Cholpon Orozobekova’s article for The Diplomat on Central Asia’s autocratic rulers is a fascinating look at the men who helped take the central ‘stans, particularly Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, from communism to “democracy.” Just as fascinating is the prospect, for each of these countries, of who will finally succeed the communist relics/reborn ‘democrats’ still hoarding power.
The president of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahman, is 63 and his current term ends in 2020. President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan is 77 but was just reelected in 2015 for another seven-year term. Finally, Kazakhstan’s sitting president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is 75 and was also just reelected in 2015, but to a five-year term in his case. These men, and their absolute control over the political, economic, and military facets of their countries, will have significant impact on the future of the Greater Caspian Region.
As mentioned in the article, President Emomali is the autocrat with the best plan for his eventual replacement. The Tajik constitution was recently amended to lower the minimum age of the presidency to 30 from 35. Not so coincidently, Rahmon’s son Rustam will be 32 when his father’s current term ends in 2020. This foresight is not surprising, however, as Tajikistan has been called profoundly risk averse when it comes to political change. Who better to replace the current ruler than his own son, groomed for most of his adult life to succeed his father as the Tajik president? In addition to all but ensuring his son’s ascendance after he leaves office, Rahmon was also able to get a law passed by the Tajik parliament to name him “Leader of the Nation,” an honorific that also comes with the ability to run for unlimited terms if he so chooses. Whether Rahmon steps down in 2020 or not, it can be assumed that Rustam will enjoy the same kind of ‘electoral support’ his father has for the last twenty years. Rahmon carried the previous three elections with 97%, 79%, and 83%, respectively. These results are unsurprising, however, given the repeated calls by international organizations about a lack of pluralism and genuine choice and fairness in Tajik elections. Whatever the next decade holds, it seems that Tajikistan has steadily worked to ensure its own warped sense of political stability so that there will be limited resistance to the transition to the next Rahmon president.
The issue of Uzbek succession and stability is one of great concern in the region. President Karimov is 78 years old with two daughters, one of whom is under de facto house arrest after being tied to over a billion dollars in bribes from international telecom companies. This detainment happened to coincide with a Swedish money laundering investigation into businesses owned by the Karimov family in general. Corruption is an overarching theme in Central Asia, but in Uzbek politics particularly, especially where the First Family is concerned. While Karimov wields tremendous political power, the overt nepotism and ostentatious displays of corruption-fueled wealth are the stuff popular uprisings are made of theoretically. With Karimov’s mortality rapidly approaching, dissent within the family, and no traditional or obvious chosen male ‘political heir,’ Uzbekistan seems ripe, at least potentially, for a true regime disruption in the coming decade as succession issues likely become forced to center stage.
President Nazarbayev appears less concerned with finding his successor than he is with using science to extend his own rule. He ordered the establishment of a research institute in 2010 that would study the “rejuvenation of the organism,” partially in an effort to extend his own life and, by extension, his reign. How much stock Nazarbayev puts in finding a modern-day scientific fountain of youth is debatable. However, the stock he puts in family cultivation and grooming is undeniable. Much like President Emomali of Tajikistan, Nazarbayev is actively grooming one of his offspring to eventually succeed him. In this case though Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga is the chosen successor. She has already ascended to the Deputy Prime Minister’s chair, effectively one step from co-ruling with her father when he’s ready to share power. Assuming that day comes, recent legislation grants Nazarbayev effective veto power over any political decisions, even after he has stepped down from office, as well as immunity from prosecution. How this will impact the effectiveness of his eventual successor’s ability to rule remains to be seen. While it should ease the transition, given that it seems likely Nazarbayev will spend several years only ‘semi-retired’ from the presidency at first, it could also backfire by undermining any sense of legitimacy and independence in his daughter’s subsequent rule.
The Future of Central Asian Security
A transition from autocratic rule is often dangerous, violent, and destabilizing to an entire region. Having three countries, all currently ruled by septuagenarians, that border each other and have to expect regime transitions in the next decade simply because of biology is the stuff regional nightmares are made of. Central Asia is also crisscrossed by natural gas and oil pipelines feeding the Russian and Chinese economies, two states that have shown a willingness to diplomatically coerce and intimidate these so-called Near Abroad countries. Since all three countries are highly susceptible to influence from Russia, and would likely be more so in the event of a contested or ineffectual succession, it is not outside the realm of possibility that they would be used as pawns against Chinese interests in the region as well. China’s massively important One Belt, One Road policy, which heavily utilizes the Central Asian region to bring about this trade/communication/globalization initiative, will have no less passionate an interest in seeing how succession maneuvers go. Any destabilizing influence could negatively affect all of these countries agendas, as well as the greater Caspian region writ large. Whatever the outcome, Central Asia is not exactly known for peaceful, bloodless power transitions that uphold the principles and hopes of consolidated mature democracy. Unfortunately, there is no reason to think this might change in the coming decade.