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Nepotism And Dynasty In Central Asian Politics

Combo photo of Central Asian leaders.
Combo photo of Central Asian leaders.

It seems a pattern of governance has emerged, or rather reappeared, in Central Asia: the dynasty. It's been clear for a long time that four of the five current leaders have no plans to leave office. But some of them are entering, or are well into, their twilight years of life and there are questions about their legacies, about what happens to their families after these leaders are gone.

The answer at the moment, in at least three of the five countries, seems to be: Keep the family in power, a second generation of leadership. The nepotism that was always present in Central Asian politics has become more obvious, more public, as of late.

To look at the Central Asian states' move toward dynasty, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel discussion.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Participating from Washington was Catherine Putz, Central Asia editor for Diplomat magazine; from London, Alisher Ilkhamov, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies; and from Bishkek, Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. I had something to say, too.

Excluding the Soviet period of the region's history, Central Asia has long been dominated by emirs and khans and their dynasties. Ilkhamov suggested the mentality for establishing family rule is a product of conditions in the region. Central Asia is traditionally rurally based and characterized by large extended families, "very much the household-based economy," Ilkhamov said. "Now we see the household economy and to some extent [a] household-based system of governance."

Ilkhamov used the example of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, who " grew up in a rural area and brought [a] pattern of lifestyle, relationship, [bringing] his entire extended family to the capital and tried to employ each of them."

Ozoda Rahmon

In January, legislation was introduced in Tajikistan (and subsequently approved in February) striking term limits for the president, allowing Rahmon, who has already been elected president four times, to stay on indefinitely.

Swerdlow noted other legislation lowered the "age eligibility for running for president from the age of 35 to 30, and there's been some speculation that that was done specifically for his oldest son, Rustam Emomali, who is now 28 years old." Tajikistan's next presidential election is scheduled for 2020.

Swerdlow also recalled that Rahmon's daughter "is now going to be chief of staff of the presidential administration." Rahmon appointed his 38-year-old daughter, Ozoda, to that post on January 27.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev was among the first of the Central Asian presidents to bring relatives into government. Nazarbaev, like Uzbek President Islam Karimov, has no sons.* Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, the husband of eldest daughter Darigha, started working in the state tax agency in 1996. In less than 10 years, Aliyev, who studied medicine, was the first deputy foreign minister of Kazakhstan and was widely mentioned as the successor to his father-in-law. It did not work out that way. (We'll get to that soon.)

Nazarbaev and his daughter Darigha attend a concert to celebrate his victory in the presidential election in Astana on April 27, 2015.

Darigha was a businesswoman, but after the turn of the century she became increasingly involved in politics. She's been a deputy in parliament since 2004. In 2015, she was named deputy prime minister. On December 26, 2015, Nazarbaev appointed his 37-year-old nephew Samat Abish to be first deputy chairman of the National Security Committee (KNB). Nazarbaev's grandsons, from the Rakhat-Darigha marriage, are Nurali Aliyev, 31, the deputy mayor of Almaty, and Aysultan Nazarbaev, 25, a graduate of Sandhurst Military Academy in Britain who currently works in Kazakhstan's Defense Ministry.

In Turkmenistan, it is more difficult to get a picture of what is happening with succession. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's grandson, Kerimguly, has appeared on state TV several times, usually with his grandfather. Kerimguly is far too young to be president, but such information (as is occasionally pried out of Turkmenistan) hints that Berdymukhammedov's son Serdar is being prepared to one day ascend to the presidency.

Tahir explained that Berdymukhammedov's son-in-law, Ykhlasgeldy Amanov, was the country's representative on energy issues in London and the president's sister is a suspiciously successful businesswoman in the Ashgabat area.

The situation is very different now in Kyrgyzstan, but that country was headed in the same direction, twice. Two children of Kyrgyzstan's first president, Askar Akaev, ran in the 2005 parliamentary elections and both won seats. Akaev's successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, made his brother Janysh head of security and then made his son Maksim essentially head of the country's economy. Maksim was in his early 30s at the time.

You Can Pick Your Friends But You Can't Pick Your Family

Putz observed that "seeding the government with relatives and the extended family works up until the point that it doesn't, and when it doesn't, it kind of falls apart in a grand fashion."

There have already been some examples of what can go wrong. Swerdlow pointed to the case of Uzbek President Karimov and his eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, who some once believed was a potential successor to her father. Karimova's use of social networks to accuse Uzbek officials of being enemies of her father and her criticism of her mother and sister were widely reported (outside Uzbekistan) and led to a spectacular downfall that ended in her being put under house arrest in Tashkent, where she remains.

Swerdlow said: "These family feuds...are the scandals and controversies that make these rulers look most vulnerable."

That was certainly true with Kazakhstan's Rakhat Aliyev. Convicted of the gravest crimes back in Kazakhstan -- including plotting to overthrow the government and his former father-in-law, President Nazarbaev -- Aliyev stayed in Europe and unleashed a torrent of allegations about Nazarbaev, including shady business deals, corruption, and sanctioning attacks on perceived government opponents.

Falling Apart In Grand Fashion

Rahmon and Berdymukhammedov seem headed toward clean hereditary transfers of power. Nazarbaev seems to be depending on a combination of a loyal successor combined with an inner circle of family members. Karimov once hoped for as much.

It is worth remembering that former Kyrgyz President Akaev was chased from office right after his two children were elected to parliament. Kyrgyzstan's people were unhappy for many reasons and the election of the president's children to parliament merely added fuel to the fire. The same for former President Bakiev, who was ousted from office about six months after he appointed his son Maksim to head Kyrgyzstan's economic development. Discontent was growing and these family appointments just angered people further.

The environment where these Central Asian presidential offspring have grown up also does not lend itself to great hopes for the countries of the region. As Putz said: "When it comes to handling challenges...the people in power haven't had to fight for their ideas to get where they are. They [just] had to tap their patronage network."

Taking that a bit further, the Central Asian leaders today have no claim on their countries past the fact they are the rulers because they have been the rulers. With the exception of Kyrgyz President Almaz Atambaev, all of the Central Asian presidents were originally put in their posts by someone more powerful than they were. They are not the heroes of a revolution, or noted public figures who worked their way to power. There is no historic bond or claim that can ensure the respect shown to the currents leaders would easily transfer to their kin.

The panel discussed these issues in greater detail and other matters also. An audio recording of the discussion can be heard below:

Roundtable: Nepotism And Dynasty In Central Asian Politics

* Karimov does have a son, Pyotr, from his first marriage, but Pyotr has reportedly not been in Uzbekistan for more than two decades. It is fairly well known that Nazarbaev does have other children, including a son, from his second and third wives who both live outside the country.

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    Bruce Pannier

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