Category Archives: Central Asia

Kazakhstan: “Operation successor” complete or in jeopardy?


 

When Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s interim President, called early presidential elections on April 9, his victory was a foregone conclusion. In fact, the ballot on June 9 brought him 6.54 million votes, nearly 71 percent of all votes cast.

The next day, the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, a presidentially appointed advisory body of the President, declared Tokayev’s victory the confirmation of “a clear and understandable mechanism for the continuation of the strategic course of Elbasy,” i.e., Nazarbayev.

At the same time, international observers made their comments. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization called the elections “transparent, reliable and democratic.” The same conclusion was reached by the CIS observer mission, the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council), the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA), and official observers from Russia.

Only the OSCE mission, acknowledging the efficiency of the preparation and administration of the election, criticized the ballot as “tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices.” The observers found “considerable restrictions on the right [of independent candidates] to stand” and “limits to peaceful assembly and expression [inhibiting] genuine political pluralism.” On election day, they witnessed “significant irregularities, […] including cases of ballot box stuffing, and a disregard of counting procedures” as well as “widespread detentions of peaceful protesters” in major cities.

However, the main problem with the recent presidential election is not its lack of integrity. Trying to measure electoral integrity in a country like Kazakhstan, which has never been a democracy in the first place, misses the point. In a very basic sense, democratic elections are but the method by which the top executive leadership is selected. In Kazakhstan, however, the people were not meant to choose who would run the country in the years to come. The election was announced, because of the new President’s need for legitimacy. Winning the election by a huge margin would strengthen his position against intra-elite rivals as well as vis-à-vis Nazarbayev, the “Leader of the Nation,” Chairman of the so-called ruling party Nur-Otan and Chairman for life of the National Security Council.

This situation is a consequence of the logic of personalistic regimes. To survive, this kind of regime is in urgent need of a strong leader, able to coopt all relevant elite groups into a nation-wide politico-economic network, i.e., an integrated “power pyramid.” Thus, a president who cares about the future of the regime he created, must also arrange for a successor who is acceptable to the main elite groups, instead of leaving this critical question to an aggregated and unpredictable “will of the people”.

Since about 2013, Nazarbayev—the most experienced, smartest post-Soviet leader beside Putin—had repeatedly been explicit in public about the personal responsibility he felt for managing an orderly succession of power to secure political stability in the country. With the 2017 and 2018 constitutional reforms, he implemented the institutional design of a possible post-Nazarbayev regime – a slight redistribution of competencies between the power branches at the expense of the future president, and a lifelong supervisory position for the retired “Leader of the Nation.” The next step followed in March 2019, when he resigned from the presidency, paving the way for his trusted ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, then Chairman of the Upper House of Kazakhstan’s Parliament.

What happened since then seems to fit well into the picture of a thoroughly choreographed transition. The successor in office preponed elections by almost a year, declaring that “in order to secure social and political accord, confidently move forward, and deal with the tasks of socioeconomic development, it is necessary to eliminate any uncertainty.” The goal of this move was to gain legitimate power via electoral acclamation as well as to shorten the window of opportunity for the opposition to organize and unite.

Obviously stage-managed was also the nomination process of the contenders. A total of seven candidates were registered by the country’s Central Election Commission, which claimed the upcoming election to become the most competitive one in the country’s history. Nur-Otan nominated Tokayev as the chosen successor. Three other candidates were nominated by the loyal pro-government opposition, i.e., by parties owing their orchestrated existence to serve specific clienteles: the Democratic Party Ak Zhol, which is somewhat more reform-oriented than Nur-Otan, the Social Democratic Party Auyl, which addresses the needs of the countryside, as well as the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan. In addition, Kazakhstan’s Trade Unions nominated a former short-term member of the parliament, and a movement aiming to develop Kazakhstan’s cultural and national values nominated the President of the Equestrian Federation.

The only surprise was the participation of Amirzhan Kossanov, a moderate opposition politician. Since leaving the ruling coalition two decades ago, he has been engaged in the loyal opposition, and later in political organizations that were denied official registration. In 2006 and 2012, he was sentenced to several 15-day jail terms for organizing unauthorized rallies in support of the victims of political repression.

Kossanov’s nomination was widely seen as a political concession by the authorities, but critics suspected him in having struck a deal with the ruling elite group or blamed him for legitimizing an unfree and unfair election. Actually, any textbook for authoritarian rulers would recommend staging select oppositional candidates to divide the opposition over the question of whether or not to boycott elections. In fact, domestic experts noted rising levels of activity among the electorate during the rather low-key, even sluggish election campaign, with the boycott question moving center stage. This eased Tokayev’s situation, whose campaign ran under the motto “Prosperity for all! Continuity. Justice. Progress.”

At first glance, the results of the presidential race seem to attest a happy end of Nazarbayev’s thoroughly managed “operation successor.” Having won the election, Tokayev declared the power transfer complete. All contenders—including oppositional Kossanov—accepted his victory and offered congratulations.

However, there are some signs that this conclusion might be premature. Power transfer in a heavily personalized regime is a risky endeavor for various reasons. The obvious one is that people might not agree to accept the chosen successor. In fact, the table below shows that the authorities rightly claim the presidential elections to be the most competitive elections ever held in the country. This is true not only by the number of competitors—which was under the ultimate control of the Election Commission—, but also by the results of the ballot itself.

Results of presidential elections in Kazakhstan (in percent)

Date Number of
candidates
Votes for the
winning candidate
Votes for the
“best loser”
Turnout
01.12.1991 1 98.8 88.2
29.04.1995 * 95.5 91.2
10.01.1999 4 81 11.9 87
04.12.2005 5 91.15 6.61 76.8
03.04.2011 4 95.55 1.85 89.98
26.04.2015 3 97.75 1.61 95.22
09.06.2019 7 70.96 16.23 77.5

* Referendum on extending Nazarbayev‘s presidential term without elections

First, as big as the margin of victory between the victor and the second-place finisher remains, it was never as small as in 2019. Kossanov’s 1.5 million votes are a solid, respectable result. Second, turnout was notably lower than in all previous elections except in 2005, meaning that the regime was unable to mobilize the electorate to the same degree as during the last decade when Nazarbayev was the country’s uncontested leader. If the ballot count was indeed manipulated, which is highly likely, the degree of non-approval may be much higher than reported.

Moreover, independent, mostly international, media such as Eurasianet, Radio Free Europe and the BBC reported rising civil disobedience on the streets and on the internet, signaling widespread discontent and annoyance with politics in general—ranging from the renaming of the capital into Nur-Sultan over entrenched corruption and poor public sector services to socioeconomic grievances—and the handling of the succession question in particular. New civil society groups emerged, such as “Wake up, Kazakhstan,” calling citizens to demand more say in government. Public awareness for possible electoral fraud was also on the rise, and many Kazakhstanis became eager not only to cast their vote, but also to become election observers.

On election day, a series of protest rallies took place, and over two days, around 700 people were detained by the police. According to the latest news on June 11, protests continue. Reuters speaks of “the biggest display of public discontent since 2016”.

While the Kazakhstani people do not select their president, mass protest would become meaningful, because it would damage the legitimacy of the newly elected office-holder. This, in turn, might spur elite competition, affecting the expectations of various elite groups whether Tokayev will hold himself at the helm of the power pyramid or not. Consequently, they would have to decide whether to back him or to coordinate around a more promising candidate. At the time being, Kossanov, for example, did not rule out the possibility to create a political party to run in the legislative elections, scheduled for 2021.

It is too early to speculate about whether Tokayev will manage to stabilize his position. The next couple of weeks will show, whether the recent presidential election completed “operation successor” or, instead, was the prelude to severe regime turbulences.

Post-Communist Countries: Policy Diffusion relating to Immunity from Prosecution for Ex-Presidents

Immunity from criminal prosecution for sitting presidents is a common feature of democratic as well as authoritarian regimes.[i]    Shielding presidents from indictment and prosecution is designed to prevent members of the political opposition from weaponizing the criminal process and adding unduly to the already considerable burdens of political leadership.  Besides, in most countries, there is a political remedy for presidential corruption or malfeasance—impeachment—which places the responsibility for the fate of an errant president in the hands of elected representatives rather than prosecutors or judges. 

Less common in presidential or semi-presidential systems is immunity from criminal prosecution for ex-presidents.[ii]  Here the logic is different and more likely to apply in places where democracy has yet to be consolidated.  In these circumstances, immunity for ex-presidents can encourage leaders to leave office at the end of their constitutionally-mandated term without fear of losing their property, their freedom, or their lives.  In a word, immunity lessens the incentive for incumbent presidents to use constitutional[iii] or unconstitutional means to hold on to power.   

In the post-communist world, Russia was the first country to grant broad immunity protection to ex-presidents.  The measure came in the form of a decree issued by Vladimir Putin on December 31, 1999, hours after Boris Yeltsin ceded the presidency to Putin, who had been prime minister.   This decree was part of a package of concessions to Yeltsin that facilitated the departure of the aging Russian president.[iv]  Among the decree’s provisions were expansive protections against criminal liability for acts committed while in office as well as protections against being “detained, arrested, searched, interrogated, or personally inspected [lichnyi osmotr].”  Moreover, the decree extended the immunity to a former president’s “residential and office premises, vehicles used by him, means of communication, other documents, luggage, and correspondence.”  However, a subsequent parliamentary statute, adopted in January 2001, eroded immunity guarantees for ex-presidents in Russia by subjecting former leaders to criminal prosecution if both houses of parliament first conclude that the president committed “grave crimes” [tiazhkie prestupleniia] while in office.[v]

In a striking example of legal diffusion and the neighborhood effect, the Russian legislation inspired subsequent laws protecting ex-presidents in 7 of the other 14 post-Soviet states.  In some respects, it was a throwback to the practices of the Soviet era, when Moscow would first develop a piece of model legislation [maket] and then the 15 union republics would adopt local codes with only minor variations from the model.  In the case of the follow-on laws on immunity for ex-presidents in post-communist states, the legislative language was often lifted word-for-word from the Russian model.  In these cases, according to the literature on policy diffusion, what was at stake was not authoritarian learning, competition, or coercion but authoritarian imitation.[vi] 

Because this demonstration effect radiated out to the immediate neighborhood and no further, the post-communist example fits into a pattern of “proximity diffusion” found in other parts of the world, and in at least one region on this very issue.  Many African countries, for example, have adopted common guarantees of immunity for sitting presidents and, in some cases, ex-presidents.  In these African cases, however, the protections may be removed when charges of “high treason” are at issue.[vii] 


As the accompanying chart illustrates, there are some significant variations in the provisions set out in national laws.  In the cases of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, for example, immunity guarantees apply only to the first post-communist president during his lifetime.  In Kazakhstan that is Nursultan Nazarbaev, who since 2010 has had the official title of Yelbasy, or Leader of the Nation; in Tajikistan it is Emomali Rahmon, who sports the even grander-sounding moniker of The Founder of Peace and National Unity—The Leader of the Nation.[viii]  Given Nazarbaev’s unexpected decision last month to resign after 30 years at the helm of Soviet and post-Soviet Kazakhstan, he is now in a position to enjoy the ad hominem immunity that he helped to put in place over the last two decades, an immunity that protects not only Nazarbaev’s person but the property and bank accounts of himself and members of his family living with him.  For his part, Tajikistani President Rahmon enjoys similar guarantees, except that the law covers all family members and not just those living with him, a provision that would seem to protect his grown children, including his oldest son, Rustam, who many view as the likely successor to his father as president of Tajikistan.

