had been serving as Dushanbe's mayor since 1996 before his surprise removal this month. (file photo)

One of the last major figures of Tajikistan's civil war era has just been removed from a key post he held for 20 years.

Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev might not be a name well known outside Tajikistan, but he has most certainly been someone well known to Tajikistan's people throughout its 25-year history as an independent country. Ubaidulloev is part of Tajikistan's history.

On January 12, many news outlets reported that Rustam Emomali, the 29-year-old son of Tajikistan's president, had been appointed mayor of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. Passing mention was made of the fact that the Tajik president's son replaced Ubaidulloev, who had been Dushanbe's mayor since 1996.

Ubaidulloev was once considered by many to be one of the most powerful people in Tajikistan, possibly the most powerful for a time.He was occasionally perceived as an enemy of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, and though he was often not loved by the people of Dushanbe, or Tajikistan in general, the fact that he could resist, and even confront Rahmon raised hopes that it could be possible one day to replace the long-time Tajik president.

Ubaidulloev is from Kulob, the same region as President Emomali Rahmon. When Tajikistan became independent in late 1991, Ubaidulloev was the deputy chairman of the Kulob region's executive committee.

After independence, Ubaidulloev quickly rose through the ranks of government. By 1992 he was deputy chairman of the cabinet of ministers, tasked with overseeing the energy ministries.

Tajikistan's civil war had started that same year and at the end of 1992, Rahmon, a little known figure until that time, was named speaker of parliament, which since there was no office of president at the time, made him effectively the head of the government.

In 1994, Rahmon was elected to the reinstated post of president and Ubaidulloev became first deputy prime minister. From 1994 to 1997, Ubaidulloev was part of Tajik government delegations that met at the negotiating table with the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), the government's opponents in the civil war, to try to reach a peace agreement.

Bizarre Incident

Rahmon was barely clinging to power during the civil war years. He was pulled and manipulated by outside powers, first and foremost Russia, which was propping up Rahmon's government during the civil war, but also by Iran and certainly by neighbor Uzbekistan.

In fact, Rahmon's weak hold on power led to Ubaidulloev becoming Dushanbe's mayor.

In February 1996, in one of the more bizarre incidents of the civil war, the commander of one of the government's best-equipped and best-trained units suddenly advanced on Dushanbe making demands for changes in the government.

Colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdiev threatened to attack the capital unless Rahmon sacked several top officials, Ubaidulloev among them. (The others were Prime Minister Jamshed Karimov, presidential chief of staff Izatullo Khayayev, and the head of the Khatlon region, Abduljalil Salimov.)

Rahmon acquiesced, but quickly gave Ubaidulloev the post of chairman, later mayor, of Dushanbe, where he remained until January 12, 2017.

It was during the last years of the 1990s that many felt it was actually Ubaidulloev who was running Tajikistan. He would interrupt when Rahmon was speaking in government sessions or parliament, and in meetings with other government officials he openly criticized Rahmon for being "too soft," or for nepotism and corruption.

The Tajik Peace Accord signed on June 27, 1997, ended open hostilities between the government and the UTO but it did not end the violence.Tajikistan was a dangerous place for several years after the official end of the war.

On February 16, 2000, a car bomb was placed in a vehicle in which Ubaidulloev was traveling. Ubaidulloev survived but the person in the seat in front of him, Deputy Security Minister Shamsullo Jabirov, was killed.

Two months later, on April 17, 2000, the upper house of Tajikistan's parliament, the Majlisi Milli, held its first session and Ubaidulloev was selected Senate chairman, the second highest post in Tajikistan. He still holds that post, for now.

Mixed Legacy

Ubaidulloev is known for being a tough person. His legacy as Dushanbe mayor will probably be mixed for residents of the Tajik capital.

Ubaidulloev expended great efforts on trying to modernize a city that really had not been anything more than a town where there was a bazaar every Monday, until the Soviet Union made Dushanbe into a regional center and later republic capital, though from 1929 to 1961 it was called Stalinabad.

Many buildings and flats were razed make room for modern structures. Often those losing their homes were poorly compensated.

Ubaidulloev also ordered an end to people keeping farm animals in the capital. He came out against women wearing the hijab or other, in his view, foreign Muslim attire. And he led the campaign against playing "loud," usually Western, music in Dushanbe, once branding rap music as "alien to national and universal human values."

With the exception of President Rahmon, Ubaidulloev was the last person from the civil war era to hold a top post in government.

Ubaidulloev will turn 65 on February 1. He is certainly eligible to retire.

But when state television showed footage of Rustam Emomali being officially named Dushanbe's mayor, the look on Ubaidolloev's face spoke volumes about what he was feeling.*

Ubaidulloev is a political survivor and has been for many years. We probably have not heard the last of him even if he is no longer mayor of Tajikistan's capital.

*You can see Ubaidulloev's reaction​ in this video, from 00:26 to 00:45 seconds. (Ubaidulloev is sitting in the center with Rustam Emomali to his left.)

Iskander Aliev from RFE/RL's Tajik Service, and Salimjon Aioub from RFE/RL's Russian-language Central Asia News service contributed to this report
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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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 some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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