Despite their shared communist past, similarities in political systems, and record of “authoritarian learning” from one another, there is significant diversity in how Central Asian regimes have prepared and undergone leadership successions.
Authoritarian states, particularly those led by personalist rulers, face instability during moments of leadership succession. Sometimes the turbulence develops into a full-blown succession crisis characterized by increased elite contestation and popular protests.
In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, personalist leaders died in office and the elites chose a successor after negotiations. Still, most regional leaders have sought to pass power gradually to a designated successor, either a familial or non-familial member of the elite, with varying degrees of success.
China and Russia have been directly and indirectly involved in the transitions. Moscow has been particularly involved in the short-term de-escalation of succession crises in Kyrgyzstan in 2020 and Kazakhstan in 2022.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has changed the context of Central Asian successions, which means that future transitions will take place in uncharted territory.
Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine has fuelled the debate on the aggressive foreign policy led by personalist rulers. The rise of authoritarianism in general and “strongmen” in particular is a global trend: almost half of all autocratic governments are now ruled by personalist leaders like Vladimir Putin of Russia. The centralization of power in the hands of single individuals has unfortunate foreign policy implications. In comparison to other types of authoritarian rulers, personalist leaders are the most likely to initiate conflicts abroad and least likely to lose power due to popular or elite pressure.
In post-Soviet Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have been led by personalist rulers for most of their independent statehood. Only Kyrgyzstan has been the exception. While there is variation in the level of personalization and repression across countries and over time, Central Asian countries are evidently leaning towards personalist forms of government. Even in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s once “island of democracy”, most rulers have demonstrated a preference for personalism, even if they have been restrained in practice in their attempts to concentrate power in their hands.
When the time comes to choose a successor to the leader, personalist authoritarian regimes may face instability, as reshuffles within the political and economic elite shake the balance of power. Sometimes power passes smoothly from personalist leaders to their successors, and any disagreements that emerge are resolved among members of the elite behind closed doors. From the perspective of the elites, a smooth succession is the key to regime preservation and stability. At other times, different factions struggle vehemently for power, and the elite are divided into winners and losers.
The succession crises can also play out in the public sphere, with government critics mobilizing in protests, which can in turn shake the equilibrium within the elite. What is more, successions are not pivotal moments for domestic politics only. In the personalist setting, leaders are considerable influencers in foreign affairs. Successions often have regional implications given that both regime insiders and their challengers draw their own conclusions from their neighbours’ successes and failures.
This Briefing Paper analyses leadership successions in post-Soviet Central Asia in order to shed light on leadership succession in authoritarian regimes ruled by personalist leaders, and rulers aspiring to become personalist. It argues that despite their shared communist past, similarities in political systems, and a record of “authoritarian learning” from one another, there is significant diversity in how Central Asian regimes have approached successions. Knowledge about the factors, drivers, and implications of various patterns of leadership succession in the region is particularly important now, as Central Asia is experiencing several transitions in the making in a turbulent international situation.
Background: from Soviet party secretaries to presidents
Upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the transition of power to a new national ruling elite in Central Asia did not come with extensive mass mobilization. In contrast, it was the entrenched local party elites that retained power after 1991.
The first president of independent Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, had already entered the highest echelon of power within the republic in 1979, becoming the republic’s top Communist Party figure in 1989. A year later, he was elected president by the collective Supreme Soviet of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, appointed as the party chief in 1989, had followed a similar trajectory just one month earlier. In Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov had ruled one of the most hard-line party organizations in the Soviet Union before his ascent to the presidency in 1991.
As presidents of their independent states, all three embraced the centralization of command in their hands in the 1990s, albeit at a varying speed and to a different extent. In contrast, in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the handover of power to local communist leaders was challenged by the local party elites.
In Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akayev, the head of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, rose to power in 1990 as an alternative compromise candidate. He initially demonstrated commitment to the construction of democratic institutions, which drew international praise. From the mid-1990s onwards, however, he began to introduce elements of personalist authoritarianism into the Kyrgyz political system, for example by engineering a constitutional reform that significantly increased his presidential powers.