Given their traditional positions as the most authoritarian regimes in former Soviet Central Asia, one might have expected Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to have introduced versions of the Russian law on immunity that offered the broadest possible guarantees to an ex-president.  However, in important respects, ex-presidents of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are more vulnerable to criminal prosecution than their peers in neighboring countries, at least according to the formal rules.  First, in both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan immunity protections extend only to those actions “taken in connection with the execution of the powers” of president, and thus would arguably not cover all of the actions of a president while in office.  Second, by allowing the authorities to deprive an ex-president “of immunity if a criminal case is instituted in connection with the commission of a grave crime,” Turkmenistan grants considerable discretion to prosecutorial and judicial authorities.  Finally, the Uzbekistani law on immunity for ex-presidents makes no mention of protections for property.

Because many countries in the former Soviet Union’s southern tier do not have ex-presidents—they either die in office or have their titles stripped from them in the wake of popular rebellions —one might argue that parsing the legislation on immunity is a fruitless exercise.  Yet as we noted earlier, Kazakhstan now has its first ex-president; Kyrgyzstan has two, Roza Otunbaeva and Almazbek Atambaev; a former president of Azerbaijan returned to his country after many years in exile, in part because of the extension of immunity to ex-presidents; and courts in Armenia are this week trying to decide whether its constitution’s immunity provisions will protect former President Robert Kacharian.[ix] 

Finally, in Kyrgyzstan there have been attempts over the last year to revise, or eliminate altogether, immunity protections for ex-presidents, an effort prompted by the ongoing feud between former President Atambaev and his hand-picked successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.  Thus, while a country in the throes of authoritarian consolidation like Tajikistan has recently strengthened protections for ex-presidents, Kyrgyzstan is threatening to break with the Russian-inspired model of immunity for former leaders.  The denouement of the year-long campaign in Kyrgyzstan to weaken immunity for ex-presidents will be the subject of my next post for this blog. 


[i] My thanks to Kelly B. Smith of Stetson University and Alexei Trochev of Nazarbaev University for bibliographic assistance on this post.

[ii] In France, for example, two of the three most recent ex-presidents, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, have been charged with crimes.  Chirac was convicted and Sarkozy has been fighting a five-year long judicial battle to avoid a conviction.  Thomas Prouteau, “Affaire des ‘écoutes’: Nicolas Sarkozy sera-t-il jugé un jour?” RTL, April 9, 2019.  https://www.rtl.fr/actu/politique/affaire-des-ecoutes-nicolas-sarkozy-sera-t-il-juge-un-jour-7797391350

[iii] By constitutional means I have in mind extending or adding terms of office.

[iv] О гарантиях Президенту Российской Федерации, прекратившему исполнение своих полномочий, и членам его семьи, Указ Президента Российской Федерации от 31.12.1999 г. № 1763. http://www.kremlin.ru/acts/bank/14857

[v] Федеральный закон от 12 февраля 2001 г. N 12-ФЗ “О гарантиях Президенту Российской Федерации, прекратившему исполнение своих полномочий, и членам его семьи” (с изменениями и дополнениями). http://constitution.garant.ru/act/president/182948/  See

[vi] See Charles R. Shipan and Craig Volden, “The Mechanisms of Policy Diffusion,” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 52, no. 4 (October 2008), pp. 840-857.      

[vii] The countries referencing high treason as an exception are Burundi, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Guinea, Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sudan, and Togo.  These countries are among the 32 jurisdictions where ex-presidents enjoy some form of immunity; these cases are catalogued in the very useful compendium prepared by the Law Library of the Library of Congress. Immunity from Prosecution for Former Presidents in Selected Jurisdictions (Washington, DC: Law Library of the Library of Congress, October 2017).  For a perceptive analysis of immunity for presidents and ex-presidents in African states, see Charles Manga Fombad and Enyinna Nwauche, “Africa’s Imperial Presidents: Immunity, Impunity and Accountability,” African Journal of Legal Studies, vol. 5, no. 2 (2012), pp. 91-118.

[viii] Vladimir Putin has been referred to at times in some Russian media outlets as the leader of the nation, though as yet that is only an informal label. 

[ix] “Armenian court extends ex-president Kocharyan’s arrest for another two months,” ARKA News Agency, March 13, 2019.  http://arka.am/en/news/politics/armenian_court_extends_ex_president_kocharyan_s_arrest_for_another_two_months_/

During the Rose Revolution in Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili reportedly promised President Eduard Shevardnadze immunity from prosecution in order to encourage him to leave office, but I can find no record of legislation enacted that makes good on that promise.  See “Georgia’s Shevardnadze to be given immunity,” rferl.com, February 20, 2004.  https://www.rferl.org/a/1051611.html

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.

Kyrgyzstan – Ex-Presidents and Democratic Fragility in the Developing World

Former presidents in stable democracies traditionally retreat into a dignified and comfortable retirement that removes them from the political front-lines.  Most leaders of authoritarian regimes also fade from the political scene, but for rather different reasons—a natural or unnatural death or an ignominious exile or imprisonment.  Between the poles of consolidated democracies and personalist dictatorships lies the increasingly expansive terrain of hybrid regimes and struggling democracies, where the afterlives of presidents offer cases worthy of serious political analysis. 

As Roger Southall and others have noted in their work on former presidents in African politics, the recent growth in democratic transitions on that continent has increased “the number of former heads of state who now have to be accommodated by their successors.”[i]  Thus, among the many causes of the fragility of fledgling democracies is the reluctance of former presidents to transfer fully the reins of power, even when they are in the hands of political allies. Such is the case with the former president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambaev, whose single, six-year term ended in October 2017. 

As the accompanying table illustrates, since 1994 none of the countries in post-communist Central Asia—save one—has had living former presidents, which testifies to the dominance of authoritarianism in the region.[ii]  The exception is Kyrgyzstan, a flawed but surprisingly resilient young democracy whose four ex-presidents are still among the living.  The first two Kyrgyzstani presidents to leave office, Askar Akaev (1991-2005) and Kurmanbek Bakiev (2005-2010), did so involuntarily, overthrown in popular revolts that sent them into exile in Russia and Belarus, where they have remained largely detached from the political struggles in their home country.  The country’s third leader, Roza Otunbaeva (2010-2011), has served as a model ex-president in a democracy.  Although she has on occasion responded testily to provocative statements hurled in her direction by her mercurial successor, Almazbek Atambaev (2011-2017), she has generally worked quietly behind the scenes to advance good governance initiatives and to support her charitable foundation, which seeks to improve conditions for Kyrgyzstan’s children.  

Rather than follow the lead of Otunbaeva, former president Atambaev has chosen to interfere directly in high politics, and in so doing he has produced a crisis of authority in the country.  With the goal of shaping politics from behind the scenes after his departure from the presidency, Atambaev had used the administrative powers of his office as well as a smear campaign against the front-runner in the presidential race, Omurbek Babanov, to ensure the election of his chosen successor and fellow Social Democrat, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.[iii]   At the outset of the election campaign Jeenbekov had been the favorite of only three percent of the population, and as Atambaev himself noted recently, “I dragged him into the presidency” [ia dotashchil do prezidenta strany].  

Leadership Transitions in the Central Asia Region since 1994

Despite—or perhaps because of—the depth of his indebtedness to the former president, President Jeenbekov began to distance himself from his patronwithin weeks of his inauguration.  In Jeenbekov’s words, Atambaev had tried “to make me a front man controlled by third parties, and this does him no honor as a man, an ex-president, or a fellow party member and political ally.”[i]  By the spring of 2018, Jeenbekov had removed Atambaev loyalists in the presidential apparatus, most notably his chief-of-staff, and had engineered—or at a minimum acceded to—the launching of an anti-corruption campaign that targeted current and former high-ranking officials from Atambaev’s circle, including an erstwhile prime minister.  The result was a very public falling out between the two men and the re-sorting of the country’s governing elite into two hostile camps. 

For the next seven months, Atambaev sulked, allowing political confidantes and his network of friendly media outlets to take on the increasingly independent-minded new president.  But in the middle of November, Atambaev launched a frontal assault on his successor after returning from Moscow, where he had led the Social Democratic Party (SDPK) delegation at a conference of Asian political parties. In a lengthy television interview granted to Russian-language journalists, Atambaev accused Jeenbekov—whose relatives occupy several key political posts—of attempting to restore Bakiev-style “family rule,” a reference to a former president whose authoritarian policies had led to the April Revolution of 2010.[ii]  Atambaev also vouched for the authenticity of recently-leaked documents purportedly showing that President Jeenbekov’s presidential campaign had violated electoral laws by spending several times more than it had reported in filings with the Central Election Commission.[iii]  Furthermore, Atambaev insisted in the interview that a former prime minister, Sapar Isakov, was being prosecuted because he had resisted calls by Jeenbekov to protect a high-ranking customs official widely suspected of corruption, Raimbek Matraimov (a/k/a Raim Million).    

The interview illustrated Atambaev’s ability to play defense as well as offense in his deepening struggle with Jeenbekov and his supporters.  In order to deflect growing accusations that he had enriched himself while president at the expense of the nation, Atambaev laid out in unusual detail the domestic and foreign sources of his wealth.  He also exhibited in the interview uncharacteristic compassion and contrition toward some political adversaries who had been jailed on his watch, most notably the perennial presidential candidate and leader of the Ata-Meken Party, Omurbek Tekebaev.  He even lamented his frequent attacks on the press.

Atambaev’s revelations and regrets did little, however, to still mounting calls for his imprisonment on criminal charges.  Because Kyrgyzstan, along with only two other post-Soviet states, grants unlimited immunity to former presidents, some deputies supportive of President Jeenbekov have sought to lift this privilege for all ex-presidents.[iv] Just last week, on December 13, a bill to eliminate presidential immunity passed the country’s parliament in its first reading, 100-2.[v]  Touted as a means of discouraging abuse of office, the policy change would almost certainly have the unintended consequence of discouraging presidents from leaving office, given the widespread use of select prosecution in countries like Kyrgyzstan.   

Former President Atambaev faces serious threats on the political as well as legal fronts.  In order to undermine Atambaev’s position as leader of the SDPK, which has the largest number of deputies (38) in the highly-fragmented 120-person parliament, some party members aligned with President Jeenbekov launched a hostile takeover of the organization.[vi]  At the moment, Atambaev seems likely to retain control of the party, which he founded in the early 1990s and which he hoped would serve as his political base in his post-presidential years.  However, even if he beats back the current intra-party challenge, led by a group styling itself “SDPK without Atambaev,” the former president may find it difficult to prevent further defections in the run-up to the 2020 parliamentary elections.  For his part, President Jeenbekov has the daunting challenge of cobbling together a reliable pro-presidential parliamentary coalition in the absence of a large and overtly loyal pro-presidential party.   

