Have Central Asia's Succession Plans Clarified?

7 MINS READOct 20, 2015 | 09:00 GMT
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (L) and his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov in Astana.

Once again, Central Asian media are buzzing with speculation that the longtime leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have finally solidified their succession plans. On Sept. 11, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev promoted his eldest daughter, Dariga, to the post of deputy prime minister, suggesting to many that she is now his chosen successor. In neighboring Uzbekistan, an opposition website published a detailed story asserting that President Islam Karimov has chosen his youngest daughter, Lola, to follow him in office. Both men have headed their respective governments since 1989, and these types of rumors have sprung up in the past. Each round of speculation has its own peculiarities and differing degrees of validity — and each provides hints of the political struggles in each country.

Succession has been a hot topic in Central Asia for decades. Both Nazarbayev and Karimov are getting old — 75 and 77 years old, respectively. Each began first as their Soviet republic's Communist Party head and then took the post of president of their newly independent state that formed out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both have exercised tight centralized control over the government and have managed to balance various clan interests to maintain stability. (Uzbekistan's government has differed slightly in that it has been more vulnerable to instability than Kazakhstan's.) And both men's families have played key roles in maintaining the government.

The Kazakh Balance

In addition to political loyalists, Nazarbayev has placed his three daughters, two of their husbands and a handful of other family members in charge of many of the country's most important sectors and portfolios. No one family member has held overwhelming power or seemed like a sure successor. Instead Nazarbayev created a constellation of leaders who balance one another through their competing power bases.

For years, high oil prices made it easy for the Kazakh president to divide power among his family and supporters. Over the past decade, the country's gross domestic product rose by 62 percent, from $81 billion to $212 billion. In 2014, however, economic growth began to slow because of declining oil prices, problems expanding energy production at home and a recession in Russia. Growth this year is expected to be only 1.5 percent compared with the average 8 to 13 percent growth over the past decade, with the exception of the 2009 recession.

Kazakhstan's slowdown has spurred a struggle among the elite, including some of Nazarbayev's family members, over how to address the country's economic issues and a grab for assets. Stratfor sources have indicated that a rift has formed between Prime Minister Karim Massimov and Nazarbayev's son-in-law Timur Kulibayev, who holds several positions in state-owned and private enterprises. Massimov was reinstated as prime minister in April 2014 to help attract foreign investment into the country. This appointment led to a clash between Massimov's policies, Kulibayev's nationalist oversight of state energy firms and several important businessmen. According to Stratfor sources, this standoff has partly centered on Massimov's decision to raise taxes on Kazakh businesses and laws concerning protectionism and foreign investment, which have already seen constant changes for a year now. Such laws are unlikely to pass as long as the elite are at odds on how to approach foreign investment in the country.

The rivals have also disagreed over how to reform labor laws, particularly in the energy sector. Kazakh energy firms are seeking changes that would allow them to reduce salaries during the economic slump, while foreign energy firms are seeking ways to cut workers. Though this partially aligns Massimov's interests of attracting foreign investment and Kulibayev's interests of cutting costs, it has forced oil workers in Kazakhstan's western oil producing regions to threaten protests. The government is now negotiating with oil worker unions and is concerned that large-scale strikes may erupt, as seen in the 2011 Zhanaozen crisis.

These disagreements and potential labor unrest are likely why Nazarbayev promoted his daughter, Dariga, to deputy prime minister. Dariga has long been a part of the Kazakh political system. She has run and led many of the pro-government political parties in parliament and state-run news agencies. Her elevation to this post is a signal of her strengthening influence over Kazakhstan's political structure. It could also put her in line to become the next prime minister — a role that may become more important if Kazakhstan follows through with its plans to shift to a parliamentary system. It would be an unprecedented change given the country's history of centralized rule.

Stratfor sources also cited that as deputy prime minister, Dariga has been put in charge of social issues. Her first task has been to mediate between the three warring sides: the energy unions, Kulibayev and Massimov. Regardless of the reason, Dariga's strong influence in parliament because of her oversight of the political parties, possibly giving her deputy premiership a more official mandate. It will also take a politician as powerful as the president's daughter to attempt to rein in Kulibayev and Massimov's competition.

Uzbek Divisions

Though the rumors behind Kazakh succession have definite substance, the rumors behind Uzbek succession are murky and unreliable. Karimov's rule over Uzbekistan has been more challenging: Power in the country's regions is divided among several clans that compete for assets and have been involved in security incidents. Karimov has attempted to arbitrate between the clans, particularly the three largest: Tashkent, Samarkand and Fergana. Though originally from Samarkand, he has been more aligned with the Tashkent clan in recent years.

These deep clan divisions have raised concerns that the eventual succession — or Karimov's failure to control the clans — will lead to instability. Unlike Nazarbayev, Karimov has not created a clear system of succession. Each clan's elite tend to compete more intensely than Kazakhstan's elite, who have been able to negotiate on most issues. There is a discussion in the government to shift to a parliamentary system so the succession does not rely on one person to replace Karimov. However, such reforms have yet to begin.

In early September, an article published on the website of the opposition People's Movement of Uzbekistan alleged that Karimov had decided in April that his youngest daughter, Lola, would succeed him to the presidency. The article was written under the pseudonym "Usman Haknazarov," a writer with a long track record of anonymously covering Uzbek leaders. Haknazarov's writings and the People's Movement of Uzbekistan website are both banned in Uzbekistan, and Haknazarov has been labeled part of the opposition movement. Still, his publications circulate both in the country and across Central Asian media. A Stratfor source claims that elite insiders have leaked information through Haknazarov in the past to test the waters on controversial issues.

Haknazarov's recent article suggested that security service chief and Tashkent clan leader Rustam Inoyatov was backing Lola. There have been mounting indications that Inoyatov has increased his power in recent years, orchestrating crackdowns on the other clans and their leaders. A Stratfor source has suggested that rumors in the region indicate that Inoyatov's power could even rival Karimov's.

But Inoyatov does not have rapport with the Uzbek leader and is too old to succeed Karimov, so it would make sense for Inoyatov to choose someone loyal to the Tashkent clan to succeed the president. The rumors of Lola as successor have become more plausible because of her presence on Uzbek television in recent months, showing off her philanthropic achievements.

But while Lola is Karimov's younger daughter, there are complications to her potential succession. She mostly lives outside the country in Switzerland, the United States and United Kingdom. She does not speak fluent Uzbek. And she has never really held a political position, except for being Uzbekistan's permanent delegate to UNESCO. However, her husband, Timur Tillyaev, is a politician and adviser to Karimov.

The question then becomes why such an unrealistic proposal would be floated. It could be someone within the elite testing the waters for a Tashkent clan member to succeed Karimov, gauging the other clans' reactions. Also Lola is a self-admitted rival to her elder sister, Gulnara, who has been associated with the Fergana clan. Gulnara has reportedly been under house arrest for years, and many of her associates have been arrested for corruption. Promoting Lola could be an attempt to try to flush out any remaining Gulnara supporters.

Although both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan constantly spawn rumors of succession, family dynamics and clan politics, their recent uptick of activity points to real considerations for how to implement succession. Kazakhstan seems to have designed a way to balance power, but the weakening economy looks to be adding stress and competition among the country's elite. Uzbekistan, meanwhile, does not seem to have a plan for succession, as clan competition and murky maneuvers continue to take place. Both countries will attempt to seamlessly transition power in the future, like Turkmenistan did in 2006, but their efforts could still spark instability.

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