In Tajikistan, the republic’s party leader, Qahhor Mahamov, was initially appointed as president, but was ousted soon after his appointment for supporting the plotters of the anti-Gorbachev coup d’état. When the civil war broke out in 1992, the presidential post was annulled altogether. In November that year, Tajikistan’s current president, Emomali Rahmon, ascended from the margins of the political realm as the Chairman of the Supreme Council as a result of intra-elite negotiations.
Once the presidency was restored in 1994, he successfully ran for the post and has ruled the country ever since. Since the end of the civil war, he has managed to gradually centralize power while constructing an increasingly repressive authoritarian regime where his extended family dominates both politics and business.
Post-mortem succession by elite bargaining
Personalist leaders can exit power in three ways: by death, by ousting, or by voluntary retirement. Central Asian states have borne witness to each of these modes in the 30 years of their independent statehood. In Turkmenistan in 2006 and in Uzbekistan in 2016 respectively, personalist leaders Saparmurat Niyazov and Islam Karimov died in office, most probably of natural causes, without having publicly declared successors. The leaders’ passing generated unexpected power vacuums, which led to some regime instability due to the contestation within the ruling elite. However, the transition to new leaders took place relatively smoothly and their regimes have proved to be rather stable.
In Turkmenistan, the reins of power were taken by Niyazov’s personal physician, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, a man who was unknown to the general public but well established within the elite. In Uzbekistan, members of Karimov’s inner circle handed power to Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the former president’s long-term prime minister. The smoothness of the transitions has been explained by the elites’ ability to resort to communist-era succession practices, and the ability to embrace forms of collective decision-making, as well as by the successors’ decision to somewhat reshuffle the cadres upon their ascent to power.
The two post-mortem successions had somewhat different implications for domestic and foreign policy. Initially, both Berdimuhamedov and Mirziyoyev sought to present themselves as reformers, introducing both social, economic, and political changes geared towards the “softening” of the regime, for example by alleviating draconian domestic travel restrictions. In both countries, these moves were framed as political liberalization that aimed at improving the states’ tarnished reputation abroad.
At the same time, both Berdimuhamedov and Mirziyoyev succeeded in establishing their own personalist regimes within just a few years of their ascent to power. In Turkmenistan, the thaw was very brief and purely cosmetic, while in Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev has argued that the reforms are still progressing in an evolutionary manner. Although analysts fear that Mirziyoyev’s reform course has already come to an end, many Uzbekistanis remain hopeful about the president’s ability to bring about positive change.
Managed transition by the leader
Another way for power to be passed on in a personalist authoritarian system is for the ruler to firstly designate a successor and then yield power to them. The successor can be a member of the leader’s (extended) family or a nonfamilial member of the elite. Both kinds of ruler-led successions have taken place in Central Asia. The track record of these operations is not encouraging, but there is evidence to suggest that future transitions may be played out this way, given the lack of better alternatives. Managed succession could arguably contain contestation within the elite and thus smooth the transition, enabling regime preservation.
In Kazakhstan, dynastic succession was arguably considered in the 2000s when two of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s daughters alongside their husbands were promoted in the political system. In Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon made several moves throughout the 2010s to facilitate hereditary succession to his eldest son, Rustam Emomali, who is currently serving as the Chairman of the National Assembly and Mayor of the capital, Dushanbe. As in Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan, members of Rahmon’s extended family have been appointed to senior government posts. While the dynastic model was eventually rejected in Kazakhstan, it seems ever more likely to take place in Tajikistan sooner rather than later.
Insights into how hereditary transition could play out in Central Asia can be gained from Turkmenistan, where Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was succeeded by his son Serdar in March 2022. Despite the opacity of Turkmenistan’s political system, the transition did not surprise observers.