The conflict between president and former president has pushed Kyrgyzstan into an awkward and dangerous impasse, with two powerful patronage networks set against each other.  Of course, as Henry Hale has pointed out in his work on patronal presidentialism,[vii]presidents in struggling democracies like Kyrgyzstan have never been able to forge a single-pyramid patronage system, and so competing pyramids of patron-client networks have long been the norm. However, no out-of-power patronage network has ever been led by a former president, never mind one who can boast of enormous wealth, the chairmanship of the dominant party in parliament, and a web of allies who have occupied key posts in government and the economy. Moreover, the specter of the leader of the country’s northern elite (Atambaev) threatening Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent southern politician (Jeenbekov)—and tying him to a disgraced former southern leader (Bakiev)—threatens to revive regional rivalries in Kyrgyzstani politics, which, to Atambaev’s credit, had diminished during his six years in office.    

Missing from the litany of Atambaev’s attributes above are his almost limitless personal ambition and his refusal to accept the institutionalized uncertainty that is at the core of democratic politics.[viii]   In these he differs fundamentally from former president Roza Otunbaeva. To be sure, Otunbaeva was less well-positioned to insist on a prominent role in politics following her presidency.  First, she was appointed by fellow members of the Interim Government in the wake of the April 2010 revolution, and instead of contesting a presidential election, she won a popular referendum on whether she should be confirmed as president.  Second, she served as an interim president, and her tenure lasted for only eighteen months, though a momentous eighteen months it was.  Finally, she had neither the financial nor organizational resources of Atambaev. Otunbaeva understood, however, the fragility of democracy and the vital role of the individual agent in advancing or impeding democracy’s consolidation.[ix]  

Not so Atambaev.  Reneging on his earlier promises to retire from politics to pursue his favorite pastimes, he has openly challenged the authority and legitimacy of the president he was instrumental in electing.  Atambaev’s presidency may have limited parallels with that of Joseph Kabila, the long-serving president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, Atambaev’s approach to his life as ex-president aligns with that of the Congolese leader, who noted this week, on the eve of his slated departure from office: “The job is not over at all.”[x]


[i]Ekskliuzivnoe interv’iu Sooronbaia Zheenbekova. Chast’ II, 24.kg, November 16, 2018.  https://24.kg/vlast/101374_eksklyuzivnoe_intervyu_sooronbaya_jeenbekova_chastII/

[ii]A full transcript of the interview can be found at https://kaktus.media/doc/382695_intervu_eks_prezidenta_almazbeka_atambaeva._polnaia_versiia.html

[iii]Given that Atambaev’s right-hand man, Ikramzhan Ilmiianov, was in charge of campaign finance for Jeenbekov’s presidential race, the accusation against the current president appears less damning.  “Iurist opublikoval ‘real’nye’ raskhody shtaba Zheenbekova, v apparate prezidenta nazvali ikh feikom,” Radio Azattyk, November 15, 2018. https://rus.azattyk.org/a/29602199.html 

[iv]Viktoriia Panfilova, “V Kirgizii boiatsia vozvrashcheniia v politiku Almazbeka Atambaeva,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, October 2, 2018, p. 5.  In mid-November 2018, the Constitutional Chamber of the Kyrgyzstani Supreme Court ruled that unlimited immunity for ex-presidents was unconstitutional. Sergei Kozhemiakin, “Okhota na eks-prezidenta,” Pravda, November 13, 2018, p. 3.

[v]“100 deputaty progolosovali za otmenu neprikosnovennosti eks-prezidentov,” KaktusMedia, December 13, 2018. https://kaktus.media/doc/383947_100_depytatov_progolosovali_za_otmeny_neprikosnovennosti_eks_prezidentov.html

[vi]Among the SDPK deputies is President Jeenbekov’s brother, Asylbek.

[vii]Henry E. Hale, Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), especially chapters 4 and 9.  

[viii]For a discussion of this concept, see Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Latin America and Eastern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[ix]Curiously, what unites all former presidents of Kyrgyzstan is their relative youth at leaving office—61 years old, which is the current age of President Jeenbekov, a fact that has engendered predictable speculation about his ability to break through this threshold.   

[x]Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “Stepping Way from Office, Not Power,” New York Times, December 16, 2018, p. A6.



[i]Roger Southall, Neo Simutanyi and John Daniel, “Former Presidents in African Politics,” in Roger Southall and Henning Melber (eds.), Legacies of Power: Leadership Change and Former Presidents in African Politics(Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2006). As Southall, Simutanyi, and Daniel argue, the role of the ex-leader is different in presidential and parliamentary models of government.  “[I]n the former, ex-presidents tend to stand down from partisan politics whereas in the latter, ex-prime ministers may remain politically active, often with the objective of regaining power.”  Ibid.

[ii]A minor exception concerns Azerbaijan, whose president, Haidar Aliev, stepped down in his last weeks of life in favor of his son.  Although not usually included in Central Asia, Azerbaijan’s culture and political economy make it a better fit for Central Asia than the Caucasus, the region with which it is usually linked.   

[iii]This strategy mirrors that of former president Bakili Muluzi of Malawi.

Grigorii V. Golosov – The Impact of Authoritarian Institutions on Party Systems in Post-Soviet Central Asian States

This is a guest post by Grigorii V. Golosov. It is based on the article “The Five Shades of Grey: Party Systems and Authoritarian Institutions in Post-Soviet Central Asian States”, in Central Asian Survey, doi:10.1080/02634937.2018.150044.

As of 2017, there was no single instance of a state that could be qualified as an electoral democracy in post-Soviet Central Asia. Meanwhile, all these states do conduct elections on a fairly regular basis, and they have developed party systems that display a remarkable cross-national variation. While the consequences of authoritarian institutions have been already subjected to a rather close scrutiny in scholarly literature, relatively little is known about the reasons why such institutions take their specific shape. This problem is particularly salient with respect to the most fundamental property of party systems, fragmentation, conventionally defined as the number of important parties in the system. While it is certainly true that the general tendency of authoritarian regimes is to create dominant party systems in which a pro-government party takes a lion’s share of votes and legislative seats, there are well-known instances of long-standing yet very fragmented authoritarian party systems, such as in Morocco. The reasons for this situation have not been clarified in the literature. The purpose of this study is to solve this puzzle by means of a systematic comparison of five authoritarian party systems that, while being quite similar in their origins, belonging to the same region of Post-Soviet Central Asia and thus sharing many similarities of context, do display a significant variation on the main parameter of interest, fragmentation.

In this study, I use a conventional measure of fragmentation, the effective number of parties, in the mathematical formulation developed by Golosov: where pi and p1 stand for the fractional shares of seats received by the i-th and the largest parties, respectively. Table 1 provides a brief summary of parliamentary elections, presented as the observed levels of party system fragmentation, in Central Asian states throughout the whole post-Soviet period. Since the electoral cycles of individual countries do not concur, each of the cells of the table reports the year of elections (or the year of the first round of elections, if different from that of the second round), and the effective number of parliamentary parties in parentheses.

Table 1. Years of parliamentary elections and effective numbers of parties (in parentheses) in Central Asian states

Abbreviations: NPS – no party structure in the assembly; SPS – single-party system. Sources: Inter-Parliamentary Union 2017; Nohlen, Grotz and Hartmann 2001.

I hypothesize that the levels of party system fragmentation in autocracies are contingent upon the scope of presidential powers. This is not to say that formal constitutional provisions, shallow as they are in authoritarian political contexts, are matters of primary concern for the autocrats. Of course, they are primarily concerned with preserving and expanding their hold over the polity. Yet if they choose to follow the rules of the game as established in the constitution, then it is rational for them to facilitate the development of secondary political structures, such as party systems, in a way that is optimal for the consolidation of authoritarianism within the existing constitutional order. In other words, the autocrats are well motivated to seek congruency between the scope of their constitutional powers and party system properties. In fact, there is no reason to assume that in this respect, the autocrats are fundamentally different from democratic presidents. What differentiates the two is not motivation but rather capacity: the autocrats are much better equipped to shape party systems at their will.

For an institutionally strong president, the party composition of the assembly is not very consequential. Given that the president makes crucial political and administrative decisions without any parliamentary involvement and often possesses significant legislative powers, political fragmentation in the assembly can be affordable for the presidency. In democracies, the limits of such affordability are set by the president’s ultimate inability to pursue her legislative agenda in a complete defiance of the parliament, which explains why the coexistence of a strong presidency with a fragmented assembly is often problematic. In autocracies, a strong president is less constrained by such considerations. At the same time, parliamentary fragmentation offers several tangible rewards to an institutionally strong president. First, the presence of many parties in the assembly greatly increases the symbolic value of the parliament by providing a visible proof to the autocrat’s claim that the regime is democratic in its nature. Indeed, one of the primary goals of authoritarian institution building is to project an image of democracy without threatening the political survival of the autocrat. Second, the survival of autocrats in power largely depends on their ability to neutralize the actual or potential opponents by co-opting them into the institutional structure of the regime. This explains why cooptation is often viewed as the principal rationale for the very existence of authoritarian institutions. Yet for co-optation to occur, a wide range of elite groups – including those that do not belong to the autocrat’s ‘inner circle’ – should gain access to representation, however shallow, and to the spoils associated with it. Third, by allowing such groups to participate in elections under their own party labels, the regime makes use of their political machines, which is important in authoritarian electoral contexts that are often dominated by clientelism.

Taking this into account, consider a situation when the formal powers of the presidency are intermediate, neither very strong nor very weak. In this situation, the autocratic president still can afford a multi-party composition of the assembly. However, the payoff of this strategy is smaller than in the conditions outlined above. For example, if the president is involved in the formation of the government yet the parliament also has significant appointment / government censure powers, which is often the case when the constitutional powers of the presidency are within an intermediate range, then manufacturing a multiparty majority poses a problem for the president without significantly reducing the political capacity of the legislature. In this situation, it is in the best interest of the president to seek and obtain a single-party legislative majority. A fragmented legislature is not necessarily dangerous for an autocratic president with moderate formal powers, but it is certainly more difficult to handle. This creates a strong incentive for seeking a pro-presidential party majority in the legislature. In the presence of strong motivation towards single-party control over the assembly, those factors that have been listed above as facilitating the coexistence between institutionally strong presidents and fragmented assemblies become less consequential. Thus the main hypothesis of this study can be formulated as follows. There is a curvilinear pattern of association between the constitutional powers of the presidency and the effective number of parties in electoral authoritarian regimes. While institutionally weak and institutionally strong presidencies are associated with fragmented party systems, the autocratic presidents with moderate yet sizeable formal powers seek and obtain single-party majorities in their assemblies, which leads to low levels of party system fragmentation.

In order to test this hypothesis, I used the Prespow scores as reported at this site with some minor amendments. Table 2 presents the scores as used in this study. The structure of presentation is the same as in Table 1.

Table 2. Years of parliamentary elections and Prespow2 scores (in parentheses) in Central Asian states

Sources: Inter-Parliamentary Union 2017; Presidential Power 2017.

With the data on the powers of the presidency and the effective number of parties at hand, I proceeded with my statistical analysis. The overall number of observations in the analysis is 16, which corresponds to the number of party-structured elections held in Central Asian states throughout the period under observation, as defined above and reported in Tables 1 and 2. This is explained in detail in the previous section of this paper. Given that the relationship between the two variables of interest is expected to be curvilinear, I used a polynomial regression model. The scatter plot is provided in Figure 1 (note that two data points for Kazakhstan, 2012 and 2016, nearly coincide in space). As is evident from the figure, the trend line takes the form of a U-shaped parabola, which supports my expectations regarding the relationship between the constitutional powers of the presidency and the effective number of parties.

