Kazakhstan's Succession Crisis

18 MINS READMar 31, 2011 | 12:14 GMT

A strategic and geographic middleman between Russia, China and the other Central Asian states, Kazakhstan is a focal point for foreign heavyweights with designs on its vast energy wealth. The stability of this crucial country, which has been ruled for 20 years by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, now hangs in the balance as the aging popular leader wrangles with different factions vying for control.

Kazakhstan will hold a snap presidential election April 3, a year before longstanding President Nursultan Nazarbayev's current term was set to end. There was little public demand for the election. Opposition movements account for less than 5 percent of political support in Kazakhstan, and the only rivals Nazarbayev will face in the election are three weak opponents.

On the surface, the elections appear to be more of the self-congratulatory political theater Nazarbayev is prone to. But the elections are actually part of Nazarbayev's attempt to put a damper on a dangerous clan war brewing behind the scenes while initiating a succession plan for the next Kazakh leader.

The Center of Central Asia

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has been the most important of the Central Asian states. It is the largest geographically and most resource-rich of the region's five countries and serves as a bellwether for the region's politics. Strategically and geographically, Kazakhstan is the middleman between Russia, China and the other Central Asian states (it borders three of the four other countries in the region). But its geographic location and size are a mixed blessing. Kazakhstan is roughly one-third the size of the continental United States, but has only 5 percent of the U.S. population. It also lacks natural barriers separating it from most of its neighbors, making it vulnerable to invasion and forcing Kazakhstan to turn to one of the larger regional powers for protection.

Currently, Moscow dominates Kazakhstan politically, economically and socially. Moscow made Kazakhstan the centerpiece of Central Asia during the Soviet period, when it used the Kazakh government as the political go-between for Russia and the other Central Asian countries. From Russia's perspective, most of the Central Asian states are not important enough to deal with on a daily basis, so Moscow uses Astana to help with many matters in the region.

The larger reason that so many foreign heavyweights — including Russia, China and the West — are focused on Kazakhstan is its vast energy wealth. With an estimated 1.82 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 39.8 billion barrels of oil, Kazakhstan boasts more energy reserves than the other four Central Asian countries combined. Kazakhstan was the first Central Asian country where Westerners began seriously developing oil and natural gas wealth after the Soviet collapse. Because of this, Kazakhstan has received more foreign direct investment than any other former Soviet state except Russia.

In addition, the other Central Asian states with energy resources — Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — must send their energy supplies across Kazakhstan to reach customers, whether those customers are in Russia, China or Europe. This makes Kazakhstan essential to any outsiders with designs on the region. Currently, Kazakhstan's energy landscape is diverse. Russia mostly controls Kazakhstan's energy policy and politics; China is an aggressive investor and a voracious consumer; and Western firms still make up the majority of upstream investment and business. Although Kazakhstan is nearly integrated with Russia, other global powers still consider the country a strategic and valuable location in which to work.

A Central Asian Dynasty

One of the reasons Russia has not acted against other powers working in its large southern neighbor is that it has Astana's loyalty. This is because in Kazakhstan's stable and unified government, all the power is concentrated in one person — Nazarbayev — whose allegiance to Moscow has never been a secret.

Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan for 20 years as president, after being first secretary of Kazakhstan's Communist Party, and chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Kazakhstan. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev placed Nazarbayev into these roles just before the fall of the Soviet Union in an effort to ensure that a man loyal to Moscow led the country. In the early years of his presidency, Nazarbayev pushed for the newly independent Kazakhstan to form a union with Russia in order to preserve some sense of the former Soviet Union. But at the time, Russia was too weak, and Nazarbayev turned his focus to the creation of a Central Asian dynasty instead.

Dynastic aspirations in Central Asia are not unique to Kazakhstan. Former Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev's children and in-laws littered the political and parliamentary scene until the 2005 Tulip Revolution that ousted Akayev from power. Uzbek President Islam Karimov's daughter Gulnara Karimova (dubbed the "Uzbek Princess") has links to most of the country's economic sectors including natural gas, real estate and cement. She reportedly married the country's former foreign minister, thereby increasing his chances of succeeding Karimov. Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon's nine children and his in-laws run every major industry, business, media company, bank and the stock markets in the country (though they keep this a state secret, registering businesses with anonymous owners). Turkmenistan's late leader Saparmurat Niyazov (known as Turkmenbashi, or "father of all Turkmen") was succeeded by current President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov, who is rumored to have been Niyazov's illegitimate son.

