Ever since communist bosses morphed into democrats after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, they have polished a veneer of democracy. It means staging elections from time to time. It does not mean that votes are fair or that power changes hands.
Two presidential elections in Central Asia this spring guarantee new five-year terms for two Soviet-era strongmen. Both Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan were first appointed to head their Soviet republics in June 1989. When the Soviet Union disintegrated two years later, they reluctantly declared independence. Since then, the men have built up personality-driven regimes not unlike the one in President Vladimir Putin's Russia. Rather than creating institutions to ensure a smooth political succession, they give the impression of wanting to rule for ever. They treat elections as carefully managed ceremonies to legitimise their reigns. Yet both are now in their mid-70s, and their health is the subject of persistent rumours.
Mr Karimov and Mr Nazarbayev ban genuine opposition, running against puppet candidates. They manipulate their countries' constitutions and hardly bother to campaign. On March 29th Mr Karimov snatched another term in office in Central Asia's most-populous republic with a nail-biting 90% of the vote.
Kazakhstan, the second-most-populous—it has 17m citizens, compared with 30m in Uzbekistan—will stage a similar show on April 26th. Mr Nazarbayev is enshrined in Kazakhstan's constitution as "leader of the nation". He alone is allowed by law to stand indefinitely. He was not due to face voters until late in 2016. But, as he has done for every election since independence, he moved the date forward. The fawning state media explained that the 74-year-old was responding to spontaneous outpourings of affection from fans demanding an early poll. The point of elections in Kazakhstan, says Nargis Kassenova of KIMEP University in Almaty, is not to contest ideas but to "demonstrate overwhelming support for the leader". The authorities claim that the early election will ensure stability and grant Mr Nazarbayev a mandate to attend to Kazakhstan's economy, which has been hit by falling oil prices as well as Russia's economic woes.
Kazakhstan's president does not play fair. His courts lock up opposition figures on spurious charges. Hostile media outlets are shut down. And there is no proper opposition—indeed, one of the candidates running against Mr Nazarbayev in 2011 admitted that he had voted for him. Yet Mr Nazarbayev is genuinely popular, and despite Kazakhstan's problems, he has overseen an economy that is a model of prosperity compared with the basket cases elsewhere in Central Asia.
Mr Nazarbayev once called his rule an "enlightened dictatorship". The state spends fortunes on flattering his and his country's image abroad; Western statesmen, none more eager than Tony Blair, a former British prime minister, also play their part. Next door in Uzbekistan Mr Karimov is less concerned about his image, overseeing a paranoid police state. His goons force critics into psychiatric hospitals. Human Rights Watch, an NGO, says that dozens are in Uzbek jails on "politically motivated charges". Thousands of pious, peaceful Muslims are also locked up.
Yet the West is usually silent about Uzbekistan's abuses, seeing Mr Karimov as a useful buttress against Islamist terror on Afghanistan's northern border. Ten years ago, in Andijan in the east of the country, Mr Karimov's troops opened fire on peaceful protesters, killing hundreds. Even so, in January the administration of Barack Obama said it would send him more than 300 armoured vehicles.
The biggest question in the run-up to Uzbekistan's vote was Mr Karimov's health, long thought poor. In February the 77-year-old disappeared for three weeks, missing the ruling-party congress at which he was officially nominated. "Islam Karimov's only competitor is his age," says Daniil Kislov, an exile at Fergana News, a Central Asian news agency based in Russia.
For years both leaders were assumed to be grooming fabulously wealthy children to take over one day. Mr Karimov's older daughter, Gulnara Karimova, who is now 42, has been ambassador to the UN, a flamboyant pop-star wannabe and a rapacious collector of business interests (she is being investigated in Europe for over $1 billion in alleged kickbacks from Western telecoms firms). In late 2013 Ms Karimova appeared to have fallen out with the head of Uzbekistan's secret police. Then she disappeared. In a recording that she smuggled out last August, she said she was being held under house arrest in Tashkent, the capital. What her father thinks or knows is unclear.
Mr Nazarbayev's family has had its dramas, too. Rakhat Aliyev was a spook turned ruthless businessman who was married to the president's daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, before an almighty falling-out with the ruling family. In February he was found dead in his prison cell in Austria, where he was part of a murder investigation. His death could clear the way for Ms Nazarbayeva, who is head of her father's party in parliament, to pitch either herself or her 30-year-old son, the deputy mayor of the capital, Astana, into the top spot. But no one knows for sure. Cliffhangers are great in soap operas, but lousy in the last reel of the lives of Central Asia's two oldest dictators.