The observed relationship is very strong, with R-squared = 0.67, and statistically significant at 0.001. The regression equation is thus: where ENP stands for the effective number of parties.

The strength of the observed association between the scope of presidential powers and the effective number of parties in Central Asian states suggests that the presidents can direct political processes – in this case, the process of party system development – at their will. Here lies the main difference between the dynamics of party system development in democracies, where it is largely determined by societal cleavages and other factors beyond the control of the acting rulers, and in autocracies, where it is largely manipulated by the authorities. Of course, a wider cross-national inquiry is needed to fully substantiate this vision of institutional dynamics under electoral authoritarianism, and it might well be that the dynamics observed in Central Asia deviates from the general tendency.

Sources: see sources to Tables 1 and 2.

Latinization in the Turkic post-Soviet Republics

On 14 November 2018, at Kazakhstan’s universities, a nation-wide exam to test students’ proficiency in the Latin alphabet took place. Simultaneously, two major radio stations and websites invited people to take the test at home. This was the kick-off for the implementation of a reform, started by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s October 2017 decree ordering a switchover from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet for Kazakh, the country’s state language. If carried out as planned, the reform will proceed in three stages. After a preparatory period (2018-2020), teachers will be trained, and identity cards based on Latin script will be issued (2021-2023). Finally, during 2024-2025 state agencies and state-owned media must gradually transition to the Latin alphabet.

The writing issue is an eminently political one across Central Asia. During the early 1920s, Soviet authorities created five republics out of Turkestan, the vast internal colony of the Russian Empire. Here as well as in Azerbaijan, they first introduced a modified version of the Arabic alphabet, replacing it between 1927 and 1930 with Latin, and finally, between 1938 and 1940, with the Cyrillic script. This policy claimed to be a necessary measure to combat illiteracy and to raise the cultural level of national minorities to that of Russians, and also aimed to thwart the influence of Turkey in the Soviet Republics with their predominantly Muslim population.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Latinization, the transition of the state language of the new republics to the Latin alphabet, entered the political agenda again. Initiated by Turkey, in the early 1990s, the idea of a common alphabet for the Turcophone world was popular. Numerous conferences and meetings brought together political representatives and scholars from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, but also from Russia’s Turkic regions and elsewhere. The project of a common script turned out to be utopian and lost its appeal by 1996.

By this time, three of the five post-Soviet states had managed to introduce their versions of Latin scripts. They argued that the Latin alphabet is better suited for representing the sounds of Turkic languages than Cyrillic, that its adoption strengthens the cultural, intellectual and social identity of their nations and that it secures the computer compatibility of their state languages. However, this move was mainly considered to signal a break with the Soviet era and a geopolitical reorientation.

Already in December 1991, Azerbaijan introduced a modified version of the Latin Azeri script that had been used during the 1920s and 1930s. The Cyrillic alphabet, so the law stated, had been a “historical injustice” introduced “despite the people’s will” and as a “continuation of the mass repressions of the 1930s.” However, in practice, the transition unfolded slowly, until a 2001 presidential decree made the use of the Latin alphabet mandatory.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan adopted Latin scripts in 1993, using alphabets that represented mere transliterations of the Cyrillic system. To date, the transition has not been fully completed here. This is most visibly in Uzbekistan, where both graphic systems continue to be used concurrently. The Latin alphabet prevails in many street names, on billboards, in public transportation, television and film productions, and the Cyrillic script in all other spheres.

The two remaining Turkic republics with their large segments of Russian-speaking populations approached the issue much later. In Kyrgyzstan, Latinization of the state language was included in a state program on language development during the period from 2000 to 2010. However, the project was not carried out. In July 2017, then-President Almazbek Atambaev declared that first, the shift to the Latin script might “divide Turkic languages and nations” across the post-Soviet region rather than unite them, because Turkic peoples in the Russian Federation continue using Cyrillic. Second, he argued, the change of the alphabet may also “break the link between generations, as many prominent Kyrgyz writers used Cyrillic when creating their works.”

In Kazakhstan, a six-step plan to switch the country to the Latin alphabet was launched by the Ministry of Education in 2007, but the program lost momentum soon. A new attempt followed in 2012 when Nazarbayev in his annual State of the Nation Address declared the transition to Latin part of the “Strategy Kazakhstan-2050,” a long-term program to push the country into the top 30 global economies by 2050. The recent measures aim to tackle this difficult task as smoothly and as well-organized as possible. Strikingly, and compared to the justifications for alphabet switchovers in the early 1990s, any geopolitical statements are avoided. Nazarbayev’s “Strategy Kazakhstan-2050” envisages the transition to Latin letters as one of several measures for modernizing the Kazakh language, the nation’s “spiritual center.” The move is incorporated into the seventh priority of the Strategy, which is titled “New Kazakhstani patriotism is the basis for the success of our multiethnic and multi-confessional society.” There, the use of the Latin alphabet is substantiated as a “decision for the sake of the future of our children,” easing access to English as a third essential language—along with Kazakh and Russian—and to the internet. When Russian media criticized this step as a geopolitical statement, the Kazakhstani foreign minister hastened to soothe his Russian colleague by underscoring that there was “no subtext and no geopolitical signal in Kazakhstan’s intention.” In the same vein, Nazarbayev declared in 2017 that “the transition of the Kazakh language to the Latin-based script does not in any way affect the rights of the Russian-speaking citizens” in the country, which still makes up more than 20 percent of the population.

Maryia Rohava and Fabian Burkhardt – “Modernizing” the constitution to preempt a succession crisis? Belarus between Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Armenia

This is a guest post by Maryia Rohava, University of Oslo, and Fabian Burkhardt, Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen

During the annual state-of-the-nation Address to the Belarusian People and the National Assembly on 24 April 2018, President Aliaksander Lukashenka fiercely rejected the notion that a referendum to amend the country’s 1994 Constitution was imminent. Belarus’ long-time ruler accused the foreign-funded press of peddling constitutional amendments. Opposition politicians calling for a referendum just wanted to provoke a fight and eventually a Ukrainian Maidan. Acting “against the People” by holding a referendum “tomorrow” could lead to the worst-case scenario, “just like in Armenia”, Lukashenka argued. The day before, on 23 April, the Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan had resigned in the wake of street protests later called the Velvet Revolution[i].

Lukashenka’s lengthy digression into the intricacies of constitutional politics in the course of his Presidential Address is remarkable. Insofar as it had been precisely Lukashenka – and not the opposition which has been forced into a permanent state of “ghettoization”[ii]– who has been talking about the need to amend the current constitution – or even pass a new one – for the past four years. What does explain Lukashenka’s flirtation with potential constitutional amendments which peaked in the first months of 2018 until mid-April, on the one hand, and the almost complete turnaround on 24 April, on the other?

After all, his current presidential powers are virtually unconstrained, and the term limit was abolished after the 2004 referendum on the constitutional amendments, which turned him in a de facto president for life. Moreover, aged 63, Lukashenka is still relatively young compared to other post-Soviet leaders for life: Kazakhstan’s Nazarbaev, for example (just as Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov when he died in 2016) aged 78, is 15 years older than the Belarusian leader. In other words, even if we accept that authoritarian leaders outside of monarchies with hereditary succession rules, or without a hegemonic party such as Mexico’s PRI or China’s communist party with institutionalized rules for rotation, need to take care of succession for the sake of their own safety, there is no obvious reason why the succession issue was that urgent as to justify the frequency of references with regard to the Constitution.

Therefore, one might assume that the Belarusian Constitution does have a particular function even though it does not limit executive power and has been violated on numerous occasions. It can be argued that just as in comparable authoritarian regimes,[iii] the Belarusian Constitution has information-related properties which contain a political vision, which defines the nature of the political community, and therefore shapes the identity of the community’s members by signaling and disciplining allies and opponents of the autocrat.[iv] Judging by the discourse on the Constitution in the past four years, there are several tenets at the core of this political vision: the supremacy of the presidency in all spheres touched upon in the Constitution; state sovereignty with regard to the outside world including neutrality in foreign policy, while maintaining constitutional order and stability in domestic politics; Belarus as a social state which guarantees social rights in a paternalistic way, but places the needs of the state and political community over those of the individual; and sovereignty of the people who need to be consulted (at least formally) by referenda if any substantial change was to be probed. However, given the external pressure of a volatile and fast-paced geopolitical environment, and the stalling, or even the end, of the Belarusian model of economic growth[v], Lukashenka and other state actors have recognized that adapting to ever-changing circumstances was necessary.

Calling for a change without changing anything

In the course of the past years, Lukashenka has built up public expectations that sooner or later, constitutional amendments were inevitable. On the 20thanniversary of the Constitution on 15 March 2014, for instance, Lukashenka declared that Belarus had fully “established itself as a sovereign state” by “realizing the aspirations of the Belarusian people of becoming the rightful masters of their home country”. At the same time, “sooner or later, a new constitution needs to be adopted,” – he argued insinuating that the current Constitution is a document of Belarus’ “transitional period”. During his speech addressed to the members of Parliament on 7 October 2016, the head of state went even a step further by calling for the formation of a “group of wise men and lawyers to analyze the Basic Law”. Although in 2017 and early 2018, Lukashenka frequently mentioned how rapidly the world was changing and that the time asked for adaptations[vi] and “something new,” he never really expanded on whenand what kindof changes were expedient.

Moreover, contradictions between the Constitution as theguarantor, core, and foundation of Belarusian statehood, on the one hand, and ever more frequent calls of the regime for amendments to this very pillar became increasingly evident. Discursively, Lukashenka attempted to dissolve this apparent contradiction by distinguishing between the “Constitution” and the “Basic Law” in reference to one and the same legal document. While the Constitution was this very pillar of stability and sovereignty, rhetorically, the Basic Law was not much different from ordinary laws: “We need to understand that law-making is an ongoing lively process. Like all laws and other regulations, it [the Basic Law] is a living organism which is bound to evolve and not to fall behind the pulsating life out there in the world”, he remarked during his annual meeting with the Constitutional Court’s judges on 15 March 2018.

How pliable the official rhetoric was became most obvious in statements of Lukashenka’s mouthpiece Lidziia Iarmoshyna, the chairwoman of the Central Election Commission. In January, she conceded that the Constitution needed to be “modernized”, but this kind of “cosmetics” or “renovation” could only be tackled once the basic question of the overall “construction” was decided upon, of course, by the President. But on 28 April 2018, just after Lukashenka had excluded that amendments were to be launched any time soon, Iarmoshyna admitted that the Constitution contained “a lot of obsolete norms” but that stability was much more important than modernizing these norms as they do not harm and obstruct the Belarusian society.

Also, no working parliamentary group or even a constitutional commission was set up to debate constitutional amendments or reforms in a systematic manner. Lukashenka did mention constitutional issues when addressing the Parliament, the Constitutional Court or the Central Election Commission, but separately. Naturally, this line of action retained the President’s full organizational and informational control over the process by preventing potential collective action or coordination among other state bodies with regard to discussing changes. The Constitution, therefore, served as an ideal issue to debate and signal a desire for evolution while any attempt of revolutionary change could be dismissed and blamed on oppositional and hostile foreign actors.

