Central Asia in Transition: Life After Nazarbayev?

Frédérick Maranda-Bouchard Analysis, Asia, Conflict & Security, Russia & FSU

We don’t like to be reminded of it, but we all die eventually. The most powerful amongst us might leave a legacy, but even this could be fragile if left in incompetent hands. The grooming of a successor is an essential yet frustrating task for a ruler that fears the end. On the one hand, some rulers ignore the inevitable, leaving their state facing uncertainty. On the other hand, a leader whose legacy is a more stable country, like Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, is unlikely to leave unprepared. Nonetheless, the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan, in the event of Nazarbayev’s death, has been put in question, especially for the Russian regions of the country.

Given that the sudden death of a president would cause a chaotic transition, influential officials are considering withdrawing Nazarbayev from the 2020 elections. Regardless, this is unlikely to happen because the Kazakhstani elite wants to protect against a potentially unstable period while Nazarbayev shows no sign of imminent death. However, it is certain that the elites are preparing for this and the future ruling coalition is being centred around who will be at its head.

In Brief

What happened? Since the death of Islom Karimov in Uzbekistan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, has become the last of the original presidents of the Central Asian states in power, putting his eventual death and the succession that will ensue in the spotlight.

Why does it matter? Kazakhstan, while often overlooked, is a fast-developing country that is quickly drifting away from Russian influence. Its sizeable Russian population in the northern part of the country has created the fear of a rerun of a situation like the Donbass conflict in Ukraine if a succession crisis were to happen. Nevertheless, the president’s office has yet to introduce a clear front-runner to replace Nazarbayev at the country’s top office. Instead, a group of leading contenders with different advantages has emerged as positioning themselves for the inevitable presidential vacancy.

Many Runners on the Starting Blocks

So, who will lead the country once Nazarbayev leaves office? The front-runners include Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Karim Massimov and Dariga Nazarbayeva. Long-shot candidates are also numerous; most notably, Imangali Tasmagambetov, Timur Kulibayev and Asset Issekeshev. As always, the list could expand to include several other actors, but the aforementioned have in front of them the easiest paths to the presidency and are all leading candidates with distinct advantages and disadvantages in their respective paths.

Doing a who’s who of Kazakhstani politics, presenting them and stating their roles, is interesting in and of itself, especially considering the lack of coverage in the region. More precisely, looking at their current position can bring more insight into who presently has the most advantage and eliminate those that might not succeed in clearing the hurdles that await them.

The Leading Trio

The first of the trio is Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, former prime minister and long-time political figure. One of the main advantages he holds over his opponents is that, constitutionally, his position as the speaker of the Senate gives him the interim if Nazarbayev passes away. On the one hand, while this did not help his counterpart, Nigʻmatilla Yoʻldoshev, in neighbouring Uzbekistan, who ended up holding the position for only six days, Yoʻldoshev was always a long-shot. On the other hand, Tokayev is a front-runner and,  given a somewhat stable transition, he could reassure possible kingmakers of the safety of his candidacy. However, this might also backfire, because the few days following the death of a president will not be the calmest as the country is focused on finding someone that will stabilize it. This could hurt the image of Tokayev, so the likely risk-averse Kazakhstani elites could decide to instead back an alternative candidate.

The second of the trio, Karim Massimov, should he decide to seek the position, will be a contender difficult to defeat. The former bank directorthe prime minister, and leader of the National Security Committee, the national intelligence agency, has several elements in his favour. He is well-known and well-connected in the three key sectors of politics, security, and finance. Additionally, he worked in China for the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations. Despite that, some elements still might stop him short of the presidency. Massimov’s background as an Uyghur instead of an ethnic Kazakh has been brought up as a potential deal breaker, despite his qualifications. Additionally, unlike its neighbour, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan has developed a type of nationalism that is noticeably less based on ethnicity–a pattern that was introduced by the president itself. However, a non-ethnic Kazakh at the top position could help the country further develop this stabilizing characteristic without requiring a drastic change, especially as the Uyghurs and Kazakhs are closely linked in the collective imagination. More damaging to his candidacy is his failure to reinvigorate the country’s economy after the price of oil crashed in 2014 during his tenure as prime minister. Also, his appointment as head of intelligence has been interpreted by some as a sign that Massimov has been designated as more of a kingmaker than a king.

Third, Dariga Nazarbayeva holds a special position in Kazakhstan. As the eldest daughter of the current president, and herself an accomplished politician, she has a position that can be envied by many of her future opponents. The question of her gender has and will continue to be brought up to indicate her inability to acquire the title, but there is a precedent with Roza Otunbayeva who not only ruled but led a revolution in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. This does not indicate that it will not damage her chance at succeeding, but it indicates that this is still a surmountable hurdle. However, Nazarbayev’s weakness comes from somewhere else: the tendency to overstate family dynasties in Central Asia. Indeed, these predictions have been made for all of the five republics of the region without being correct once yet. While, by sheer probability, one or many of those might end up right. For now, those predictions have yet to materialize.

Other Serious Contenders

First, Imangali Tasmagambetov was once seen as a top contender for the position. As a former minister of defence and deputy prime minister, he had the connection in the political and security sphere to be able to form a ruling coalition. Nevertheless, he will have a hurdle difficult to clear if he wants to be competitive for the position. Indeed, he lost his job as deputy prime minister in 2017 and became ambassador to Russia in what was generally considered a demotion. This is still a powerful position, but it also means that Tasmagambetov will not be in Astana in the crucial hours following a possible surprising passing of the president. Furthermore, while he enjoys the support of Russia, it is becoming ever less essential in the country.

Second, Timur Kulibayev, the president’s son-in-law, is another contender with links to the Nazarbayev family. His profile as a rich businessman could be enticing for the economic elite of Kazakhstan. Moreover, his direct relationship with the president will probably give him an edge over other ambitious businessmen, such as Bulat Utemuratov. However, this same profile will remind people of Rakhat Aliyev, a former front-runner to replace Nazarbayev and another rich businessman married to Nazarbayev’s daughter. Aliyev eventually fell from grace in 2007; he was arrested in Austria and presumably died from suicide by hanging in 2015. Furthermore, the balance between the economic and political elite, who do not necessarily have the same goal, is fragile, so the former might prefer to support a politician that helps them achieve their goals instead of their own.

Lastly, young and fast-rising Asset Issekeshev could be an interesting choice for the economic elite since the 47-year-old could bring a long and stable reign, unlike an older candidate. However, the political elite might not want the highest office in the country to be occupied by the same ruler for so long. Additionally, Issekeshev might not want to alienate the political elite, so he can instead allow himself to refrain from joining the race and support an older candidate that would groom him as the new heir apparent. The role of kingmaker can also be dangerous, but once one climbs to this level, every move is high risk, high reward.

About the Author

Frédérick Maranda-Bouchard

Frédérick Maranda-Bouchard is a Political Analyst for Central Asia and Regime stability at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. He graduated from Concordia University in 2019 with a Bachelor in Arts, Honours in Political Sciences. He currently is doing his Master in European and Russian Affairs at the University of Toronto.

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