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What Central Asian Succession Looks Like

The death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov (center) has brought the issue of succession in neighboring Central Asian countries into sharp focus. Also pictured: Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (left) and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right).
The death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov (center) has brought the issue of succession in neighboring Central Asian countries into sharp focus. Also pictured: Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (left) and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right).

The announcement of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's death at the start of this month seems to have touched off a chain reaction in Central Asia. After years of wondering what the succession processes would look like in the region, we are now getting a glimpse of how these things work.

To look at how these succession schemes are playing out, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, a panel, to discuss the current efforts being made on behalf of a second head of state.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Scotland, we were joined by our friend Dr. Luca Anceschi, chair of the Central Asian Studies Center at the University of Glasgow. Participating from Washington was Erica Marat, assistant professor and director of the Homeland Defense Fellowship Program at the College of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University and author of numerous articles on Central Asia. And Bakhtiyor Nishanov, deputy director of Eurasia at the International Republican Institute from Washington D.C., also took part from Washington. I've been waiting for these moments in Central Asia for a couple of decades, so I was in on this also.

The focus of the talk was Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. All three countries took steps related to the position of the second leader of their countries.

The first to move was of course Uzbekistan, driven to action by the death of longtime leader Karimov. Authorities stalled on naming an interim leader in the first days after the September 2 announcement of Karimov's death.

Sidestepping The Constitution

Constitutionally, the powers of the president should have transferred to the chairman of the Senate, Nigmatullo [Nigmatillo] Yuldashev. Instead, at a joint session of parliament on September 8, Yuldashev declined the responsibility and urged that the job go to Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev.

Nishanov noted, "The constitution was specifically amended to prevent this kind of power grab, to prevent the prime minister coming in and just talking over."

Ignoring the constitution in Uzbekistan is nothing new. Authorities there disregarded the two-term presidential limit when Karimov was elected to a third term in 2007 and a fourth term in 2015. In both those cases the seven-year term also expired well before the elections were held.

Nishanov said Uzbekistan has demonstrated "complete disregard for the constitution" in this transition process, which may bode ill for the country's future.

But it's not just Uzbekistan.

Following the death of Turkmen Saparmurat Niyazov in late December 2006, the constitution of Turkmenistan was similarly overlooked. There, too, the chairman of the Senate was constitutionally next in line to take over as acting president. But that person, Ovezgeldy Ataev, was arrested shortly after the official announcement of Niyazov's death and Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was named acting leader.

Berdymukhammedov won the February 2007 presidential election despite a constitutional prohibition on an acting head of state running in such polls.

Authoritarian Agendas

Parliament passed amendments to Turkmenistan's constitution on September 15 that lifted an age limit (70 years) and extended the presidential term from five to seven years, paving the way for Berdymukhammedov to remain in power until he dies.

Anceschi said the constitutions the Central Asian states approved in the early 1990s were "in most cases highly presidential," and he added, "They've [the constitutions] been amended with authoritarian agendas in mind, and that entrenched even further authoritarian politics."

The amendments to Turkmenistan's constitution were passed less than two weeks after Karimov was officially declared dead. It is true the proposed changes to the constitution were first announced in early January and published, for "public discussion," in February. But the date for parliament to vote on the amendments was never entirely clear, only that it would happen in the second half of the year.

Karimov's death might have spurred Turkmenistan's second president to have the measures passed sooner.

Nazarbaev Shuffles The Deck

The death almost certainly seems to have affected the succession preparations in Kazakhstan.

"Seeing what happened over there in Uzbekistan, considering that [Kazakhstan's President Nursultan] Nazarbaev is only two years younger than Karimov… it must have had some impact on his way of seeing the future," Anceschi said. He added, "I think that what we've seen in the last week is the beginning of a transition."

Nazarbaev started to shuffle government officials on September 8. Among the changes, Nazarbaev moved trusted ally Prime Minister Karim Masimov over to head the Committee for National Security [KNB]. Some saw this as a demotion but in Uzbekistan the relatively smooth transition of power has been overseen by the shadowy head the National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov.

Nazarbaev might be imitating that strategy of a trusted figure being in charge of national security as a guarantee for the president's family after the president is gone. Masimov is additionally well suited to this job since he is part ethnic Uyghur and so cannot aspire to the presidency because that would risk angering neighbor and major trading partner China, as Beijing has been trying to suppress Uyghur nationalist sentiment in the western Xinjiang region [bordering Kazakhstan] for decades.

Grooming A Successor?

Nazarbaev named Deputy Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintaev as prime minister. Sagintaev emerged from relative political obscurity at the end of 2015, appearing ever more frequently in the media, and addressing an increasingly wide range of issues.He appears to have been groomed for something.

Nazarbaev's eldest daughter Darigha was appointed to the Senate on September 13, sparking speculation she might succeed her father. As in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, according to Kazakhstan's constitution the speaker of the Senate takes over in the event a president cannot perform the duties of office. Darigha is only a Senator now, but some feel it is just a matter of time before she rises to become speaker.

However, Marat said it was unlikely Darigha would ever be president. "When you look at Kazakhstan, I think the power transition is going to be different because in Kazakhstan the structure of the state and political elites is different," she said. "There's more competition and there is more bureaucracy, in the good sense of it."

"Tajikistan is the only contender for dynastic rule, power transfer, the son [of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon] is groomed to possibly become the next leader," she added.

It does seem that succession in Kazakhstan will be more complicated than in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. As Marat and Anceschi said, there are strong political and economic elites in Kazakhstan.

It also appears some of the transition team for the succession is taking shape, raising questions about what Nazarbaev is planning for the near future.

The Majlis discussed these issues in greater detail and looked at questions of popular acceptance for the second leaders, the durability of current policies, differences between an election and a coronation, a bit about the current situation in Kyrgyzstan, and other topics.

An audio recording of the Majlis can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast: What Central Asian Succession Looks Like
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The views expressed on this podcast do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.