Cementing the supremacy of the presidency?

After the constitutional overhaul in 1996 and the abolishment of term limits in 2004, presidential power has been de jureand de factounconstrained. The position of the President above all other state organs is bolstered by a “theory of legal laws”[vii] propagated within the presidential administration and accepted in the judicial community. Laws were constitutional if they follow both the will of President Lukashenka and “the People”. They were considered unconstitutional and subsequently ignored by scholars if they did not.

When swearing in Viktar Rabtsaŭ as new constitutional court judge on 2 February 2017, Lukashenko addressed a critique frequently put forward by Belarusian NGOs and international actors that Belarus needed a human rights ombudsperson. In his view, such a position would be entirely redundant, since the President should be the “main inspector” of compliance with human rights principles in the country. Following this logic, the Constitutional Court was ascribed a supportive, but not constraining or limiting function of the presidency.

The law-making process is controlled by the Presidential Administration, and virtually all bills are initiated by the executive. Presidential decrees (dekrety, as opposed to the more mundane ukazy) are frequently used as policy initiatives and policy programs. Among others, this practice has been criticized by the OHCHR Special rapporteur on human rights in the latest report: “The legal framework continues to be amended and governed by presidential decrees, which overrule constitutional law”. Two recent examplesare the 2013-2014 judicial reform and the infamous 2015 Decree No 3 establishing a new tax on unemployment.

First, in an effort to foster the Eurasian integration, Lukashenka used his presidential mandate to introduce the judicial reform of 2013-2014 (Decree No. 6 accompanied by ordinances [ukazy] No.529 and 530) via presidential decrees bypassing the legislature and public debates. The presidential decree No. 6 dated 29 November 2013 made explicit reference to Article 101 of the Constitution. Article 101 stipulates that the President can issue temporal decrees, which have legislative validity, but they require approval of the House of Representatives and the Council of the Republic. Such temporal presidential decrees should not include changes, additions and interpretations of the Constitution and changes and additions of the legislative program. However, Article 97 clearly assigns the constitutional right to propose legislative bills amending the judicial system, judicial procedures and the status of judges to the House of Representatives.

The judicial reform resulted in the incorporation of the Supreme Economic Court into the Supreme Court despite the fact that the autonomy of the Supreme Economic Court is granted by Article 34 of the Constitution, and references to the Supreme Economic Court still remain in the Constitution.[viii] In the review of the judicial reform, the Constitutional Court confirmed the validity of these acts referring to Article 109, Paragraph (3): “The judicial system in the Republic of Belarus shall be determined by the law.” Thus, the interpretation of the law and legislative acts was de facto expanded to temporary presidential decrees. The Constitutional Court has also recognized that the judicial reform would require constitutional amendments. Thus, it appears that it was this somewhat hurried judicial reform that has opened up the Belarusian leadership to the debate on the Constitution back in 2013-2014.

The second example was the Decree No. 3 “On the prevention of social parasitism” from 2 April 2015 which introduced a tax for citizens who did not contribute to funding state expenditure, or did so less than 183 days per year. Therefore, the decree was targeted at unemployed and those employed in the informal economy to prop up state revenue. The reasoning to legitimize the decree was the notion of Belarus as a social state, i.e. contributing financially to social services was portrayed as obligatory. The Belarusian Helsinki Committee argued that the decree violated at least five articles of the Belarusian Constitution, most importantly Article 41, Paragraph (4) (de factointroducing forced or obligatory labor), but also articles 32, 56, and 101.

On the grounds that Decree No 3 violated Article 41 as well as the ILO Convention No. 29 “Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labor, 1930” and 105 “Abolition of Forced Labor”, the oppositional Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Assembly) filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court in July 2015. The Court, however, rejected to review the complaint on the merits as citizens and legal entities are formally not entitled to file a complaint. In the wake of street protests inMinsk and some regions in February and March 2017, the Constitutional Court did react to electronic citizen complaints. While the Court refused to start a constitutional review based on the complaints, it cited legislation and previous decisions of the Court and, therefore, indirectly confirmed the legality of the decree. It made reference to Article 56 of the Constitution and equaled state taxes, duties and other payments to an “unconditional demand by the state” that citizens must comply with following their duty to “contribute to funding public expenditure”. Hanna Kanapatskaia, one of the two independent MPs elected into the House of Representatives in 2016, tried to petition her chamber to file a complaint with the Constitutional Court, but her request got stuck for three months and was formally declined by the House in July 2017.

Decree No 3, therefore, once more highlighted the enormous powers of the presidency to make inroads into key tenets of the Constitution – in this case the notion of the social state. As the state bodies entitled to file complaints with the Constitutional Court are loyal to the president, citizens and other legal entities such as parties are de facto barred from checking the presidency, leaving the street as the only option to vent anger. Lukashenka did not repeal the decree, but complaints and protests did have some results. Among the 470,000 citizens obliged to pay the tax by mid-February 2017, only slightly more than 10% had complied. In March, Lukashenka decided to suspend and reconsider some terms of the decree until 2018. An amended Decree No. 1 was passed on 25 January 2018 which will come into force on 1 January 2019, which, however, also contradicts international and domestic norms on forced and compulsory labor according to an assessment of the Belarusian Congress of Independent Unions.

Overall, there is no reason to doubt that decrees will remain one of the most powerful tools for policy-making by the president. But the apparent lack of feedback mechanisms with the broader population can make its use a costly and, at times, even risky business.

Debating foreign models of constitutional amendments

There is evidence that Lukashenka and his entourage are actively monitoring constitutional amendments in the post-Soviet space aimed at bolstering the regimes of the incumbents, in particular Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia. This might indirectly implicate that there are clandestine considerations about how to gradually adapt the current institutional setting and therefore to preempt a potential succession crisis.

In July 2016, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev announced constitutional amendments that were later approved by the Constitutional Court and put to a national referendum on 29 September 2016. The amendments prolonged the presidential term from 5 to 7 years, introduced the post of First Vice President and Vice President, and strengthened the presidential mandate with the right to dissolve the Parliament. Azerbaijan’s model of constitutional changes included even less than a three-month turnaround of amending the Constitution (from announcing the proposal to organizing a national referendum), a package of constitutional amendments presented to the public that removed a number of obstacles with just one plebiscite and a maximized national campaign, opening additional polling stations in Azerbaijani embassies, to legitimize the referendum results.

About the same time, after the Belarusian parliamentary elections in September 2016, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a pro-government party, and its leader Haidukevich proposed changing the terms of office for members of Parliament from 4 to 5 years and extending the presidential tenure from 5 to 7 years by means of a nation-wide referendum which would coincide with local elections in early 2018. Although this initiative evaporated rather quickly, at the time analysts believed that the LDP’s proposal of a referendum had official backing. The prolongation of presidential term limits was discussed with regard to the 2020 electoral cycle when both parliamentary and presidential elections will coincide. Combining a referendum on the extension of presidential term limits with local elections in 2018 could have postponed the next presidential elections until 2025. Another option still in the cards would be an early presidential election in 2019 in combination with a referendum.

The 2017 constitutional reform in Kazakhstan caught Lukashenka’s particular interest. During an official meeting with Nazarbaev in March 2017, just a week after the constitutional amendments were signed into law, Lukashenka commented: “Very often, I observe, analyze and try to learn from the experience and activities (especially during last months) of your government, and above all the President. […] I think that you are making important steps for Kazakhstan to sustain stability and independence of your country. You are trying to reinforce your reforms, especially those with regard to the government and constitutional amendments, with concrete economic steps. This is a great example for others.”

Contrary to previous constitutional amendments aimed at expanding presidential powers, the 2017 reform redistributed 34 presidential powers between different branches of government, strengthening the role of the Parliament and enhancing the separations of powers principle. Moreover, procedurally the process was much more open and at least formally consultative than the Azerbaijani maneuver. Draft constitutional amendments in Kazakhstan were originally formulated by a special working group, comprised of the members of the government, Parliament, Supreme Court, Constitutional Court, academia and civil society, and were discussed publically prior to the approval of the final draft law by a joint session of Parliament. From the Belarusian perspective, this might indeed look like a viable “operation successor” as part of a Kazakhstani “sustainable system,” where Nazarbaev could at one point take over another position – e.g. as a chairman of the National Security Council – whilst a designated successor would secure his safety until the final power transition.

Lukashenka, himself has alluded on multiple occasions that presidential powers should be distributed among other state organs, most importantly the government to strengthen the “power vertical” for the days “when Lukashenka will be no more”. But this power redistribution, he emphasized, is not going to happen anytime soon.

Lastly, with Armenia’s Velvet Revolution in April 2018, the dangers of tinkering with the country’s institutional design clearly outweighed the perceived advantages. Given that Lukashenka had done away with the presidential term limit long ago, the “Armenian model” of switching from semi-presidentialism to parliamentarism with the President indirectly elected by the Parliament was the least relevant in any case. Besides the more obvious lesson that an allegedly popular president can be toppled by street protests rather quickly and unexpectedly when constitutional amendments are perceived as overt manipulations and feedback mechanisms, such as media and polls, are flawed, the Armenian case might have contributed to shelving once again reforms of the electoral code and the party system.

After all, it was the Armenian ruling Republican Party that had nominated Serzh Sargsyan and later lost power to a coalition of parliamentary factions around the new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. From the perspective of Lukashenka, transforming the pro-regime platform Belaia Rus’ into a proper party of power now accompanied by a change of the electoral system from majoritarian first-past-the pole single member districts to a proportional system with party lists carries more disadvantages than simply maintaining the status quo. The Central Election Commission’s Iarmoshyna has made it clear on numerous occasions that amendments to the election law to a proportional or a mixed system would also require constitutional amendments such as the removal of citizens’ right to recall elected deputies (Article 72). Finally, Lukashenka remarked that firmly grounding the notion of the multi-party system in the Constitution would precede any steps of turning Belaia Rus’ into a party. A proper party system, however, would result in “endless debates”, and it was far from clear whether Belarus was ready for this sort of “fist fight”.

Conclusions

Over the last years, the Belarusian President, Aliaksander Lukashenka, has been building up public expectations that amending the Constitution was inevitable.

The reality is different. Despite numerous statements, the Constitution has remained unscathed since 2004. The discussed two examples of the 2013-2014 judicial reform and the infamous 2015 Decree No 3 establishing a new tax on unemployment are just the tip of the iceberg of the law-making done by presidential decrees. However, they showed that touching the Constitution is unnecessary as presidential power can be expandedby laws or decrees. Nevertheless, as the cases of Kazakhstan and Armenia revealed, dealing with the succession issue would involve a decrease and redistributionof presidential powers to other state organs, mainly to the legislature and the government. In the presidential discourse, however, the Constitution is firmly associated with stability, state sovereignty, security, and an evolutionary path of state-building. Opposition groups who have been campaigning for a constitutional referendum such as Gavary Praūdu (Tell the Truth) can thus easily be denigrated as subversive and anti-Belarusian.

