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How To Be The Next Central Asian Leader

Four of Central Asia's leaders have got such a hold on power that it is hard to predict who will succeed them. (From left to right:) Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
Four of Central Asia's leaders have got such a hold on power that it is hard to predict who will succeed them. (From left to right:) Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

When 2016 started there were no national elections scheduled in any of the five Central Asian countries. By the end of January, Kazakhstan had called snap parliamentary elections and Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were planning referendums to change their constitutions and allow the current leaders to remain in power indefinitely.

To some it was another reminder that changes in leadership are coming closer in Central Asia, where two of the presidents are already well into their 70s. Speculation has been rife for many years about who might come to power next in the individual states but, in at least four of the five countries -- Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- the systems are so opaque that even guesswork is difficult.

For example, no one outside of Turkmenistan (and probably only a very few inside Turkmenistan) would have thought prior to first President Saparmurat Niyazov's death in late 2006 that Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov would have succeeded him to become Turkmenistan's second president.

This week, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a Majlis, a panel discussion, to look not at who specifically might succeed to the top posts in the Central Asian countries, but rather what path they would need to take to get there, whom they would need for allies, and what policies they would have adopt to gain legitimacy and support.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Julie Fisher Melton, author of "Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan & Argentina," joined the talk from Washington DC. Also participating from Washington was Reid Standish, a journalist with Foreign Policy and author of the recently published article After Predictable Elections, Kazakhstan's Autocrat Ponders Successor. Taking part from Bishkek was Edil Baisalov, a former presidential adviser, currently one of the leading political analysts in Kyrgyzstan. And, since the succession question in Central Asia has been one of my obsessions for quite some time, I also chimed in with a few comments of my own.

No Universal Road Map

Nearly 25 years after they became independent, the five Central Asian states are now very distinct countries, so there is no road map to the top that would apply to all. The succession process will be different in each country.

In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two largest countries in the region in terms of population, the presidents are the same people who were first secretaries of the Communist Party of their respective Soviet socialist republics when the U.S.S.R. disintegrated in late 1991. For citizens of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, who will be 76 in July, has been the only president they've known. The same is true in Uzbekistan where Islam Karimov, who turned 78 at the end of January, has been the leader since the very beginning.

Being the second president will be difficult in these countries. But to get even that far, such a person will need help.

Standish suggested, for example, that, in oil-exporter Kazakhstan, the business elites would be a desirable, possibly indispensable, ally in becoming the president. But, Standish noted, "If you look at Uzbekistan, a lot of that wealth and power is generated domestically, so… the security services will probably play a much larger role in Uzbekistan in a succession scenario [and] could even be the ones who take the reins of power."

As it stands now, the elites are almost certain to be the powerbrokers when it comes to installing the next Central Asian leaders. But this is an unwieldy basis for legitimacy in Central Asia as Melton pointed out. "I don't think… elite arrangements have anything more than a very temporary effect on legitimacy," she said, adding that, "in the long run, civil society is the hope for institutionalization from below and without institutionalization from below you'll continue to have change at the top that really leads to no change at all."

The Islam Factor

The leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan enjoy a legitimacy that derives in large part from their long tenures in power. Karimov and Nazarbaev can style themselves as "fathers of their nations," Standish said, while Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, in power since 1992, is playing on his image as the "originator of the peace," for his role in ending the 1992-1997 Tajik civil war. Such legitimacy, obviously, will not transfer to whomever comes immediately after them.

New leaders could find themselves in need of a new support base. If they choose, like the current leaders, to shun cooperation with civil society, where else could they turn?

Baisalov said the generational shift is already being felt in Kyrgyzstan and that "the new mass of [the] predominantly young population… is completely different." Baisalov explained, "Currently the most popular person in Kyrgyzstan is one of the preachers, he calls himself 'sheikh' but you cannot imagine one political or any other personality who is collecting so much of an audience… whose weekly videos are being watched by hundreds of thousands in Kyrgyzstan."

Islam has been a part of Central Asian politics for centuries. Despite the efforts of the region's distrustful presidents to mute its influence, Islam will increasingly be a factor in politics in Central Asia once again. Courting support among the faithful could help propel someone to the top position but it has always been a risky game in Central Asia, particularly for leaders who are not genuinely pious.

Russian Interests

Baisalov mentioned another key to succession in Central Asia -- the Kremlin.

"Russia will make sure that they play a role," he said. "They can deny recognition, they can try and interfere, they can try to provide some guarantees against, for example, if there is some security situation. The most important source of recognition and support and legitimacy will come from Moscow."

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the Kremlin would refrain from interfering if a leader emerged in one of the Central Asian countries who was overly pro-Western, or pro-Chinese, or pro-Islamic. Recognition of Russia's interests in Central Asia is almost a prerequisite to gaining power.

The panelists recalled the starkly different transitions of power already seen in Central Asia. Turkmenistan's transfer of power in December 2006 after the death of first President Niyazov was smooth but completely opaque.

Kyrgyzstan, in contrast, saw two revolutions (2005 and 2010) that ousted presidents and violence accompanied each. (The country is now governed as a parliamentary republic with the president serving as head of state.)

The first two presidents of Tajikistan (Rahmon Nabiev and Akbarsho Iskandarov) were both essentially driven from power in 1992 as the Tajik civil war started.

The panelists went into greater detail, reviewing the path to succession and discussing what a successor might do to stay in power.

You can listen to the full roundtable discussion below:

Majlis Roundtable: The Succession Question In Central Asia
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    Bruce Pannier

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