Since 2016, Serdar Berdimuhamedov has been rotated from one top government post to another in a way that seemed to explicitly prepare him for the country’s leadership. However, there is something that differentiates Turkmenistan’s hereditary succession from a comparable development in the neighbouring Azerbaijan in 2003, when the ailing Heydar Aliyev yielded power to his son Ilham. Despite his resignation from the presidential post, the elder Berdimuhamedov has until now remained on the Turkmen political scene, acting as the Chairman of the Halk Maslahaty, the upper house of parliament. Aged 65, he is at present showing no signs of a medical condition that would incapacitate him and prevent him from ruling in the near future. The Berdimuhamedovs may well rule Turkmenistan in tandem for some years to come.
Curiously enough, it is not Turkmenistan but Kazakhstan whose personalist succession model has been associated with the word “tandem”. In March 2019, President Nazarbayev announced his resignation and designated a nonfamilial successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a career diplomat and top government official. Despite the transition of the presidency to Tokayev, Nazarbayev remained a powerful nodal point in the political system thanks to a variety of posts across the three branches of government.
Although Nazarbayev was institutionally powerful, it is impossible to tell how much power he did in fact exercise during the tandem leadership. In January 2022, the balance of power shifted indisputably towards Tokayev. At the time, Kazakhstan was shaken by protests over commodity prices and the corrupt and nepotistic regime constructed under Nazarbayev’s leadership. There is also evidence to assume that an intra-elite conflict between Tokayev and Nazarbayev’s inner circle most likely played a decisive role in the escalation of the crisis. Tokayev has since stripped Nazarbayev of his powers and presided over the former president’s family members’ and their close allies’ departure from the political scene. The impending renaming of the capital from Nur-Sultan back to Astana marks a symbolic end to Nazarbayev’s regime in Kazakhstan.
Transitions gone awry: Lessons from Kyrgyzstan
In the light of Kazakhstan’s January 2022 events, the 2019 succession can be labelled as a failure for Nazarbayev, even if he has not had to flee abroad nor face criminal charges at home. The succession orchestrated by Nazarbayev could have gone wrong earlier and led to even worse implications for the ruler stepping down, as we can see in examining the Kyrgyzstani successions in the 2000s and 2010s.
Kyrgyzstan has had six presidents so far, all of whom have exited in an irregular manner. Askar Akayev was ousted in 2005 during the post-electoral protests known as the “Tulip Revolution”. His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was brought down by another popular revolution five years later, having just been re-elected for a second term. Kyrgyzstan’s third president, Roza Otunbayeva, had a special caretaker status for less than two years. She passed the office on to Almazbek Atambayev, elected in 2011 for a now constitutionally limited single term of six years.
Atambayev served a full and regular presidential term and stepped down when it ended. However, his intention was not to give up the reins of power. To this end, he chose a loyal and presumably unambitious successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, behind whose back he was planning to continue as Kyrgyzstan’s de facto leader.
Political scientist Emil Dzhuraev suggests that Atambayev spent two years preparing a safe and influential ex-presidential life for himself. He installed his supporters in key government offices, engineered a constitutional referendum to suit his needs in 2016, and continued to shape public opinion through his popular media outlets. However, the plan failed, and Atambayev ended up in prison, sentenced in 2020 to 11 years on corruption charges. Since then, he has faced new charges for allegedly organizing mass riots in October 2020, which happened to bring down his successor Jeenbekov.
The changes in the Kyrgyzstani government in 2005, 2010 and 2020 highlight the catalytic power of popular protests to further contestation within the elite and thus lead to regime collapse. However, Atambayev’s fall also points to the risks of a managed transition for the exiting ruler.
Atambayev and Jeenbekov fell out just a few months after the succession, when the latter rejected the role of a puppet ruler envisioned for him by the former. Atambayev started to criticize Jeenbekov heavily in the media and declared that the then dominant party was in opposition to the president. They were both members of the party.
Jeenbekov responded by sacking Atambayev’s appointees in his government and creating a new “party within a party” of his supporters, thus generating a split within it. When Atambayev responded by organizing rallies against Jeenbekov, he was stripped of his presidential immunity and accused of involvement in several criminal cases.