In the absence of independent public opinion surveys, there is a vacuum of reliable comparative data that measures regime support. This is not only problematic for researchers working on Belarus[ix], it seems that the regime also struggles to measure people’s attitudes and support for the government and its policies. Given recent events in Armenia of yet another “color revolution” in the post-Soviet space, freezing the status quo and postponing the successor issue by talking about constitutional changes while changing nothing so far has proved to be a successful recipe, at least from the perspective of the Belarusian ruler.

Notes

[i]In December 2015, constitutional changes were designed to transfer significant powers from the Armenian president to the Prime Minister. The presidential term limit prevented Sargsyan from getting elected as President for the third time. By getting appointed by the ruling Republican Party as Prime Minister on 11 April Sargsyan hoped to remain in power, but in vain.

[ii]Bedford, S., & Vinatier, L. (2018). Resisting the Irresistible:‘Failed Opposition’ in Azerbaijan and Belarus Revisited. Government and Opposition, online first: https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2017.33.

[iii]Ginsburg, T., & Simpser, A. (Eds.). (2013). Constitutions in Authoritarian Regimes. Cambridge University Press.

[iv]Ungated version: Burkhardt, F. (2016). Belarus. In Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe(pp. 463-493). Springer VS, Wiesbaden.

[v]Dabrowski, M. (2016). Belarus at a Crossroads(No. 2016/02). Bruegel Policy Contribution.

[vi]Frear, M. (2019). Belarus under Lukashenka. Adaptive Authoritarianism. Routledge.

[vii]Partlett, W. (2012). The Dangers of Popular Constitution-Making. Brooklyn Journal for

International Law 38(1), p. 228.

[viii]Kazakevich, A. (2008). Belarus. Nations in Transit Country Reports 2018. Freedom House.

[ix]Rohava, M. (2018). Identity in an Autocratic State: Or What Belarusians Talk about When They Talk about National Identity. East European Politics and Societies 32(3), pp. 639–668.

Turkmenistan – Grooming the successor: Constitutional theory and political practice

None of the post-Soviet constitutions adopted between 1992 and 1996 allowed presidents to serve more than two terms in office. However, by now seven of the twelve post-Soviet countries in Eurasia have (or had) presidents in office who have for as long as they wished. The forerunner of this “life-long presidency” phenomenon was Turkmenistan, one of the most authoritarian and isolated countries in the world. As early as 1999, Saparmurat Niyazov, leader of Turkmenistan’s Communist Party since 1985 and the country’s first president after independence, was proclaimed “president for life.” As if this were not enough, the constitutionally mandated two-term restriction was scrapped.

Other Eurasian countries followed the lead, but adopted only one of these strategies. Thus, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon were personally exempted from re-election restrictions based on their status as “Leader of the Nation.” By contrast, in Belarus and Azerbaijan, the question was resolved systematically by abolishing any re-election restrictions in 2004 and 2009 respectively. Of the seven countries in post-Soviet Eurasia, only two chose different solutions: Uzbekistan’s President Islom Karimov, who died in 2016, had created a “groundhog day” routine by using even the smallest constitutional amendment as a reason to reset the presidential term count. In the well-known case of Russia, the two-term restriction is formally intact but has been circumvented by the president swapping with the prime minister, the latter being the second-highest government official.

However, even a life-long presidency does not eliminate the question of regime continuity. As presidents get older and weary of their office, the “succession problem” becomes a hot issue everywhere. Again, the strategies to tackle this problem are different, and not all of them are successful. Thus, in 2003 a smooth succession in power from father to son was effected in Azerbaijan. However, the first presidents of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan passed away in 2006 and 2016 respectively, without leaving a designated successor. It is remarkable that in both cases the problem was solved after only several days without violent regime breakdown.

Like Belarus’ Lukashenko (almost 64) and Azerbaijan’s Aliyev (57), Turkmenistan’s Berdymukhammedov (soon 61) seems determined not to leave this question unresolved, but to pave the way for a family member. Since 2016 the signs have multiplied that his only son, 36-year old Serdar, is the chosen successor. In late 2016, Serdar, then an almost unknown person, ran for office in Dushak electoral district No. 25 during a by-election, the announcement of which made at extremely short notice and did not even include the names of the candidates. By March 2017, Berdymukhammedov junior was heading the parliament’s committee on legal affairs. Then on 25 March 2018, he successfully “defended” his seat in the Mejlis against his rival, a deputy director of the local school, with 91.42 percent of the vote.

At the same time, Akdja Nurberdyeva, the Chairman of the Mejlis since 2007, lost her mandate. More to the point, she disappeared from the list of registered candidates three weeks before the election took place. This fact led Western observers to speculate that Serdar was about to fill this position, which had become the second-highest in Turkmenistan’s state hierarchy after the 2016 constitutional reform. Its holder takes over the duties of the presidential office if the incumbent is unable to perform them for whatever reason. However, Serdar did not become the new speaker of the parliament. Instead, Gulshat Mamedova was elected—a woman who had been appointed Deputy Chairperson (“Vice-Premier”) for Culture two years ago, replacing a predecessor who had been fired for “bad work.”

The point is that the constitution does not allow acting presidents to run for office. Thus, a designated successor would be totally misplaced as the chair of Turkmenistan’s rubber-stamp parliament. Preferably, the post should go to a person who is very, very loyal not only to the incumbent but also to his heir. In short: the best choice is a person who does not feel tempted to break the constitutional rules the way Berdymukhammedov himself did in 2006 when he stepped into the presidency after having acquired the post of acting president following Niyazov’s death. Thus, Serdar’s electoral campaign may have served to increase his public visibility and popularity, but was not meant to secure him the position of parliamentary chair. While the “operation successor” might well be underway already, things are different from how they appear to be, as we will now see after taking a closer look at Serdar’s biography and some recent developments.

Young Berdymukhammedov is an expert in foreign affairs. From 2008 to 2011 he studied at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation while simultaneously working as a consultant to Turkmenistan’s ambassador in Moscow. From 2011-2013 he continued his education at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), this time providing advice to his country’s head of the diplomatic mission to the United Nations. In 2013 and from 2016 to 2017 he headed two departments of Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2017, Serdar visited Russia several times as an official representative of his country.

President Berdymukhammedov was missing from the March 2018 meeting of the five Central Asian presidents in Astana, Kazakhstan—their first in almost ten years. He was on a visit to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. This is a remarkable fact on its own. More to our point, in his place Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev officially received Serdar. Why wasn’t it Turkmenistan’s official representative, the same Mejlis chairwoman who was about to lose her mandate in the parliament? It is certainly not too far-fetched to interpret this clear move against diplomatic protocol as Serdar’s strategic introduction to Nazarbayev as Berdymukhammedov’s “crown prince” and his symbolic recognition by the most important and eldest of the Central Asian leaders.

What followed just two weeks later was the appointment of Serdar Berdymukhammedov as Deputy Foreign Minister. The catch is that this brought him very close to Rashid Meredov, the current Foreign Minister, one of the ten Deputy Vice-Premiers and perhaps the most influential political figure after the President. In fact, as members of the inner power circle of the Niyazov regime, only Berdymukhammedov and Meredov have survived at the highest levels of the power pyramid until today. Moreover, in 2006 it was initially Meredov who was expected to be the most likely successor to the late president. He is also the Methuselah among the more than 100 Turkmenistani Deputy Vice-Presidents who have at some point been in office since the early 1990s. In the current government, Meredov is the only official who has served for more than a decade. All the other Deputy Vice-Premiers were appointed between 2017 and 2018.

Therefore, it is highly likely that the 2006-2007 power transfer was based on a power-sharing deal between Berdymukhammedov and his foreign minister. In the same vein, one has every reason to suspect that Meredov’s time is about to expire. Young Berdymukhammedov, his deputy minister, is hard on his heels. A week after his appointment, Serdar headed an official delegation to a meeting of the CIS Council of Foreign Ministers in Minsk. When he replaces the veteran, he will lose his seat in the parliament becoming the most important of all Deputy Vice-Presidents instead – but he will also be exempted from their rivalry over succession, thanks to his status as the President’s son and designated heir. Whether these events will unfold over a short or long time, and whether Meredov will be ousted in shame or retired with honors remains to be seen—as well as if and when the ongoing “operation successor” will be completed. At least, the idea behind the 2016 constitutional amendment has now become more explicit.

Kyrgyzstan – Raging against the Dying of the Light: Kyrgyzstan’s Ex-President Struggles to Retain his Political Influence

In weak democracies, leaders relinquish power reluctantly. Confirmation of this aphorism has come recently from Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. In these two post-communist countries, presidents approaching the end of their terms in office engineered revisions to the constitution that pushed the center of power from the presidency toward the prime minister’s office as a means of prolonging their political relevance. Yet in both cases, carefully-laid post-presidential plans came unraveled, in one case because of opposition from the streets, and in the other because of resistance within the halls of power.

In Armenia, the departing president, Serzh Sargsian, stepped immediately into the role of prime minister, prompting massive demonstrations and ultimately the resignation of Sargsian and the installation of an opposition leader, Nikol Pashinian, as prime minister. Developments in Kyrgyzstan have followed a less dramatic, but equally unexpected, path. Instead of directly assuming the newly-strengthened office of prime minister, the outgoing president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambaev, sought to wield the reins of power behind the scenes in his role as chair of the country’s largest party, the Social Democrats. To assure his position at the pinnacle of Kyrgyzstani politics after leaving the presidency, Atambaev had appointed an unseasoned technocrat from his own party to the post of prime minister in August 2017, in the waning months of his single, seven-year term. He had also overseen a bruising and ultimately successful campaign to elect his long-time political ally, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, as the country’s new president.

Even in the first days of the Jeenbekov presidency there was evidence that the new head of state was willing to depart from the policies of his predecessor and patron, most notably on matters of foreign policy. For example, President Jeenbekov quickly healed the rift between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan occasioned by inflammatory comments that Atambaev had directed at Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbaev during the presidential election campaign. The first frontal assault on the Atambaev legacy came only a few weeks later, at the end of February 2018, when the new president accused the security services and law enforcement organs of laxity in their fight against corruption, including in their own ranks. In essence, the new president was now attacking the personnel and policies of the old.

President Jeenbekov followed up this unanticipated assertion of political independence with a series of moves designed to use the diminished but still formidable prerogatives of the presidency to elevate further his personal power and authority—and to distance himself from his patron.1 Because the constitutional revisions introduced under Atambaev did not remove the Kyrgyzstani president’s direct oversight and appointment powers over officials responsible for the criminal justice system, Jeenbekov had available to him potent levers of influence over political and economic elites if he could replace Atambaev loyalists with his own men and women. In March, after removing the chief of staff that he had inherited from Atambaev, Farid Niiazov, President Jeenbekov began pushing out numerous hold-overs from the Atambaev era who occupied key positions in the “power bloc,” including the Procurator-General, the head of the National Security Agency, and several deputy ministers in law enforcement institutions. Predictably for a patronalist system where the maintenance of client networks across the government-business divide depends on the protection of the chief patron, the personnel shakeups in the power ministries—and subsequent criminal investigations involving members of the elite—have put much of the country’s political and economic establishment on edge.

