Getting serious: “Operation successor” enters critical phase In Kazakhstan

On March 19, after almost 30 years of rule, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the longest-serving head of state in the post-Soviet space, announced his immediate resignation as President of Kazakhstan. As stipulated by the constitution, in the event of early retirement of the incumbent, presidential powers pass to the Chairman of the Senate, the Upper House of Kazakhstan’s Parliament. Thus, the next day, 65-year old Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was sworn in to serve as acting President until the next regular election scheduled for April 2020. Succeeding Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga (55) was elected the Senate’s Chairwoman in a unanimous secret ballot making her number two in Kazakhstan’s power hierarchy.

Nazarbayev’s resignation is a remarkable move, which has been in the air for some time. In contrast to his colleagues in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, who left unresolved questions of succession after their deaths in office, Nazarbayev had made it clear for years that he does not intend to leave the fate of the regime he created to those who would survive him, thereby provoking the risk of violent clashes between competing factions. In contrast also to Azerbaijan’s first President Aliyev, who pushed through a dynastic solution, he claimed to be more interested in regime continuity than in securing family business. And in contrast to Russia’s Yeltsin, who was not only constitutionally prevented from running again but also severely incapacitated by the end of his second term in office, Nazarbayev is not obviously ailing, has not (yet) declared the name of a successor and seems to retain full control over the process of power transfer.

In fact, it is not so much the resignation itself that is surprising as is the impression that “Operation Successor” follows a thoroughly planned, quite effective schedule, thus creating a precedent in the post-Soviet region. So far, the whole process fits the framework Nazarbayev outlined during an interview in November 2016, where he declared that he was willing to work as president until 2020, followed by an orderly, constitutional power transition to a successor who is not his child.

By now, strategic choices for the choreography of a smooth power transition have been made in at least three directions. The first one is constitutional and legal reforms to retain control over the process.  When Nazarbayev was granted the title “Elbasy” (“Leader of the Nation”) in 2010, he was not only entitled legal immunity but also obtained the lifelong right to submit “initiatives on major issues of state construction, domestic and foreign policy and national security” as well as the right to personally address parliament, government and other bodies about “important issues.” Since then, these bodies have to coordinate their activities “in key areas of domestic and foreign policies” with Nazarbayev even in case of his retirement.

While these moves can be regarded as the climax of personalization of power, in 2017 and 2018 they were underpinned by institutional changes, effected through constitutional and legal reforms. As has been argued in an earlier post to this blog, the most important of these changes consisted of the elevation of the National Security Council from a merely ceremonial to a constitutional body by a special law from July 2018. Since then, the Security Council is responsible for securing domestic political stability, the constitutional system, and Kazakhstan’s national independence and territorial integrity. The Council’s members are the most important ministers, the Speakers of both Chambers of the Parliament, the Prime Minister and the President, all subordinate to Nazarbayev, the Council’s lifelong Chairman.

The final preparatory legal step took place on February 4, 2019, when the Constitutional Court accepted Nazarbayev’s appeal to clarify the conditions under which a president could leave office, as stipulated by paragraph 3 article 42 of the Constitution. On February 15, the Court concluded that voluntary retirement would be constitutional, even if this way of power transition was not explicitly provided for in the text itself.  

In the same vein, Nazarbayev has been preparing for power transfer through his “cadre policy,” the second strategic tier of “Operation successor.” Different from other post-Soviet autocrats, Nazarbayev has always pursued a sophisticated policy of frequent personnel rotation, thus preventing the entrenchment of people into their offices but awarding loyalty and devotion. Not only did Dariga, the President’s daughter, make her way to the highest echelons of power, but also a whole series of capable and trustworthy other people. The career of acting president Tokayev is a case in point. A Moscow-educated diplomat, he was Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1994-1999 and 2002-2007, served as Prime Minister in 1999-2002, held the position of an Under-Secretary-General, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva and was the Senate’s Chairman in 2007-2011 as well as in 2013-2019.  

The third dimension of the strategy of smooth power transition concerns the choice of pace and timing. While Nazarbayev was entitled to call snap elections to put a chosen successor to popular confirmation, he declined to do so during a press conference in December 2018. Instead, he decided to quit the presidency two days before Norouz (Nauryz), the country’s springtime New Year’s holiday. This would not only get the issue quickly out of the headlines but also be interpreted as a symbolic new beginning, thus leveraging the emotional atmosphere of Kazakhstan’s greatest feast, which is celebrated for three days.

Overall, the past week showed that power transfer is far from complete. Rather, Nazarbayev started the implementation of his project of stepping down as President while staying in power. In his TV address on March 19, he said that he remains chairman for life of the National Security Council and chairman of the ruling Nur Otan party that he founded, as well as the Constitutional Council. Elbasy assured he would stay with the Kazakhstani people, because “the concerns of the country and the people remain my concerns.”

Nazarbayev seems inclined to allow for a roughly year-long interim period, before a new president will be confirmed by popular vote in April 2020. The question of who will follow him in office may indeed still be open. In fact, many observers of Kazakhstani politics doubt that Dariga Nazarbayeva’s new position as Senate spokeswoman will lead her unequivocally to the presidency. Decent chances of getting Nazarbayev’s authorization to run for president are also attributed to acting President Tokayev and new Prime Minister Askar Mamin (53).

Perhaps, competition between the candidates is already in full swing. At least, the somewhat weird urgency with which Tokayev convinced the parliament to rename Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, into Nur-Sultan could be seen as a hint. This move is a strong signal of loyalty to Nazarbayev, demonstrating the initiator’s utmost devotion as well as his intention to secure regime continuity by accepting the long shadow of the First President.

However, the renaming of Astana also provoked some protest on the streets of Astana, Almaty, and Shymkent. Radio Free Europe’s Kazakh Service reported dozens of people detained by the police on March 22, and an online petition against the renaming gathered about 45,000 signatures. These rallies were said to be organized online by the leader of the banned Democratic Choice movement (DVK), Mukhtar Ablyazov, who lives in exile in France. It remains to be seen whether Nazarbayev’s resignation from the presidency will become a focal point for gathering an effective, united opposition. However, this is a rather unlikely scenario.

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