With President Nursultan Nazarbayev expected to win reelection easily on April 3, opposition politicians and pundits are looking beyond the vote. Some say the president needs to address personnel issues to ensure the continuation of prevailing political stability.
The snap presidential vote is taking place nearly two years ahead of schedule. Under the current scenario, Nazarbayev would be sworn in for a fresh five-year term in April, just three months ahead of his 71st birthday and nearly 20 years after he became president of independent Kazakhstan in December 1991. He assumed the leadership of the Soviet-era Kazakh republic in 1989.
It is the question of what follows the election that is already exercising the minds of the political class in Almaty and Astana. Post-election scenarios were debated at a March 10 round table in Almaty, organized by the Washington, DC,-based National Democratic Institute and Germany's Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. One participant, Petr Svoik, who sits on the presidium of the opposition OSDP Azat Party, articulated a point that was on many attendees’ minds – the “problem of Kazakhstan after Nazarbayev.”
The administration’s chief task, as Svoik put it, is to “assure the succession of power without sacrificing stability and without risks of unexpected developments of various types.”
The succession issue has been shadowing Nazarbayev at least since his re-election in 2005. That was only the second contested presidential election he had ever campaigned in. He stood uncontested in 1991 and had his powers extended by referendum in 1995, winning re-election in 1999.
“Re-elected early [in 2011], the president will be left with the same team, the same promises, the same unresolved problems and new ones,” Svoik said. Unfortunately, he added, the president is sending no public signals that he is grappling with the issue of who follows him. “The most foreseeable line of behavior [by the Nazarbayev administration] ... is to continue pretending everything is wonderful.” Yet instead of fostering confidence, Svoik contended, such a line would serve as an indicator that the administration “is increasingly losing the capacity to assess the situation appropriately and to respond to real challenges.”
Many analysts agreed that the succession issue is no longer one that the presidential administration can avoid. “This election is the start of operation successor,” suggested Talgat Mamiraimov, a representative of the Kazakhstan Center of Humanitarian and Political Trends, speaking at the round table.
Nazarbayev is exempt from term limits, thus there is no legal barrier preventing him from running for re-election in 2016. It is easily conceivable that his leadership could extend to 2021, at which time he would be 80.
In February, presidential aide Yermukhamet Yertysbayev told the Megapolis newspaper that the succession issue would not become topical until 2021, implying that the administration views a Nazarbayev re-election bid in 2016 as a likely possibility, barring any unforeseen developments.
Another potential option would involve Nazarbayev leaving the presidency, yet remaining deeply involved in policy-making by utilizing powers granted him under the Leader of the Nation law adopted in 2010. That legislation gives Nazarbayev the constitutional ability to influence policy, even in the capacity of private citizen. Serikbolsyn Abdildin, the former Communist Party of Kazakhstan leader, suggested that if Nazarbayev followed such a course, Kazakhstan could end up with a confusing leadership structure.
“Then there would be two rulers in Kazakhstan – the Leader of the Nation with global powers and, so to speak, a young president with representative functions who would play the role of Nazarbayev’s aide,” Abdildin said in an interview published March 4 by the Golos Respubliki newspaper.
The president appears to be in vigorous health, but as his age advances those in political circles cannot fail to ponder the post-Nazarbayev era. “Everyone thinks the Nazarbayev epoch is coming to an end, though, of course, not tomorrow,” Svoik told EurasiaNet.org on the sidelines of the Almaty round table. “Everyone is starting to activate their forces for operation successor.”
Nazarbayev has given no public indication of grooming a successor. The ever-shifting list of plausible successors currently includes his son-in-law Timur Kulibayev, deputy chairman of the Samruk-Kazyna state assets holding fund; Kayrat Kelimbetov, Kulibayev’s boss at Samruk-Kazyna; Mayor of Astana Imangali Tasmagambetov; and Mayor of Almaty Akhmetzhan Yesimov.
Nazarbayev guards his power jealously and no potential candidate is yet willing to campaign openly for the job, analysts say – though that could change as the years advance. The biggest threat to stability, as Svoik sees it, is not Nazarbayev’s health but “intrigues within the entourage, palace conspiracies.”
Signs of a post-election personnel shake-up have already appeared. On March 11, the government announced that Senate Speaker Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev would move on to head the United Nations Office at Geneva. The Senate speaker is, according to the constitution, first in line to assume executive authority in the event that the president dies in office, or is incapacitated. Thus, Astana watchers are viewing the appointment of Tokayev’s successor as Senate speaker as a possible clue to presidential succession plans.
Analysts are also eager to see the extent to which Nazarbayev reshuffles the government. After his 2005 re-election, Nazarbayev re-appointed then-prime minister Daniyal Akhmetov, but this time many pundits expect Karim Masimov, Kazakhstan’s longest-ever serving premier, to be replaced. Among those listed as possible replacements are: Kelimbetov, the Samruk-Kazyna official; Oil and Gas Minister Sauat Mynbayev; Astana Mayor Tasmagambetov; and First Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeyev.
The appointment would provide an indicator of who is currently in favor with Nazarbayev. Yet, observers seem hesitant to read too much into a possible reshuffle. Many believe Nazarbayev will never retire. “He’s not going anywhere until he dies,” predicted Sergey Duvanov, a prominent opposition journalist and commentator.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.