By the end of March 2018, it was clear that former President Atambaev was facing not only a rebellion against his influence by the new president but also by forces within his own party, which he had created and led for a quarter century. Although the Social Democrats elected Atambaev as their chairman at a party conference held in the last days of March, that gathering exposed growing divisions with the party’s ranks, in spite of Atambaev’s best efforts to present an image of a unified party by holding the meetings in secret and banning from the conference several prominent Social Democrats, including a leading parliamentary deputy and former speaker, Asylbek Jeenbekov, who is the brother of President Jeenbekov.

In a combative press conference at the end of the party gathering, former President Atambaev signaled his displeasure with President Jeenbekov and his continued support for the prime minister that he had appointed six months earlier, Sapar Isakov. In Atambaev’s words:

I think that a good prime minister is working today. Energetic and young. He may be mistaken, but this is a person who is doing something.

Less than three weeks later, on April 18, 101 members of the country’s 120-member parliament, including most of the 28 Social Democratic deputies, supported the first no-confidence vote in the country’s history, which ousted Prime Minister Isakov.2 His replacement was a fellow northerner and Social Democrat, Mukhammetkali Abulgaziev.

Whatever the precise involvement of Atambaev and Jeenbekov in the behind-the-scenes maneuvers that led to the no-confidence vote, it is clear that the country is now in the throes of a potentially destabilizing intra-elite struggle. In recent weeks, Jeenbekov has been subject to withering criticism in segments of the press for allegedly showing favoritism along geographic (North-South) or family-clan lines.3 Almost certainly representing interests tied to former President Atambaev or those who have benefitted from his patronage, the current president’s critics have stooped to using the old divisive tropes that had begun to be discarded in recent years, tropes for which Jeenbekov’s behavior in office provides little evidence. Defending himself against his critics, Jeenbekov offered the following comments at his first major press conference.

This is the first time I voice these names today. [Former Presidents] Akayev, Bakiyev — we all remember how they left office. I will not go that way. I want to honestly look into the eyes of my people and not be ashamed.4

If one is searching for another encouraging sign amid the rising tension in the Kyrgyzstani political elite, it is that neither side has yet turned to the traditional weapons of mass mobilization employed in intra-elite struggles: demonstrations, road blockages, or the erection of yurt cities.

Although Kyrgyzstan can claim to have the most open and competitive political system by far in Central Asia, it has still not mastered a central task of mature democracies: the retreat of a former president into a dignified retirement. The first two Kyrgyzstani presidents, Askar Akaev and Kurmanbek Bakiev, were ousted from office in popular rebellions and now live in exile, in Russia and Belarus’, respectively. For his part, as the discussion above illustrates, President Atambaev has reneged on his earlier promise of devoting his retirement to playing the piano, and, at the age of 61, has sought to carve out a role as Kyrgyzstan’s Deng Xiaoping.

If Kyrgyzstan is to join the ranks of stable democracies, future presidents will need to follow the example of Roza Otunbaeva, who has devoted herself to philanthropic and good governance initiatives since leaving the presidency in 2010. There are, to be sure, special circumstances in her case. Appointed as president by the Interim Government that took power following the April Revolution of 2010, Otunbaeva came to the presidency in June of that year through a referendum rather than a competitive election, and she agreed to serve only a single, 18-month transitional term. Nevertheless, in her six years since leaving the presidency, Otunbaeva has found ways to remain publicly engaged while eschewing direct involvement in the political struggle. Of course, if the country should move closer to a traditional parliamentary model of government under its new constitutional arrangements, it may be less appropriate to expect future prime ministers to go gently into that good night.

Notes

1 For accounts of the growing tensions between current and former presidents, see “Krakh operazii ‘preemnik’ v Kirgizii,” Delo No., May 4, 2018. http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php?st=1523740320; Ulugbek Babakulov, “Atambaev vs Zheenbekov. Zachem byvshii president Kyrgyzstana vozvrashchaetsia v politiku,” Informatsionnoe agentstvo Ferghana, April 2, 2018. http://www.fergananews.com/articles/9879; and Bruce Pannier, “Won’t Fade Away: Former, Current Kyrgyz Presidents On Collision Course,” Qishloq Ovozi, RFE/RL, April 4, 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-kyrgyzstan-atambaev-jeenbekov-collision-course/29144713.html

2 The use of a proportional representation voting system in a country divided along regional lines has led to a highly-fragmented parliament, with the Social Democrats representing the largest single voting bloc, with 28 members.

3 Typical of this genre is an article accusing President Jeenbekov’s son-in-law of using his relationship to the president to interfere in personnel decisions and business matters. Arstan Algyrbekov, “Aliiarbek Abzhalieva nuzhno stavit’ na mesto segodnia, inache zavtra prevratitsia v Zhanysha ili Ikrama!,” Aziia News, no. 18, May 10, 2018, p. 3 [reprinted in Gezitter.org, May 10, 2018]. http://www.gezitter.org/society/69847_aliyarbeka_abjalieva_nujno_stavit_na_mesto_segodnya_inache_zavtra_prevratitsya_v_janyisha_ili_ikrama/

4 “President of Kyrgyzstan about family, brothers, their interference in his work,” Informatsionnoe agentstvo 24kg, March 6, 2018. https://24.kg/english/77877_President_of_Kyrgyzstan_about_family_brothers_their_interference_in_his_work/ During an official visit to the northern region of Issyk-Kul’ in early May, President Jeenbekov, a son of the South, admitted that some were trying to raise the North-South question as a way of undermining the unity of the Kyrgyzstani people. “We all see who is spreading these provocative things,” he said, “and we will take measures against those who are imposing on society the North-South question.” Prezident Sooronbai Zheenbekov: Budut priniaty mery k tem, kto naviazyvaet obshchestvu vopros ‘Sever-Iug’,” Kabar, May 3, 2018. http://kabar.kg/news/zheenbekov-budut-priniaty-mery-k-tem-kto-naviazyvaet-obshchestvu-vopros-sever-iug/

Thomas H. Johnson – The Illusion of Afghanistan’s Electoral Representative Democracy

This is a guest post by Thomas H. Johnson, Research Professor and Director, Program for Culture and Conflict Studies, Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA (thjohnso@nps.edu). It is based on his recent paper  in Small Wars and Insurgencies.

On October 9, 2004 Afghanistan held a presidential election to replace the post-Taliban, transitional government that had administered Afghanistan since December 2001.  Nearly a year later, September 2005, parliamentary and provincial council elections were held.  This electoral sequence was repeated in August 2009 for Afghan presidential and provincial councils and in September 2010 for the Afghan Parliament.  The establishment of an electoral system and process was a key foundation of the Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions, or UN-sponsored Bonn Accords and Process.[i]

While the Afghan election process was originally greeted with great international fanfare and enthusiasm in 2004, it is now widely recognized, as suggested above, that recent Afghan elections raise significant and serious questions concerning the legitimacy and utility of the entire Afghan electoral system, as well as the “democratic process.”  Indeed a number of years ago the International Crisis Group (ICG) suggested that the “prolonged crisis over Afghanistan’s … elections has undermined [then] President Hamid Karzai’s credibility” and has politically isolated him.  The ICG goes on to posit that the Afghan election process “could plunge the country deeper into not just political but armed conflict.”[ii]  Things have not changed with the election of Ashraf Ghani.  Moreover, with long-delayed parliamentary and provincial elections scheduled for July 7, 2018 and the presidential elections scheduled for 2019, it is important to raise fundamental questions concerning the Afghan election process.[iii]

The 2009 Presidential Election

On August 20, 2009 Afghanistan held its second-ever presidential election.[iv]  Ostensibly 41 candidates vied for office; the most prominent of which were Hamid Karzai (incumbent Afghan President), Dr. Abdullah Abdullah (United Front candidate, ethnic Tajik, former Northern Alliance leader, and former Afghan Minister of Foreign Affairs), Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (former Afghan Finance Minister and leader of the Afghan diaspora), and Dr. Ramazan Bashardost (ethnic Hazara and former Afghan Planning Minister).  Each presidential candidate ran on a ticket with up to two vice presidential candidates.[v]

While some in the international community did not believe that the Afghan Presidential Election should take place at all, deeming it an “unnecessary risk to all involved,”[vi] Karzai insisted that the election take place as planned.   Arguments against the election were premised on the assumption that the presumed security risks involved in an accelerating Taliban insurgency/jihad were too threatening for a creditable election to be held; not only would the election require vast organizational efforts, due partly to the winter season, but also significant augmentation of security personnel and measures to protect the polls and participating population.  Threats to the population were apparently high since the Taliban had advised people to boycott the elections. Afghanistan’s Free and Fair Elections Foundation (FEFA), the largest Afghan observer organization, feared that the inability of local and international observers to monitor the elections in all areas of the country, especially the most volatile and remote locations, would negatively affect the transparency of the elections.  The foundation’s head, Jandad Spinghar, stated that an issue of concern for observers would be the problems associated with the insecurity and the lack of information about the importance and the role of observers in the elections.[vii]

Election Results

Though Karzai emerged as the eventual winner, revelations of countrywide electoral fraud by all presidential candidates stripped him of the majority 50% plus votes attributed to.[viii]  The ECC served as the key electoral watchdog, composed primarily of non-Afghan officials.   It was the ECC which exposed the extent of the fraud in electoral registrations and ballots, and which subsequently invalidated about one million or approximately one-third of Karzai votes in the presidential election, forcing a second round of voting.  The EEC investigated 600 of the most serious complaints and “sample audited” suspect votes at 3,377 polling stations.  It dismissed all the votes cast at 210 of these stations.  In the aftermath of the election analysis, the ECC determined that Karzai only received 48.29% of the vote.[ix]  On October 19, 2009 the ECC announced the completion of the audit process based on a review of the ballot boxes that had been quarantined by the IEC.  The investigation showed that no candidate received over 50% of the vote, and that a run-off vote was required to determine a winner. Karzai’s campaign team attributed the decision to foreign interference and hinted at not accepting the results.  This triggered a series of high-diplomatic negotiations, encouraging the candidates to accept the findings.  On October 21, the IEC announced that Karzai had received 49.67% of the vote and Abdullah received 30.59% of the vote.[x]

A subsequent run-off election was scheduled for November 7, 2009 but on November 1, 2009 Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from the race, making the presidential run-off a one-man race.  On November 2, 2009 the IEC declared Karzai as president-elect.

The criticality of ethnic voting preferences remains the single most important dynamic of the Afghan electoral process. Karzai was elected not only without a majority national vote; he also failed to garner any significant vote from any ethnic group outside of his own. Karzai’s claim that he represented a truly national candidate that had support across ethnic lines was not borne out by these results.  And just as we observed of the 2004 election, the 2009 Afghan Presidential elections was “belied by ethnic divisions, which, unless properly addressed, threaten to derail any long-term hope of a democratic Afghanistan.”[xi]

The 2010 National Parliamentary Elections and the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV)

During his address to the first session of parliament on February 20, 2010 Karzai laid out his plans for parliamentary elections in September, highlighting his goal to “fill the gaps” of the problems that arose during the presidential elections.  He affirmed his avowed commitment to address these issues by limiting the “interference by others in the election process,” promising to reform the structure of the ECC and “afghanizing” the election process.[xii]  As virtually all Afghans saw the international element as the only check against rampant corruption in a Karzai-packed commission, these efforts to try to deflect criticism away from his regime and onto foreign meddlers and agents fooled few Afghans and simply increased his own unpopularity.  Absent from his comments was any discussion of possibly the most important factor influencing the Afghan legislative elections – the single non-transferable vote (SNTV).

