A problematic inheritance: toothless constructions, sons and wars

June 22, 2022
  • Kirill Rogov

    Director, Re: Russia. Expertise, Analysis and Policy network; fellow, Institute for Human Sciencies (IWM), Vienna, fellow

The amendments to Kazakhstan’s constitution proposed by President Tokayev may look like a move toward democratization, but Kirill Rogov warns not to be fooled – constitutional guarantees can be revised.
Nazarbayev (front row, second from left) at the signing of the Alma-Ata Protocol, 21 December 1991. Source: Wiki Commons
Amid front-line reports and discussions of an embargo on Russian oil, such an episode of “peacetime life” as the recent referendum in Kazakhstan on amendments to its constitution has gone unnoticed. Yet these amendments dismantle the political legacy of Nursultan Nazarbayev, officially marking the end of his career as the last of the Soviet-era first secretaries who transformed themselves into republic presidents.

Until the beginning of this year, Nazarbayev could claim to be a model personalist autocrat. For example, GDP per capita in Kazakhstan in 1991 was slightly less than half of Russia's, while today it is almost 90%. Nazarbayev was more selective and careful with the use of violence to maintain power than his neighbors and peers in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Finally, he proactively prepared a carefully arranged institutional transfer of power.

This transition was written into the constitution: Nazarbayev received the constitutional status of Elbasy, the founder of the state, retaining many powers for life, in particular control over the security sphere as head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council. Thus, he effectively remained co-ruler along with his elected successor. At the same time, Nazarbayev relied on a clientele consisting of his “family” and especially trusted security officials, who backed up these constitutional provisions.

End of the Nazarbayev era

Without embarking on a discussion about how and who started or used the unrest that broke out in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year, note that it turned into a fierce struggle between Nazarbayev's clientele and elites grouped around Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Tokayev emerged the victor thanks to the active participation of Moscow, while the Nazarbayev clan was defeated, meaning the end of the Nazarbayev era. The current referendum, in which the population overwhelmingly supported the proposals of the incumbent Tokayev, basically represented a plebiscite to affirm his victory – a standard tactic of personalist autocrats – and annul the institutional props for lifelong rule that had been so carefully put in place by Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev can be no longer seen as founder of Kazakh statehood.
"The post-Soviet experience clearly shows that in a consolidated personalist regime, the 'successor model' doesn’t work."
Nazarbayev’s peers Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan, Soviet-era first secretaries who then took the reins of their republics as president, died in office. Their successors – who was obvious in the Uzbek case and not so obvious in Turkmenistan – began by cracking down on the security officials who had been particularly close to their predecessors (despite the fact that they came to power with the help of these officials) and then finished off the remnants of their predecessors’ “families” before finally tackling the symbolic and political legacy of their predecessors.

The reason is obvious: the very principle of personalist one-man rule requires the visible wiping out of all the predecessor’s “political capital.” There is only a single exception: when the direct heir becomes the successor, and the "family" is transformed from an auxiliary, informal institution into a central and public one. (A successful transition of this type was carried out in the post-Soviet space in the early 2000s in Azerbaijan.) This is why just a few weeks after the demise of the Nazarbayev “family” and thus Nazarbayev himself, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, Niyazov’s successor in Turkmenistan, announced plans to transfer power to his 40-year-old son.

Moreover, Tokayev's referendum demonstrates the complete futility of the constitutional maneuvers of successful autocrats. In several steps, Nazarbayev reworked the Kazakh constitution, limiting the power of other branches of government in favor of the president, extending the term of office for the president and cancelling limits on terms, and then penciling in lifelong historical status for himself. And all this has been overturned rather painlessly: the same election commission chairmen who had made up numbers for past referendums in support of Nazarbayev now report nationwide support for their annulment. Nazarbayev's legacy worked against Nazarbayev.
Tokayev meeting with government officials and Mazhilis MPs, 15 January 2021. Source: Wiki Commons
Deceptive guarantees

Tokayev's constitutional amendments may seem like a move toward democratization. For instance, they prohibit the president (at the constitutional level) from appointing his relatives to public office, restore the constitutional court, introduce a mixed electoral system (which somewhat decentralizes the path to parliament, opening a window of opportunity for elite groups) and confirm limits on terms in office for the president.

Yet one should not be fooled: Nursultan Nazarbayev, like his Central Asian peers, started out in the 1990s by adopting a semi-presidential constitution with limits on presidential terms. He did this because at the time (in the wake of an intense conflict with the parliament in 1994) he didn’t feel confident enough and sought to demonstrate to the elites that they would have opportunities to somewhat influence the process and protect themselves. Tokayev also feels insecure now, hence he must demonstrate to the elites that his power has limits. The constitutional ban on the president’s appointing close relatives to office is not just a shot at Nazarbayev, but also an obvious promise – the fact is that Tokayev has a son.

However, as happened with Nazarbayev, all these guarantees can be subsequently revisited if Tokayev manages to bring the security forces and law-enforcement system to heel. The only thing limiting Tokayev is his age – he is only a year younger than the aged Vladimir Putin. Thus, it looks unlikely that he’ll have enough time to sufficiently rearrange the system around himself. In any event, the problem that confronts him now, after the new constitutional amendments, is that of succession. And it is nearly impossible to solve, as we know.

It seems to me that all this has a direct, if not obvious connection to Russia and the war in Ukraine: if Putin had a son, maybe he would have focused on a less bloody succession project?
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