Early in his presidency, Nazarbayev maneuvered his family into position to rule the country's strategic industries and pushed out any opposition. While a class of independent oligarchs naturally emerged in other resource-rich former Soviet states like Russia, Kazakhstan's resources largely remain in the hands of Nazarbayev's family and loyalists. Nazarbayev also limited the possibility of an opposition emerging after Kazakhstan's independence by putting his relatives and loyalists in charge of all social and political organs of the country, including the media, youth organizations and political parties.

Nazarbayev's plan was to expand his own Kazakh dynasty into a Central Asian dynasty when he married off his youngest daughter, Aliya, to the son of Kyrgystan's then-president in a match referred to as "Central Asia's Royal Wedding." Differences between the countries soon sundered the marriage, however, and Aliya returned to Kazakhstan to marry one of the top construction businessmen in the country. After that, Nazarbayev focused his dynastic plans solely inside Kazakhstan. He has made it clear that his family and small group of loyalists are the only "trustworthy" groups in the country, and this affects all aspects of politics, business and life in Kazakhstan.

A Much-Loved Leader

The West has criticized Nazarbayev's actions — his dynastic aspirations and restriction of democratic movements and independent businesses and media — as characteristic of despotic or autocratic rule. However, the Kazakh people support Nazarbayev. Even independent estimates of Nazarbayev's popular support in the country place his approval rating at 85-95 percent.

One reason for the population's loyalty is that, unlike most former Soviet states, Kazakhstan has strengthened and remained secure in the past two decades. After the initial post-Soviet contraction, Kazakhstan's gross domestic product rose from $68 billion in 1995 to $190 billion in 2010. The country was not severely affected by the global financial crisis, despite media reports to the contrary. Furthermore, Kazakhstan has not been subject to the domestic unrest, color revolutions, ethnic violence or militant attacks seen in the other Central Asian states. In all, the people in Kazakhstan feel safe from the problems their neighbors are facing.

Also unlike other former Soviet states, Kazakhstan has not seen a generational shift against its Soviet-appointed leader. Countries like Ukraine have seen this kind of shift by the generation that did not grow up under Soviet rule and has had increased access to the West and to technology like the Internet. Kazakhstan, however, has not seen any change in support for Nazarbayev.

The Impending Crisis

The problem with having a country run by a small circle of relatives and loyalists under one ruler who has the genuine support of the people is that the entire stability, unity and functionality of the state depends on one individual. Nazarbayev's relatives and members of the powerful circle of loyalists are not faithful to each other or the greater good of Kazakhstan; they are devoted first to Nazarbayev and then to their own agendas. This leads to the question of what happens after Nazarbayev. At almost 71 years old, Nazarbayev is five years past the average life expectancy in Kazakhstan, and the question of succession is on everyone's mind.

Initially, Nazarbayev had wanted Kazakhstan's leadership to be passed down from father to son, as in other former Soviet states like Azerbaijan; however, Nazarbayev does not have any sons, only three daughters. In the early 2000s, Nazarbayev planned on grooming either his nephew or one of his grandsons to take on the role, though they were all too young to be announced as successor at the time, so Nazarbayev put off publicly announcing any succession plan. In 2006, the urgency of succession in Central Asia came to the forefront when the first longtime Soviet-era ruler in the region, Turkmenistan's Niyazov, died. This forced Nazarbayev to start solidifying succession plans. Nazarbayev's regime has always had clans and power circles, as is common with all the former Soviet states, but they have rarely pushed for any real power that Nazarbayev did not bestow on them. The concern that Nazarbayev could be incapacitated suddenly without a succession plan in place spurred a real and dangerous conflict, and Nazarbayev is starting to realize the infighting could grow beyond his control.

This has led to a series of confusing decisions. According to STRATFOR sources, Nazarbayev decided to step down in 2010 in order to be able to bolster whoever succeeded him and keep the peace. But the infighting proved too strong and risky, compelling Nazarbayev's supporters to name him "Leader of the Nation" — meaning he would always be in charge, no matter his position. The declaration was more a safety net than anything. The political theater surrounding rumors of succession decisions grew more dramatic over the past year, leading to the decision in January to call a snap election for April.

The election is meant to merely keep public focus on Nazarbayev's immense popularity is as he tries sorting through the power groups struggling behind the scenes. The expiration of this next term — 2016 — gives Nazarbayev (should he live that long) a workable time frame to follow through with one of the three main succession plans he is considering. But right now, the competing factions are not going to count on Nazarbayev's longevity to secure their own interests.