The SNTV electoral system allows multiple candidates to run for seats that have been allocated at a specified level per Afghan Province.   For the 2010 election, 2,577 candidates filed to run for 249 legislative positions.  The number of seats allocated was based on the total population per province.[xiii]  The SNTV electoral process allows one voter to cast a single vote for one candidate.  This results in a single candidate obtaining a very low percentage of the votes.  Indeed, many Members of Parliament were “elected” from their districts with less than one percent of the popular vote in that district.

The SNTV electoral system does not allocate seats by district but rather by population size.  Provinces with fewer seats than districts cannot possibly have representation for all their districts.[xiv]  Additionally, districts with larger populations generally have more political pull or influence than those with smaller populations.

664 candidates competed for the 33 Wolesi Jirga seats available for the province of Kabul and a total of 486,111 valid ballots were cast.  Muhammad Mohaqiq, chairman of the People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan and former Vice-President and the Minister of Planning in the interim government of Afghanistan was the leading vote getter just as he was during the 2005 election.[xv]  He received a total of 3.6% of the vote!  That a mere 3.6% of the vote could represent the most popular candidate as indicated by total votes received is disturbing, and has serious implications for Afghan “representative democracy.”  Overall, 21 of the 33 candidates elected to the Wolesi Jirga from Kabul (64%) were elected with less than 1% of the total vote in their district.

Conclusion

This analysis clearly suggests that Afghan elections as well as the entire Afghan electoral process is fraught with deep structural problems that ultimately undermine both the credibility and legitimacy of the Kabul regime.  The International Crisis Group (IGC) suggests that the “prolonged crisis” over Afghan elections “is paralyzing government and weakening already fragile institutions … [and] stoke ethnic tensions and could drive disenfranchised Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.”[xvi]  Moreover, the continuing election crisis as we saw vividly in the 2014 election is already deepening an on-going conflict between the Afghan executive and legislative branches.

It is particularly problematic that many of the problems affecting the Afghan electoral system have long been known by Kabul, the UN and the US, yet little has been done resolve these problems or to promote election reform.  It should also be noted that this analysis does not explore the broader and untested assumption that democracy and an electoral system per se are genuinely a source of legitimacy of governance, in the Weberian sense, in a country that has never known them and where literacy rates nationally hover around 10-20 percent.  Democracy is a political system, not something instinctive in human DNA.

This analysis does clearly suggest that legislative voting based on the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) continues to plague Afghanistan.  The goal of any electoral process should be to ensure that a representative government can be formed, but in the case of Afghanistan, the SNTV is significantly hampering the development of representative institutions.[xvii]  In addition, the SNTV system clearly distorts multi-seat constituencies.  The fact that almost all legislators continue to be elected with a fraction of the popular vote, many less than 1% of the vote, presents a variety of problems.   The mere fact that both the 2005 and 2010 Wolesi Jirga Elections witnessed winning candidates, nationwide, receiving an average of 35% of the votes cast suggests the unviability of the system as a means of expressing popular representation.  It results in a group of parliamentarians who are seemingly not beholden to anyone but themselves.  The simple fact is that these “representatives” may be virtually unknown by the majority of the population and may thus have no support amongst their “constituents,” a system reminiscent of the “rotten boroughs” of the British parliament before 1832.   In the final analysis, the Afghan electoral system takes the power away from the people or constituents and puts it in the hands of a nontransparent, personality-based politics.

The SNTV electoral process is a complicated process that can only work under ideal conditions.  Important factors in Afghanistan such as security, ethnic diversity, and gender roles all play a significant role making SNTV unworkable in the Afghan context, but the lack of a mature and disciplined (and officially discouraged) Afghan political party system in particular makes SNTV inappropriate for Afghanistan.   As suggested by the IGC, “the absence of disciplined political parties to carefully analyze prospects and to ensure that their votes are evenly distributed among candidates results more often than not in inequitable political representation.”[xviii]

Over the past hundred years and as suggested above, national politics has not been of much concern to the ordinary Afghan, who made decreasing the state’s influence at local levels his number one priority.[xix]   This constant deflection of central authority in the everyday lives of the Afghans allowed for traditional governing structures to remain and slowed their evolution into more modern structures.   As the central government fights to gain access to these local structures of governance, it has been met with increased resistance and eventual revolt.   This cycle has repeated itself over many different Afghan regimes using varying models of government.

The challenge now facing the current Afghan government is the daunting task of uniting the Afghan people while not repeating the mistakes of the past. And this all needs to be done in the context of massive government corruption and a continuing, significant Taliban insurgency wrapped in the narrative of jihad.[xx]  The tricky balancing act of fostering an overarching national identity without being perceived as privileging particular identities requires strong leadership and a willingness to challenge traditional ethnic, linguistic, and religious norms when need be.  Karzai and Ghani Administrations have seriously failed relative to this dynamic. Literacy and civics are the sine qua non of any democracy and Afghanistan is severely deficient in both.

Notes

[i] United Nations Security Council, Agreement on the Provincial Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the

Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions, 5 December 2001, S/2001/1154.

[ii] International Crisis Group, Afghanistan’s Elections Stalemate: Update Briefing,” Asia Briefing, No. 117, (Kabul/Brussels, 23 February 2011), pg. 1.

[iii] For a series of excellent analyses of Afghan elections by the Afghan Analysis Network, see: Martine van Bijlert , “Afghan Elections Dilemma: Finish before it finishes you,” August 31, 2014, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/miscellaneous/aan-in-media/afghan-elections-dilemma-finish-before-it-finishes-you/ ; Martine van Bijlert, “Polling Day Fraud in the Afghan Elections,” September 9, 2009, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/publication/aan-papers/polling-day-fraud-in-the-afghan-elections/ ; Ehsan Qaane and Martine van Bijlert, “Elections in Hibernation: Afghanistan’s stalled electoral reform,” June 17, 2015,  https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/elections-in-hibernation-afghanistans-stalled-electoral-reform/ ; Thomas Ruttig, “Elections (31): Afghanistan’s confusing election maths,” June 19, 2014, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/elections-31-afghanistans-confusing-election-maths/ Thomas Ruttig, “Pluralistic within Limits, but Not Democratic: Afghanistan’s political landscape before the 2014 elections,” https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/pluralistic-within-limits-but-not-democratic-afghanistans-political-landscape-before-the-2014-elections/ .

[iv] In addition to the presidential race this election also saw 3197 candidates vie for 420 provincial council positions.   For an excellent analysis of the presidential election see: Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°96, Afghanistan: Elections and the Crisis of Governance, 25 November 2009; and Crisis Group Asia Report N°171, Afghanistan’s Election Challenges, June, 24 2009.

[v] The selection of a particular vice presidential candidate was often aimed at ethnically balancing a candidate’s “ticket.”   For example, Karzai retained Vice President Karim Khalilli, an ethnic Hazara.  Karzai replaced his first Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud (a Tajik) with Mohammad Qasim Fahim, the powerful Tajik warlord, leader of the Northern Alliance and former Minister of Defense.[v]  Ironically during the 2004 Presidential election, Karzai dismissed Fahim from his ticket on the last official date for filing of presidential election candidacy forms and replaced him with another Tajik, Ahmad Zia Masood.

[vi] James Bays, “The Words of the Professor,” Blogs, Aljazeera, November 2, 2009.

[vii] “Violence to Prevent Observers from Widely Monitoring Polls – Afghan Expert,” BBC, July 21, 2009.

[viii] The Independent Election Commission (IEC) is a constitutional body appointed by the president to oversee polls. It is tasked with registering voters, running polling stations, and issuing election results.  The IEC is accountable to the Afghan parliament and population.  Members of the IEC are selected by the president, which has cast doubt on the commission’s independence.  On the other hand, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) is an independent panel that reports any findings of fraud to the Independent Election Committee (IEC), which under law must accept Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) findings.  It was established under Article 52 of the Afghan Electoral Law to investigate and oversee all challenges and complaints associated to the electoral process.  If an offense is found to have taken place, it has the right, under Article 54, to impose sanctions. The ECC can also review disputes regarding the eligibility of nominated candidates.  It is made up of two national commissioners and three international commissioners.  The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court of Afghanistan each select one commissioner; the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations appoints the final three commissioners. The provincial embodiment of the ECC is the Provincial Electoral Complaints Commission, set up in each of the provinces and composed of three Commissioners and one support officer.  During the 2005 and 2009 elections, the ECC required that at least one Afghan commissioner had voluntarily agreed with any finding in order to prevent the three international commissioners from abusing their majority to override the two Afghan commissioners.

[ix] “Karzai ‘Stripped of Outright Win’,” BBC, October 19, 2009.

[x] “The Situation in Afghanistan and its Implications for International Peace and Security,” Report to the Secretary-General, A/64/613-S/2009/674, United Nations General Assembly Security Council, December 28, 2009.

[xi] Thomas H. Johnson, “Afghanistan’s Post-Taliban Transition: The State of State-Building After War,” Central Asian Survey, Vol. 25 No. 1-2, (March-June 2006), pgs. 14-15.

[xii] Hamid Karzai, speech to first session of Afghanistan’s Parliament, February 20, 2010.

[xiii] See Appendix B for how the seats are distributed for both the 2005 and 2010 Wolesi Jirga elections.  The number of seats allocated is based on the total population. This is shown in Appendix C in a simple linear regression analysis of number of seats to total population.  The number of seats each province can have is important if true representational government is to be established.  In the case of Afghanistan the guidelines for this process have been established in Article 20 in Chapter 5 of the Electoral Law.  The law regulates the number of seats to each province is to be in proportion to the population size. Additionally the minimum number of seats for each province has been set at two seats.  If this occurs the remaining provinces in which extra seats were not allocated to shall divide the remaining seats proportionally based on population size. (Legal Frame Work: Laws and Decrees:Electoral Law, 2010).

[xiv] Astri Surhke suggests: “The Parliament was … weakened by an election law that introduced a curious and rarely used system designed to inhibit political party representation (the Single, Non-transferable Vote system, or SNTV)”. Astri Surhke, “Electing to Fight in Afghanistan,” Middle East Institute, April, 2012, http://www.mei.edu/content/electing-fight-afghanistan .

[xv] Mohaqiq received 13.2% of the vote in 2005 when he was the leading vote getter for the Kabul Wolesi Jirga positions.

[xvi] International Crisis Group, Afghanistan’s Elections Stalemate: Update Briefing,” op. cit., pg. 1.

[xvii] Afghan Wolesi Jirga elections were scheduled to be held on October 15, 2016; they were postponed, in part, because the lack of resolution concerning the reform of Afghanistan’s electoral laws. See: Mujib Mashal, “Afghan Panel Sets Election Date, Drawing Government Criticism,” The New York Times, January 18, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/19/world/asia/afghan-panel-sets-election-date-drawing-government-criticism.html .

[xviii] Ibid. pg. 5.

[xix] Ibid. pg. 168.

[xx] For example, see: Thomas H. Johnson, Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict, (London: Hurst Publisher and Oxford University Press, September, 2017).