Wednesday, April 8, 2015

‘Irreplaceable Leaders in Post-Soviet States Depriving Their Countries of a Stable Future’

Paul Goble


            Staunton, April 8 – The recent re-elections of Islam Karimov as Uzbekistan’s president and Nursultan Nazarbayev as Kazakhstan’s, two leaders who have held office since Soviet times, is a testimonial to the fact that in those countries, “neither ‘the eastern’ nor the ‘western’ mechanisms of the transfer of power are working, according to Denis Yermakov.


            But the existence of “irreplaceable leaders” afflicts not only these two but also other “personalist regimes” on the post-Soviet space, “from Russia and Belarus to Tajikistan and Azerbaijan,” but also “deprives [all] these countries of the conditions needed for “a stable future,” the commentator continues (


            Because Karimov and Nazarbayev are older, the issue of succession is more immediate – and perhaps especially worrisome because their two countries are ethnically complex, authoritarian and without obvious successors, and currently threatened by Islamist movements, Yermakov says.


            But even though the “irreplaceable” leaders in some other post-Soviet states are younger, that only means that the issue of organizing and legitimating a transition is not quite as immediate a challenge. Moreover, all of the countries undergoing the transition from communism to capitalism have had to face it.


            Some in Eastern Europe immediately restored Western models of competitive democracy. Some in China and Vietnam have retained the structure of communist parties and their rules for choosing a new leader. But many of the post-Soviet states have chosen either of those routes but rather sought to avoid the problem. They haven’t been able to.


            More than half of the post-Soviet states have relied on “personalist political regimes which are based not on institutions but on the charisma and personal power of national leaders. In such a system there isn’t and for certain cannot worked out firm rules governing this most important political process.”


            In some of them, power has passed by inheritance (as in Azerbaijan), in others by appointment from the departing leader (Russia), and in a third by a palace coup (Turkmenistan) or by agreement within the “family” of the core leadership, although that is often extremely difficult to arrange.


            Given the lack of predictability, Yermakov says, such regimes are “forced either to put off as long as possible the presentation of a potential successor lest he become the victim of competing groups or constantly change them in the public space or openly make a bet on two or three in order to see how the elites will struggle among themselves.”


            Such political systems often make use of democratic forms in order to try to legitimate themselves, “but the misfortune is that the institutions needed for this have not been created in [these] countries, the party system doesn’t work, and the opposition, if it exists, does not have any levers of influence on what is taking place.”


            “It is indicative of this situation,” Yermakov says, “that in the post-Soviet space over the last 20 years,” many potential successors have been removed from the scene in what have been “extremely mysterious circumstances.” Consequently, he suggests, “many [of these leaders] have ‘skeletons in their closets,’” something that makes them especially reluctant to leave office and face investigation.


            “But the main problem,” the analyst continues, “is that under conditions of a lack of democratic institutions, the sudden exit of an irreplaceable leader, father of the nation or vozhd can lead to an explosion inside the country.”


            Given that danger, one is compelled to ask: “why haven’t these independent states after a quarter of a century created either strong institutions or even public and elite demands for them?”


            The answer reflects the fact that the old system collapsed so suddenly that no one was really prepared for something new and that those near the old elites were interested in the first instance in privatizing the wealth of their countries into their own hands, something that was far easier to do on the basis of personal ties than if institutions had been put in place.


            “Unfortunately,” Yermakov says, “little has changed since the ‘wild ‘90s’ on the post-Soviet space.” Rentier capitalism continues to dominate the public space, and those who have control do not want to give it up to anyone else, something they might be at risk of if institutions were created.


            But there is another form of “rent” as well, the analyst continues: political rent. The leaders of some smaller countries can keep power because they play an important role for outsiders who either want one-stop shopping or see the authoritarianism of the regime as protecting their own geopolitical interests.


            Until all these sources of rent disappear and as long as the incumbent leader is able to “satisfy the growing demands of his closest entourage,” he will have no interest in creating institutions that might mean the leadership would have to share pieces of the pie with the majority of population.


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