Friday, September 16, 2016

Karimov’s Demise Unsettling Elites in Kazakhstan and Other Authoritarian Post-Soviet States

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 16 – The death of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov has sent shockwaves through the elites in Kazakhstan and other authoritarian states in the post-Soviet world, forcing them to confront the issue of succession in their own countries and increasing divisions among them as they look to the future.

            In the nature of things, an authoritarian leader cannot name a successor because if he tries to do so, others in the elite will inevitably organize against that person. Indeed, one of the great weaknesses of authoritarian systems compared to democracy is that, except in hereditary monarchical countries, they cannot groom new leaders or manage transitions without risk.

            Indeed, while speculation about who will be the next leader is rife in all such systems at all times given that members of the elite want to position themselves for whatever happens, incumbent dictators have an interest in restricting such discussions  as much as possible and punishing those who talk about succession too openly.

            But Karimov’s death has opened the question more broadly than before first of all in neighboring Kazakhstan which also has an aging leader at the helm and where there is as yet no democratic process for replacing him when he passes from the scene but also in other authoritarian regimes around the former Soviet space.

            In an interview, Diniyar Ashimbayev, a political analyst who is the editor of the Kazakhstan Biographic Encyclopedia, notes that “after the death of Karimov, Nursultan Nazarbayev has become the senior leader in the post-Soviet space,” something that “with particular sharpness” raises the question of succession (

                That is highlighted by the recent spate of new appointments in Astana, a continuation, albeit intensified, of Nazarbayev’s longstanding practice of “experimenting” by putting leaders in different positions to see how they perform and to give them the broadest possible experience, Ashimbayev says.

            By so doing, the analyst continues, Nazarbayev has “formed a sufficiently large circle of experienced administrators who hypothetically could lead the country.”  None of them talks openly about succeeding, but “in this closed circle, each has imagined putting on the presidential crown.”  Such reflections are only increasing since Karimov died.

            To the extent he has the time, the incumbent president will likely seek to narrow the field of possible successors over the next year or two; but he will be constrained by the system from plumping too hard for any one of them. At least in Kazakhstan, under the constitution, when a president dies, there are no new elections as the senate president takes over.

            But that is obviously only a short-term solution, especially since the incumbent president can name the senate president at will and that person does not even need to be a member of the senate itself.

            In other countries of the region with similar governments, such reflections are also likely to be increasingly common. And where people dare not talk about them openly, they are doing so either in Aesopian language or more commonly by focusing on the discussions in Kazakhstan as a model.  That is what is happening in Azerbaijan (

            The situation in Baku is different, of course, in that the incumbent president is much younger than Nazarbayev or Karimov; but with no little open competition for the leadership, it is likely that those close to the president are talking more about succession in the future, even if they do not expect it immediately. And even that will affect politics and decision making there.

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