Rico Isaacs – Twilight of the Patriarch: Charismatic Presidentialism and Charismatic Routinisation in Kazakhstan

This is a guest post by Rico Isaacs, Senior Lecturer in International Studies at Oxford Brookes University


Nursultan Nazarbayev’s enduring presidency in Kazakhstan (25 years and counting) has been defined by what Max Weber would have understood as charismatic authority.[i] The presidency is dominated by his personal authority and the belief in the unique qualities and special attributes of Nazarbayev himself rather than the specific office of president. There is also a religiosity to charismatic presidentialism as the president is often depicted as being the ‘chosen one’. While power in Kazakhstan is conditioned by some elements of legal-rational authority (e.g. elections, separation of powers) and traditional authority (e.g. patronage, clientelist networks), presidentialism remains very much defined by charisma.

Given the centrality of Nazarbayev to the political system in Kazakhstan what are the prospects for a stable transition to a post-charismatic order? While there are a number of mechanisms available to Nazarbayev to transition to a non-charismatic political order, these potential pathways feature considerable risks and problems, especially elite instability and the further personalisation of power. This post, based on a larger article published in the journal Studies in Transition States and Societies, conceptually locates the politics of succession in Kazakhstan within the notion of charismatic routinisation and considers the challenges and pitfalls of charismatic presidential succession in the Kazakh case.

Any student of Max Weber would know that personalised charismatic leadership is ephemeral and lasts only as long as the charismatic leader. The process of transitioning from charismatic authority to one legitimated by legal-rational rules or traditional conventions is conceptually known as ‘charismatic routinisation’.[ii] ‘Designation’ and ‘charisma in office’ are two forms of ‘charismatic routinisation; which could play out in the case of Kazakhstan. Below I will deal with each of these potential processes in turn.

‘Designation’ is when a presidential successor is designated the role of leader, either by the charismatic leader, if still alive, or by administrative staff or elite followers if the leader is dead. In Kazakhstan any ‘designation’ of a successor requires their position as leader to be legitimised through an election. Yet this legal-rational component of the process can lead to a dilemma for charismatic followers as it endows the successor with a legitimacy separate from that given to the leader by the elite who put the successor in power. This additional legitimacy enables the successor the opportunity to reconstitute a form of charismatic presidentialism, as we have seen in the case of Turkmenistan (see below).

‘Designation’ is frequently seen as the most likely scenario for succession in Kazakhstan and many commentators suggest there will be a ‘hand-picked successor’ model to replace Nazarbayev.[iii] Occasions in the former USSR where a successor was designated in advance of the leader dying or stepping down has led to regime instability such as in Georgia, Ukraine and to an extent Kyrgyzstan. With power seen to be drifting away from the leader, elites become disgruntled and uncertain of the extent to which their interests will be met under the new leader. Dissatisfied elites can then draw on popular discontent with the existing leader to mobilise against the regime and take power.[iv]

Despite the persistent speculation over the last decade that Nazarbayev has been planning to hand power over to a designated successor, he has failed to do so. Instead he has concentrated power further into his personality which perhaps suggests concern regarding the consequences for political instability of a ‘chosen successor’ model, as the experience of other former Soviet states has demonstrated. The fact Nazarbayev has not provided, at least publicly, any indication for a preferred successor or a model or mechanism for a transfer of power, has led political analysts to consider the potential scenarios for a post-Nazarbayev order.

The first scenario depicts a model where the vacuum created by Nazarbayev’s exit (either through death, incapacity or voluntary exit without a clear plan of succession) creates a collapse of the system where the elites (or charismatic followers) under Nazarbayev fight amongst themselves, leading to conflict and potential civil war.[v]

The second scenario suggests elite groups under Nazarbayev will coalesce and attempt to rule collectively with a designated successor chosen as the figurehead of some kind of oligarchic power structure. However, the danger of such a ‘puppet’ is demonstrated in the case of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan. Berdymukhamedov was chosen as successor by powerful Turkmen elites in the aftermath of Saparmurat Niyazov’s death in 2006. Berdymukhamedov ‘designation’ was confirmed by a national election in March 2007. The election, however, endowed Berdymukhamedov with a legitimacy separate from those key elites who placed him in power. After the election those elites were ousted and Berdymukhamedov quickly reconstituted a form of charismatic presidentialism not unlike his predecessor. Naturally, we should not read too much into a comparison between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Elite groups in Kazakhstan have far greater financial and political autonomy than those in Turkmenistan, and thus stronger foundations for a personal political base, which could serve them well in holding off any attempt by a designated successor to erode their power.