Kazakhstan's Power Circles

Inside Kazakhstan's secretive power circles, those who wield influence fall roughly into four categories: the Nazarbayev family, the old guard, regional leaders and foreigners. None of these groups is unified or consolidated. Those in each category have their own agendas and fight among themselves. However, when threatened as a whole, the groups have unified quickly, as they have similar goals. For example, Nazarbayev's three daughters compete with each other regularly, but will band together when their family name and power is under attack from another group, such as the old guard.

Each of these four groups derives power at the expense of the others, and their influence overlaps in the economic, political, social and security spheres. Within these areas, each faction has its own loyalists — we refer to them as "instruments," as they are not power players themselves but are the tools used within these struggles. Nothing is clear-cut in the fight for power in Kazakhstan. However, despite this complexity, each person's and group's power can be measured roughly by three criteria: connection to Nazarbayev (the group or person's influence with the Kazakh leader); the ability to exert political influence independent of Nazarbayev; and access to assets, income and strategic economic tools.

The Family

As previously explained, Nazarbayev's family is the most significant and influential group in the country. Despite bickering and competition, the Nazarbayev name binds the relatives together. There are three main power players within the family. The first is led by Nazarbayev's eldest daughter, Dariga, who has long been considered a possible successor to her father even though she is female. Dariga's popularity and support took a massive hit in 2007, when her then-husband Rakhat Aliyev made a power grab to replace Nazarbayev. With Aliyev now in exile and divorced from Dariga, she (along with her children) still holds considerable influence in the country's main political party and law enforcement structures.

The largest competition for Dariga — and every other faction — is Timur Kulibayev, who is married to Nazarbayev's second daughter, Dinara. By most standards, Kulibayev holds the two most important strategic assets in the country: energy and a link into the Nazarbayev family. Kulibayev is extraordinarily in tune with the power struggles in the country and has continually shifted in order to maintain his influence. On occasion, his father-in-law has blocked Kulibayev, fearful of his strength. Kulibayev has the ability to deal with various domestic and foreign groups on political, economic and regional issues, since he has deep-running ties with them. He has diversified his faction to include other powerful figures such as Prime Minister Karim Massimov. Kulibayev may be the most powerful figure other than Nazarbayev, but this means he has the largest number of enemies — especially within the old guard.

The other major family member worth mentioning is Kairat Satybaldy, the ward and nephew of the president. He has been treated as the son Nazarbayev never had, holding places in the political party, security councils, social panels and major economic firms. This variety of roles has led many to believe Nazarbayev will choose him as successor.

The Old Guard

Kazakhstan's old guard are mainly relics of the Soviet era whom Nazarbayev has kept in positions of power around him. Their influence is derived from their vast experience in Soviet and post-Soviet government positions, their long-term personal contact with Nazarbayev and their deep connections to Moscow. However, the old guard has three problems. First, there is no unity among the group. The faction members are mainly connected by Nazarbayev, meaning that without the Kazakh leader this group will splinter. Second, members of the old guard do not hold many assets to act as a foundation for their group. They might have political allegiances, but little financial or economic wealth or leverage. The third issue is that the members of the old guard are not young. They are mostly of the same generation as Nazarbayev, so are not considered viable successors to the president. However, at this time they have the power and position to prevent any succession of which they do not approve.

Regional Leaders

Regional and clan heads are semi-powerful forces among the people and regionally-linked enterprises. Regional political heads are not independently powerful, since regional leaders (called "akims," meaning mayors of a province, region or city) are appointed by Nazarbayev. However, for their appointment to be accepted among the regional population, the akims must have some indigenous ties to the areas they rule. Of the 16 akims, four have influence that extends beyond the regional level to national politics, mainly because of the akims' oversight of strategic resource-rich areas or major population centers.

Foreign Factions

Foreign influence in Kazakhstan's political struggles is complex. Neither of the two largest competing forces in the country — Moscow and Beijing — solely controls any of the power circles. Russia decided that instead of backing any one faction or personality, it would strengthen or build ties with all of them. The Kremlin does not care who runs Kazakhstan, as long as the country remains stable and loyal to Moscow. This is not to say that Russia is not attempting to shape the situation behind the scenes; it is making sure its needs will continue to be met.

