Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Russia Not Only Former Soviet Republic with Aging Authoritarian Leader and a Succession Problem

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 15 – The Russian Federation is far from the only former Soviet republic with an aging, longtime authoritarian leader and thus, because no one lives forever, a succession problem. In some, the leader has arranged a ‘soft’ transit; in others, the leaders don’t want to talk about it at all; and in yet a third, death or popular risings force the issue.

            Kazakhstan is the class example of the first, Belarus of the second, and Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan of the third, commentary Denis Luzin suggests in a survey for the Nakanune news agency of the challenges the lack of institutionalized democracy and regular rotation of leaders present (nakanune.ru/articles/115633/).

            Just how long leaders in these countries can hold on has been highlighted this week by Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s announcement that he will “run” for a sixth term in 2020 even though he has been president since July 1991. But the undoubted leader in terms of time in power is Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev.

            He became first secretary of his republic’s CPSU Central Committee in 1989 and then president in 1990, a post he was reelected to five times.  But sensing the passing of time, he arranged for a “soft” transition to Kasym Jomart Tokayev this past year but remains a real power and not really behind the scenes.

            Ilham Aliyev has been head of Azerbaijan since 2003 – 16 years ago – when he succeeded his father Heydar. Islam Karimov was in charge of Uzbekistan from 1991 until his death in 2016 when he was succeeded by the former head of Karimov’s government, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. 

            Similarly, in Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov headed that country between 1991 until his death in 2006. The following year, he was succeeded by Gurbanbuly Berdymukhamedov, who remains in office to this day.  And in Tajikistan, Emomali Rakhmon has been president since 1992. He faces “an election” soon but no one doubts he will run and win.

            In few regions of the world has such stability of leadership been the rule. In most, either democratic arrangements, coups or popular risings have led to far more frequent leadership changes.  But this means that across the CIS, there is an aging group of rulers who in the nature of things will be passing from the scene most likely by natural causes in the near future.

            But in those places where the regime rests on the extraction and sale of natural resources as is the case with most of these leaders and Putin in Russia as well, Pavel Salin of Russia’s Finance University says, individual leaders may die but their regimes remain stable allowing for a relatively easy handover of power within their entourages.

            In the case of Belarus, which depends on assistance from Russia, Lukashenka too may remain in power for a long time unless the actuarial tables intervene or unless external shocks, possibly coming from Russia and its insistence on integration create strains that he finds it impossible to cope with.

            Luzin concludes that none of this means that the problem of “the transition of power” in Russia in 2024 doesn’t remain a serious problem, but these patterns in other CIS countries with authoritarian leaders who have been in office for decades suggest that it may not be as big a one as many now think.

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