Given all that’s gone on in the past year in Kazakhstan, some of Astana’s most ardent well-wishers in Washington are hoping that President Nursultan Nazarbayev grapples with the always delicate issue of succession planning.
The subject of a stable leadership transition came up several times during an all-day conference in Washington, DC, on January 31, hosted by the Atlantic Council. The meeting was designed primarily to laud Kazakhstan’s economic achievements over the past 20 years, as well as celebrate a strong US-Kazakhstani partnership.
Nazarbayev, a septuagenarian who has been at the helm of the Kazakhstani government since the Soviet collapse in 1991, has given no indication that he wants to leave the political stage. He seems in robust health, yet it was revealed in 2011 that he spent time at a German hospital.
Conference participants universally praised Nazarbayev’s talent for statecraft. At the same time, a few speakers cited shortcomings in Kazakhstan’s democratization process, and hinted that the country’s past success in developing its economy does not ensure similar results in the future. Though not discussed in a substantive way at the Washington gathering, recent bouts of violence in Kazakhstan connected to labor unrest and terrorism are also clearly on the minds of Central Asia watchers inside the Beltway.
At present, there is no clear evidence that Nazarbayev is grooming an eventual successor, and he seems set to lead the country for the foreseeable future. Kazakhstan’s constitution provides for a presidential electoral process, but several participants hinted that the country’s ability to remain on a relatively stable political and economic path would be helped if Nazarbayev settled on a succession preference. Admiringly describing Nazarbayev as a “strong personality,” Brent Scowcroft, the present chair of the Atlantic Council International Advisory Board and a former national security advisor to two American presidents, said the Kazakhstani leader ought to pay attention to “passing on” a “stable political structure.”
S. Frederick Starr, who chairs the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, voiced concern that, despite the existing legal framework, a presidential transition in Kazakhstan, whenever it comes, could be a “uniquely complex, delicate process.”
Scowcroft predicted that Nazarbayev would respond to the challenge, and would eventually leave Kazakhstan well-positioned for the future. “That will be a task that President Nazarbayev will take on with great relish,” Scowcroft said.
One can only wonder, judging by the level of interest in the succession issue at the conference, whether the topic will be a subtext of scheduled discussions February 1 between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov in Washington.