I am a friend of Kazakhstan: I have felt the warm embrace of its people visiting and living in the U.S., been enchanted by the beauty (and utter coolness!) of its culture, astonished by its history, and marveled at folks who have evolved from nomadic life to space competency in decades rather than centuries.
Unlike so many other nations in the post-Soviet space, Kazakhstan’s exit from ‘third worldom’ is assured, thanks in large measure to some excellent choices made by its leadership. There is one more vital choice on the horizon. It is a choice that can literally propel Kazakhstan into the first world in two generations: a clear path into the future.
It is no secret that America is uncomfortable with long-term leaders. Iran’s Khamenei and Kazakhstan’s neighbor Putin cause us heartburn every day. But there have been example’s of other long-term leaders who did the right thing and assured their legacy by engineering a succession that would embrace global democratic standards. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew comes to mind as one example, and even Generalissimo Francisco Franco—a pretty nasty guy—passed his power on to a young king who he knew would liberalize Spain’s leadership.
This month in Uzbekistan we are seeing the mess left over by a post-Soviet leader with no interest in democracy. As a result, Uzbekistan’s economic and geopolitical mediocrity are guaranteed for decades to come. But Kazakhstan’s friends know Nazarbayev’s nation can do better—far better. We know a succession plan can prevent (1) any chance of the chaos that could result from an Islamist power grab by those returning from the Islamic State or (2) any future attempts to unite more Russians in another land-grabbing Novorossiya. We know a succession plan now can result in a flood of (otherwise nervous) foreign investment. We know a good succession plan can gild a great man’s reputation with legacy gold.
So I appeal to President Nazarbayev: craft that succession, engineer a more glorious pathway to the future, make it transparent, give birth to that resilient Kazakhstan democracy and move this great nation into the ranks of first world economic and geopolitical success. Kazakhstan can surpass poor Bosnia and troubled Turkey as the world’s premier Muslim-majority democracy—a shining light for all of Islam.
I look across the post-Soviet space and I see vanishingly few leaders who can pull this off, but Nursultan Nazarbayev can. And must. And soon. Assure the legacy by shining a light on an extraordinary succession.
The author is a Washington, DC-area international affairs analyst (specializing in future prediction) and a former U.S. diplomat. A life-long world’s fair enthusiast, he cannot wait for Expo 2017