Beijing took the reverse approach by placing its future power projection into Kazakhstan in the hands of one man: Massimov, the prime minister. During the past year, Massimov saw his position and power wither as a result of his role as Beijing's man in Astana. In joining forces with Nazarbayev's powerful son-in-law Kulibayev, Massimov has pulled back from his loyalty to China, balancing it with loyalty to Kulibayev, the Nazarbayev family and Russia. This does not mean that Massimov will remain ambivalent toward China should Kulibayev win the succession struggle; he genuinely believes in China's future in Kazakhstan. It does mean, however, that China has lost its footing in the midst of Kazakhstan's political and succession struggles.

There are two unexpected foreign groups that have influence within Kazakhstan's power circles and could affect the succession plan: the Koreans and Eurasians.

A Korean diaspora makes up 1 percent of Kazakhstan's population — a small number, but one that holds much power in the country for two reasons. First, the leaders of the Korean diaspora are powerful and wealthy oligarchs, wielding billions of dollars within the financial communities of Kazakhstan. The Korean diaspora is also the center of the lobby for South Korea's interests in the country. Of the $20 billion in foreign direct investment Kazakhstan received in 2010, $4 billion came from South Korea, and Seoul plans to increase that amount to $6 billion in 2011. The Korean power players do well in the struggle for influence because they are not looking to politically manipulate the landscape; rather, they want to increase their ability to expand financially in the country. And, unlike China, the Koreans ostensibly do not pose a strategic threat.

The other group to watch is the Eurasia Group — three oligarchs who supervise the Eurasian Industrial Association, which oversees some of Kazakhstan's most strategic assets in mining, energy and finance. Eurasia Group (not to be confused with the international consulting firm of the same name) long served as the connection between foreign energy players and the Kazakh government. The oligarchs are Israeli citizen Alexander Mashkevich, Uzbek-born Belgian citizen Patokh Shodiyev and Kyrgyz-born Uzbek citizen Alijan Ibragimov. The group is responsible for creating lucrative relationships with foreign companies — like the United States' Chevron Corp. and ExxonMobil — to persuade them to enter Kazakhstan. The Eurasia Group also has personal and political ties to the Kremlin. The relationship between Eurasia Group and Nazarbayev is constantly in flux, as the oligarchs are not considered loyalists and are not trusted by the public because they are foreigners.

Possible Succession Plans

With so many competing groups and figures, Nazarbayev not only has a tough decision to make about who will succeed him, he must also find a way to implement a succession plan that will not disrupt the state's stability. STRATFOR sources have said he is considering three plans.

Plan One: The Post-Stalin Model

The first plan under consideration would involve choosing a weak successor and allowing that successor to be replaced several times until a truly strong leader and not just a figurehead can arise, as was the case in the Soviet Union after Josef Stalin. This plan is being considered because there is not a sufficiently strong successor prepared to take over after Nazarbayev. However, this model is dangerous because it could lead to chaos in the interval between Nazarbayev's departure and the emergence of a strong leader (if in fact one does eventually emerge).

Plan Two: The Putin Model

The second plan is for Nazarbayev to choose a successor and then very publicly present him (or her) to the country as such. The people and factions who believe in their current leader's ability to choose wisely would then support the successor. However, this model depends on Nazarbayev's living long enough to act as the successor's power base and secure the successor's position. This option is modeled after former Russian President Vladimir Putin's transfer of power to current President Dmitri Medvedev. Putin presented Medvedev as his successor but has maintained a leadership role as prime minister in order to protect Medvedev from competing forces in the country.

Plan Three: The Parliamentary Model

The last option is the most controversial within Kazakhstan. According to this plan, Nazarbayev would choose a successor but, before handing over control, would shift much of the power to the parliament — meaning his political party, Nur Otan. This way, should Nazarbayev not be able to secure his successor's power, it would not matter if competing forces overthrow the successor. One power group or another would not be able to rule the country via the presidency; it would have to maneuver through the political party instead. Currently, Nur Otan is balanced because it derives power from every faction, region, government and economic sector. This is not the simplest solution, because it involves a devolution of power and could lead to greater infighting along with parliamentary wrangling or indecisiveness.

The infighting among Astana's power circles and the possible succession plans are based on the fact that every part of life in Kazakhstan — the government, economy, foreign policy and social structures — centers on Nazarbayev. This consolidation has made Kazakhstan strong and stable over the past 20 years, but it raises the question of whether the country can maintain its position without its current leader. Nazarbayev has drawn up many plans for the country well after his tenure ends, but none are certain or viable unless he can put them in place personally. Now, his country's future could depend on his ability to live long enough to see them enacted.

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