Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazakstan Leader Still Silent on Succession

Keeping everyone guessing helps ensure President Nazarbaev’s position is unassailable.
By Zauresh Danaeva
  • President Nursultan Nazarbaev. (Photo: Serik Kovlanbaev)
    President Nursultan Nazarbaev. (Photo: Serik Kovlanbaev)

Kazakstan’s president has proved beyond doubt that he can get re-elected as often as he wants, but it is unclear whether he wants to carry on till he drops, or whether he has just not decided who can be trusted to take over from him. Some commentators see this reticence as deliberate, since Nursultan Nazarbaev’s power remains unassailable as long as no one can guess his intentions.

Nazarbaev was re-elected to a further term in office on April 26, with 97.7 per cent of the vote and a turnout of 95 per cent.

“I apologise if these figures seem unacceptable,” he told reporters afterwards, “but there wasn’t anything I could about it. If I had interfered, I would have appeared undemocratic.”

The figures may have been massaged, but Nazarbaev had no competition. The other candidates, Abelgazy Kussainov and Turgun Syzdykov, were complete unknowns and did not say anything negative about Nazarbaev.

It was the fifth time Nazarbaev had been elected. In 2007, the law was changed to allow him to stand for election an unlimited number of times. But since he is 74, there are only so many times he can realistically do so.

Nazarbaev could have waited till next year but instead called an early election. Announcing it in late February, he made it clear that he wanted to get the vote out of the way because weak oil prices and trouble in Russia meant there were difficult times ahead for Kazakstan.

In his inaugural speech, Nazarbaev set out five priority tasks for this presidential term, including economic goals like developing business, creating jobs and enlarging the middle class. Kazakstan’s economy is under pressure because of the fall in global oil prices and because of the recession in neighbouring Russia, to which it is closely tied. Joining the Eurasian Economic Union in January has, if anything, made things worse by flooding the domestic market with cheap Russian good.

Other priorities named by Nazarbaev were tackling corruption and “strengthening the unity of the nation”, a coded reference to the strains Kazakstan is under as it tries to engage with Moscow without submitting to its will.

The overall aim, the president said, was to “make our ship of state unsinkable”.

One issue that Nazarbaev did not touch on was whether he intends to step down at some point, and if so, how he plans to manage this. None of the political commentators whom IWPR asked to comment on this believes the president is about to hand over power any time soon, although they had different perspectives on whether he was beginning to shape the environment in which this might happen.

“His mid-term plans don’t include a successor as yet,” political scientist Aydos Sarym said. “He believes he’s in good enough physical shape to carry out his duties, and there isn’t anyone capable of convincing him otherwise for the moment.”

Economist Petr Svoik argues that the system Nazarbaev has created over more than two decades is firmly centred around him personally. He holds all the power and makes all the decisions, and letting go could endanger the network of family and other connections around him, and lead to his historical legacy being rewritten.

The only way around that, Svoik argues, is to ensure that the next president is weaker. He points to a constitutional reform plan already in train that would shift powers to form a government and appoint provincial governors from president to parliament. That would make Nazarbaev’s successor “just one of the figures who holds power, and not even the main one”, according to Svoik. Meanwhile, Nazarbaev could continue to wield power as head of the rulng Nur Otan party or in some other role.

Svoik thinks this could start happening in time for the next parliamentary election scheduled for 2016, but also notes that Nazarbaev might delay such “risky reforms” because it is not clear how the economic climate, events in Ukraine, and the state of the Eurasian Economic Union are going to affect Kazakstan.

Despite having no imminent plans to resign, Nazarbaev already has officials deployed in key posts for a future “transition team”, Svoik says. The only one that might change is that of speaker of the lower house of parliament, which he believes could go to the president’s daughter Dariga Nazarbaeva.

As for possible successors, Svoik named Kasym-Jomart Tokaev, a former prime minister and top diplomat, as someone who could take over the reins temporarily. As chairman of the upper house of parliament, it is his job to become acting head of state if Nazarbaev is no longer able to continue.

Rasul Jumaly, another politics-watcher, points to current prime minister Karim Masimov as a trusted ally who could also step in as interim leader while a lasting solution is found.

But Jumaly does not believe Nazarbaev is thinking about the succession at all – he thinks the president plans to carry on as long as he can, and will in all likelihood stand again in 2020.

When the time comes to pick someone in later years, Sarym predicts it will be “a consensus figure who satisfies all the influential groups. Rather than the strongest or most charismatic figure, they’ll go for someone who at first sight has no serious prospect of hanging onto power for a long time.”

For the moment, it is impossible to tell who that might be.

“It’s like reading the tea-leaves,” Sarym said. “In the recent election, the most important thing failed to transpire – there was no clarity. Instead, the uncertainty was prolonged. And that entirely suits the president.”

Zauresh Danaeva is IWPR’s Kazakstan editor.

 

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