The subject of the upcoming power transition in Kazakhstan is being discussed one-sidedly. Everyone wants to know who will become Nazarbayev’s successor as the president, whether it will be one person or a group of “comrades”, who among the power figures of today will move up and who will move down or even recede from their position completely. The subject of the power transition is, however, a much more complex matter.
It is important to understand that, in Eurasian, the period of Nazarbayev’s rule is, in fact, the time of the transition from the totalitarian political system to the authoritarian one. Thus, Nazarbayev himself can quite literally be viewed as a transitional figure, the fact that unquestionably follows from his autobiography.
Therefore, though crucial for the ruling elite, the actual name of Nazarbayev’s successor is not what matters for Kazakhstan and its citizens. The more important question is where the transition will lead the country. It is one thing if the high power in the country will de facto be given to a person or a group of people. It is quite a different matter if it will be given to the institutions.
Note that one of the reasons behind China’s success is the fact that its ruling elite, having learned from the bitter experience, has coordinated, put to action, and continues to uphold the mechanism of the constant renewal of the country’s management when the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee who automatically becomes the head of the state can only occupy this position for two terms.
The question whether the Kazakh ruling elite can do the same remains unanswered. By our estimates, it cannot due to its immaturity, inexperience, and political illiteracy.
This means that, as the head of the state and the leader of the ruling party, Nursultan Nazarbayev will be replaced by his direct heir (not necessarily a relative but a political clone). The fact that, due to subjective reasons, this heir will not be chosen immediately but in the course of the intra-elite fights is another matter.
The political logic and Nazarbayev’s preexisting distrust of his closest allies will force him to try and give the power not to one person but to a group of people in order to balance out the power outlook at least in the nearest future and to lessen the risks. However, the very logic and the practices of the Kazakh authoritarian political system will lead to distinguishing one person among the others in the group who will, eventually, take the vacant presidential chair.
This scenario can be confirmed by the transition experiences in the neighboring (and analogous to Kazakhstan) Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. This is why it is pointless and even dangerous, in a way, to presume that, after Nazarbayev’s exit, the political regime in the country will soften.
Apart from the task to gain and maintain the power, the successor(s) will have to succeed in the goal to redistribute the large property and the spheres of influence in the economy to their advantage. Therefore, here is the crucial question for the coming years – will the existing owners of the large property both real estate (including land) and businesses be able to advocate their interests?
If yes, there is a chance the process of the separation of business and the political power will begin in Kazakhstan. Or it can be the other way round, which is very important from the standpoint of moving towards a democracy and a normal market economy.
Akorda’s problem, however, lies in the fact that, even if this painful, long, and complex process begins, it can be aborted by a dramatic weakening of the political stability. The governmental attempts to avoid (suppress) any, even the minimally dangerous civic activity, can produce the opposite effect causing a rise of discontent up to riots and mutinies.