A Flurry of Succession Planning Follows an Autocrat’s Death in Eurasia

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Uzbekistan. Credit: Mariusz Kluzniak.

By Rebeka Foley, Research Analyst

The recent death of Uzbekistan’s seemingly perpetual president has drawn fresh attention to the uncertainties of one-man rule elsewhere in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea region.

In the weeks since September 2, when President Islam Karimov was declared dead after 27 years as ruler of Uzbekistan, other Eurasian autocracies have experienced political shake-ups that seem to reflect renewed anxiety about succession plans. Kazakhstan’s leader reshuffled his cabinet, Turkmenistan lifted a presidential age limit and extended presidential terms, and Azerbaijan is preparing for a September 26 referendum that will also consolidate presidential power.

These changes may have been in the works long before Karimov died. An ongoing economic downturn in the region has motivated many governments to clamp down on dissent and tighten their grip on the political system. Nevertheless, the developments warrant close observation, and serve as a reminder that authoritarian regimes are inherently brittle, as they actively suppress the institutions that make democracies flexible and resilient.

Uzbekistan

The succession process is under way in Uzbekistan, after some initial confusion. In the event of the president’s death, the constitution calls for the chairman of the Senate to become the interim leader for three months. Yet authorities disregarded this legal stipulation and put Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev in control instead. Senate chairman Nigmatulla Yuldashev backed the move, insisting that Mirziyayev had more experience.

Although Karimov’s death could have led to a transition toward a less oppressive system, Mirziyayev has vowed to maintain the status quo. He spoke of Karimov as a father figure, and asserted that he will uphold similar policies regarding security and continue the country’s prickly resistance to foreign alliances.

On September 16, the Election Commission confirmed Mirziyayev’s candidacy in a presidential election set for December 4. Given the country’s history of pro forma elections, a lopsided victory for the interim leader is widely seen as a foregone conclusion.

Turkmenistan

In neighboring Turkmenistan, one of the most closed societies in the world, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow effectively lifted the only legal barrier restricting his ability to rule for life on September 14. The rubber-stamp parliament and Council of Elders approved constitutional amendments that removed a 70-year age limit for presidential candidates and extended presidential terms from five to seven years. Berdimuhamedow is currently 59 years old.

The president proposed such changes in February, meaning they could have been finalized at any moment this year. But some have postulated that Karimov’s death in office may have expedited Berdimuhamedow’s effort to legally ensure the same outcome for himself. His own rise to power unfolded through an utterly opaque transition process following the 2006 death of President Saparmurat Niyazov, who had ruled since the Soviet era.

Kazakhstan

Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only remaining leader from the Soviet period, reshuffled his cabinet and a number of other important positions starting on September 8.

Among other alterations, the 76-year-old Nazarbayev appointed his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, to the Senate, and named the justice minister, Berik Imashev, to head the Election Commission. He also created a ministry to manage religious affairs, perhaps indicating his fear of potential extremist activity.

The Senate chairman is slated to take over if the president is unable to serve, leading some observers to ask whether Dariga would eventually take that post. Yet prospects for a dynastic succession seem doubtful, Eurasia expert Erica Marat told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Instead, Nazarbayev may simply consider Dariga’s presence in the political sphere to be a means of preserving his family’s interests in the country’s governance.

Bruce Pannier, a Central Asia expert for RFE/RL, suggested that the reshuffle was aimed at installing a trusted “transition team.” Both Pannier and Marat maintained that compared with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan’s elite structure is more complex, meaning any new leader would have to win acceptance from various political and economic interests as well as the public at large.

Still, if the media remain tightly controlled and the opposition suppressed, voters are unlikely to be presented with more than one viable candidate

Azerbaijan

Eurasia watchers are now awaiting the somewhat predictable outcome of Azerbaijan’s referendum on September 26. In July, President Ilham Aliyev had announced plans for the vote on more than two dozen constitutional changes, including extension of the presidential term from five to seven years and creation of the post of an appointed vice president. If the president were unable to serve, authority would be transferred to this new, unelected position.

Hundreds of demonstrators filled the streets of the capital, Baku, on September 17 and 18 to protest the upcoming vote, and numerous participants were detained on the first day of protests. An advisory body to the Council of Europe criticized the constitutional reforms, arguing that they were rushed through with little time for debate or consultation, and that they could improperly expand the president’s authority.

Nevertheless, the official results of the referendum in this highly repressive political environment are expected to endorse the proposed amendments, which seem designed in part to avoid a repetition of Aliyev’s own rocky succession. In 2003, his 80-year-old father, President Heydar Aliyev, collapsed during a live television broadcast, leading to a scramble in which Ilham was first named prime minister, then took a leave of absence to run in the October presidential election, from which the elder Aliyev withdrew just days before the balloting. Heydar Aliyev died that December, having narrowly secured the future of his increasingly corrupt regime.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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