Although Jeenbekov managed to defy Atambayev, his political fate was unfortunate. In October 2020, he was pushed out of office by the supporters of Sadyr Japarov, a populist leader leaning towards authoritarian practices. Although Japarov is still running the country, analysts expect his rule to be cut short sooner rather than later, suggesting that Kyrgyzstan’s irregular successions are spiralling in a vicious cycle.
Citizens and neighbouring states
Given the authoritarian tendencies of Central Asian states, the region’s leadership transitions have been affairs of the elite. However, it would be a mistake to overlook the agency of the region’s general populations.
Given the inflated role of the presidents, transitions can stir people’s hopes and expectations for change under the new leadership. Political opposition and disappointed citizens have organized protests, demanding leadership change. While the mobilization has been limited in countries that feature a high level of repression, anti-government rallies have brought down three presidents in Kyrgyzstan. In Kazakhstan, the protests in January 2022 accelerated Nazarbayev’s exit from political life, discrediting the model of “managed” transition that he had organized so carefully.
Central Asia’s current leaders are aware of the popular expectations and seek to use them to their own advantage. Successors have portrayed themselves as reformers capable of improving people’s lives in order to legitimize their rule. Yet without addressing structural issues related to the regimes’ authoritarian form of government – corruption, lack of political competition, censorship, and lawlessness – promises of development and societal justice are rendered unfulfillable and thus a source of further destabilization.
Other actors involved indirectly in Central Asian transitions are the region’s two powerful external players, China and Russia. Until now, both states have had a relatively stabilizing effect on how the transitions have played out for the elites, given their shared preference for an authoritarian mode of governance and societal stability achieved through repression.
Moscow has been directly involved in containing elite splits in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan in October 2020, Russia halted its financial aid to the country until the leadership crisis was resolved, and in Kazakhstan it mobilized the Collective Security Treaty Organization – the Moscow-led military bloc – to support Tokayev.
These interventions have been successful in freezing the succession crises at hand, but they have not brought lasting resolutions. This is because any leadership change needs to be legitimized by a popular vote. Organizing elections comes with challenges of its own. In the authoritarian political setting, the likelihood of mass mobilization increases during elections due to vote-rigging, which can in turn fuel splits within the elite. Both protests and elite competition translate into political instability. Paradoxically, the transitions inevitably pose risks for the ruling elite, even if they are necessary for regime preservation and consolidation.
Conclusion: Successions in the changing context
A closer look at Central Asian successions demonstrates that there is no one pattern of leadership change in the region. In all five states, regimes have struggled with preparing and undergoing successions, and none of the schemes developed by the leaders and their supporting elites can be easily applied in another geographical, political, or temporal context. They offer no easy solutions for leaders like Putin or Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, whose voluntary resignation has been subject to rumours for years.
Given the relative recency of successions everywhere else but Tajikistan (where the upcoming leadership transition is nonetheless clearly in the making), the aftermath of the successions is still unfolding. With the fresh constitutional changes in Kazakhstan and upcoming ones in Uzbekistan, leadership transitions seem more and more like dynamic and never-ending processes. The diversity of possible succession trajectories adds to the instability on the ground and unpredictability in the future.
Furthermore, Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine has changed the political context of Central Asian successions. The war and the sanctions have had a dramatic effect on the region’s economies. The fall in remittances, inflation, and rising unemployment coupled with a sudden and sizeable inflow of migrants from Russia are exacerbating political and socio-economic grievances voiced against the incumbent presidents.
Given the changing nature of Russia’s relations with its Central Asian partners, it is unclear how Moscow will be willing and able to respond to forthcoming succession crises in its neighbourhood. All in all, the perception of a weakening Russia is likely to significantly alter the political calculations of the region’s leaders, elites, populations, and neighbouring states, and thus pave the way for unforeseen trajectories of future successions.
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 Although Mirziyoyev was one of Uzbekistan’s most visible politicians beyond Karimov, he was not an obvious successor. In fact, many expected Rustam Inoyatov, the long-term head of Uzbekistan’s State Security Services, to come to power instead. The fact that he did not illustrates the role of elite bargaining.
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