Three Conditions of Power Transit in Kazakhstan

Against a backdrop of the recent disturbances in Kazakhstan, the topic of the power transit has taken a back seat. Meanwhile, the question that should concern not only the elite that would, eventually, be the one making the decision on who will rule the country after Nursultan Nazarbayev but also the simple folks – the voters.

 Under the authoritarian rule, the role of the persona who governs the state is much greater than it is in the “normal” civilized countries. And this is one of the reasons why, when it comes to the subject of the power transfer in Kazakhstan, the discussion soon moves to the question of who exactly is to become Nazarbayev’s successor.

The other reason why this is happening lies in the fact that the personalization of the political system in the post-Soviet space is considered almost a norm. However, to regard the power transit as simply and exclusively an exchange of Nursultan Nazarbayev for somebody else and try to predict who this person will be is nonsensical since no one can read the minds of other people.

Therefore, we prefer to concentrate on discussing the conditions (factors) that will inevitably influence the choice, nomination, approval, support, and recognition (or lack thereof) of the next leader of the nation by the ruling elite.

We will start by saying that, in our opinion, the power transit from the president to his successor in Kazakhstan will not be possible without complying with the judicial procedures stipulated in the Constitution. Therefore, neither transferring the power directly to, say, the minister of health (the way it happened in Turkmenistan) nor seizing it while bypassing the people who, by law, must be called in the event of Nazarbayev’s death or inability to act is impossible.

Why do we think so? Because, if such events are to take place, the successor will not have enough legitimacy in the eyes of the Kazakhstan citizens and the political elites of the other countries. Therefore, the “usurper” will find himself extremely vulnerable both inside the country and beyond its borders.

At that, he will not be able to count on the loyalty of the state apparatus including the law-enforcement agencies for the simple reason that the clan factor will immediately be activated. Then, the super-presidential vertical will fall apart, and it will take time and a significant effort to put it back together.

If we are correct in our assumption, it means that Kazakhstan’s next president, in accordance with Article 48 of the Constitution, must someone who, when the time comes, will be holding the position of the head of the Senate or that of the head of the Lower House (the Mazhilis) or that of the prime-minister.

The difficulty is that, under the authoritarian rule, the decision on Nazarbayev’s successor (even if the president identifies him himself) will still be made by the ruling elite or rather by the top of the ruling elite, and in a hasty fashion, too.

Considering the previous Kazakhstan’s practices of both the Soviet and the independence periods, this means that the number of the contenders will de-facto be greater than stipulated in Article 48 of the Constitution. For example, Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga, as the acting senator, can, in a moment, become the head of the Senate and, therefore, inherit the country’s highest political post from her father.

On the other hand, the same applies to any other Kazakhstan parliamentarian since they all have the right (but not an opportunity) to chair the aforementioned agencies.

Moreover, apart from those who hold the three highest official positions in the country (besides that of the president), other powerful persons may become Nazarbayev’s successor. No one can prohibit NSC Chief Karim Masimov or Head of Nazarbayev Administration Adilbek Dzhaksybekov from resigning from their posts and becoming a senator appointed by the president and get elected the head of the Upper House of the Parliament.

In Kazakhstan, such procedures will take but a day. Moreover, not even Nursultan Nazarbayev’s death will stop this career rise – it is enough not to announce it right away, to prepare the necessary presidential directives and to make them public.

Of course, the number of those who are powerful enough to become Nazarbayev’s successor or at least to aspire to the position is highly limited. By our estimates, only five of six such persons exist. But we repeat that, in our opinion, it will be impossible to become the next president of Kazakhstan by avoiding the official judicial procedures.

Therefore, the first “fight” for the high power during the transit may take place among those who, when the time comes, will be occupying the three highest political positions and also those powerful figures who will want to remove them in a hasty manner to assume these positions themselves.

Nonetheless, it is possible (and, by our assessment, this is the way it will happen) that this fight is not to take place due to the fears of the ruling elite that it may destabilize the domestic political situation. If this is the case, the second fight will happen among the three officials whose positions enable them to gain the right to be Nazarbayev’s successor.

We will the question to what extent it is feasible unanswered since it is not clear who exactly will be in charge of the Senate, the Mazhilis, and the government when the time comes. For example, Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, in our opinion, will agree to anything, Nurlan Nigmatullin, however, may go to the limit.

At this moment, the crucial role will belong to the support the contenders receive from the elite and to their abilities to pressurize their rivals – by the means of the physical force, compromising documents, or the moral authority.

So, theoretically, two scenarios of the power transit in Kazakhstan are possible:

  • when the successor directly assumes the presidency;
  • when the position of the president is occupied by a person who is dependent on another person or even a group of individuals who supported him when the support was required and without whom he will not be able to maintain control.

Thus, the existence of the elite groups (clans) that are actually capable of maintaining control over the state vertical without allowing the state mechanism to fall apart becomes the second limiting factor for the coming power transit.

In our opinion, the last circumstance is being underestimated in the power transit discussion even though it is clear that, resulting from the intra-elite fighting of the recent years, at least three influential groups have suffered defeat (each for its own reason). We are talking about “the Koreans” who, after Vladimir Ni’s death, have lost their influence and also about “the Southerners” and “the Westerners” crushed by their political rivals.

The third limiting factor we believe lies in the fact that, no matter how much certain representatives of the ruling elite want to assume the highest positions in the country’s hierarchy, their fear that Nazarbayev’s exit will destabilize the domestic political situation and lead to the rise of the protest moods in the streets is pandemic.

This fear will force most of those who govern the country and its economy to stay close to the influential people whom they trust more (or fear less). Therefore, during the transit, not only a group’s current level of influence but also its authority and the image in the eyes of the elite “voters” will be of significance.

Read also:  One More Problem of the Transition, How not to hit a dead end with transition, The Main Problem of The Transition, On the transit of power and importance of discussion, Kazakh media is discussing power transfer, Scenarios of Transition, At the Cusp of Transition. The Power Shift Scenarios.


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