In the aftermath of an election victory this year in which he collected 97.75% of the vote, Nazarbayev spoke of strengthening the powers of the parliament and the government at the expense of presidential power.[vi] Such proclamations, while being made countless times before to little effect, are an example of the second mechanism of charismatic routinisation – ‘charisma in office’. ‘Charisma in office’ can be understood as the transmission or attempted transmission of personal charismatic power into formal legal-rational political institutions. In Kazakhstan we can see this in the divesting of power to the Mazhilis (legislature) (and their constituent political parties) through constitutional reform.

As noted above, there have been previous attempts at divesting power to the government and the legislature, the 2007 constitutional reform being but one major example. The set piece of that reform was that the Prime Minister would be appointed by the president only after consultation with parliamentary factions and with the consent of a majority of deputies. The problem is that the 2007 reform process led to a concentration of, rather than a diluting of, charismatic presidentialism. While Nazarbayev gave away the power to appoint the prime minister to the leader of the largest party faction in parliament, that largest party faction was Nur Otan (Light of Fatherland), his political party, which since its inception has dominated and controlled the legislature.

‘Charisma in office’ in Kazakhstan has also been further problematised by Nazarbayev finding it difficult to lay down the reins of power. Despite attempts to arrange a succession, aware that making plans prior to dying improves the prospects of their legacy remaining intact, charismatic leaders find it difficult to pass on the mantle to a successor. Instead there is a further consolidation of their charismatic leadership. The case of Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan neatly exemplifies this key dilemma. This was perhaps most evident with the introduction of the ‘leader of the nation’ legislation in 2010, in which loyal deputies in the Mazhilis proposed legislation conferring the title ‘Elbasi’ (leader of the Kazakh nation) on Nazarbayev. The legislation ensures that should Nazarbayev transfer power to another leader, or downwards to the parliament, he will still possess personal oversight of the political system. If anything, the leader of the nation legislation only entrenched charismatic presidentialism, embodying Nazarbayev’s unique and special status in the political system.

‘Charisma in office’, therefore, remains challenging as a potential pathway for post-charismatic succession in Kazakhstan. Despite continued proclamations that the process of constitutional and political reform will lead to the divesting of charismatic presidential power to political institutions such as the parliament and political parties, this has not occurred. This is primarily because formal institutions lack autonomy and because of a further personalisation and strengthening of power in Nazarbayev.

This means that it is ‘designation’, underpinned by the legal-rational element of elections, which remains the most likely scenario for presidential succession in Kazakhstan. It is not difficult to imagine that there would be a collective effort by elites to install a figure who could maintain the economic interests of competing elite groups. As the case of Turkmenistan demonstrates, however, there is a danger that the legitimacy engendered by putting a designated candidate through an electoral process could lead to the reconstitution of charismatic presidentialism. Nonetheless, this is somewhat offset by the financial autonomy of powerful elite groups in Kazakhstan who might be better placed to ensure a successor does not emulate the charismatic nature of Nazarbayev’s presidency.

[i] This is a revised version of a larger paper, ‘Charismatic Routinization and Problems of Post-Charisma Succession in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan’ published in Vol 7 (1) of Studies of Transition States and Societies available: http://publications.tlu.ee/index.php/stss/

[ii] Weber, M. (1978). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Trans. Ephraim Fischoff, et al. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[iii]Roberts, S. (2012). Resolving Kazakhstan’s Unlikely Succession Crisis, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo, 231 (September 2012).

[iv] Hale, H. (2005). Regime Cycles: democracy, autocracy and revolution in post-Soviet Eurasia. World Politics, 58(1) pp. 133-165.

[v] Satpayev, D. et al (2013) Sumerechnaya zona, ili lovushki perekhodnogo perioda. Almaty: Al’yans Analiticheskikh Organizatsii, Gruppa otsenki riskov.

[vi] See Radio Azattyk, Nazarbaev Vyskazalsya za ‘oslablenie’ prezidentskoi vlasti, 29 May 2015, http://rus.azattyq.org/content/news/27042815.html

Rico Isaacs is a Reader in Politics at Oxford Brookes University. His research interests focuses on the comparative political sociology of authoritarianism, regime-building and nation-building in Central Asia.

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