Central Asia’s Presidents-for-Life. Don’t hold your breath waiting for democratic transitions in Central Asia.

darnurThe president of Tajikistan was granted the title “Leader of the Nation” in December 2015 by special law. However, he does not want to stop there. On January 22, Tajikistan’s parliament adopted new amendments to the Constitution, which allow President Emomali Rahmon to run for an unlimited number of terms and also reduces the minimum age for presidential candidates to 30 from 35. This means that Rahmon’s elder son Rustam Emomali, now 28, will be able to run for the presidency when his father’s current term ends in 2020.

Rahmon, who is 63 and has been ruling the country for 23 years, has successfully run for presidency four times already, most recently in 2013 when he was reelected for seven years. The referendum that should cement the new changes to the main law of the country could be held in May or June of this year.

The Tajik president is successfully following the path of other Central Asian leaders, who have not been shy about changing the constitution for their own purposes. Indeed, it has become the standard process for usurping power in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Uzbek president Islam Karimov, who is 77 and has ruled the country since 1989, was reelected on March 29, 2015, followed by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev on April 26, both officially receiving more than 90 percent of the vote. Neither president bothered to present their populations with much of a case for their reelection.

While Central Asian dictators have a tendency to treat their country’s economy as a family business, millions of struggling Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kazaks have been forced to leave to seek work in Russia, South Korea and Turkey. The governments don’t mind, and indeed benefit from the remittances sent by these migrant workers. For example, the Uzbek economy relies on remittances from Uzbek citizens working abroad, which account for 12 percent of the nation’s GDP. Tajikistan is the most remittance-dependent country in the world, with the equivalent of 50 percent of its GDP coming from labor migrants.

Trust Deficits and Nepotism

Notwithstanding allegations of corruption, repression and nepotism, the presidents of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have all been in office for more than two decades now, during which tenures they have signally failed to build effective governance or develop experience in democratic elections. More importantly, though, they lack any precedent for power transitions since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Horrified at the two revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, these leaders are frightened that they will face the same fate as the ousted Kyrgyz presidents. The fear democratic values, free media, and the Internet. Ultimately, they trust only kin, and it is thus widely believed that each president will look to a family member as a successor.

In Central Asia, nepotism is deep rooted and widespread. Children of first families not only boldly help themselves to a slice of every profitable business, they also accept appointments to high state positions. On January 27, Tajikistan’s Rahmon tapped his daughter Ozoda Rahmon to head the presidential administration. She served as the first deputy foreign minister since May 2014, while her husband has been working as deputy head of Tajikistan’s central bank.

While the Kazakh and Uzbek presidents do not have male hairs, Tajikistan’s leader is likely to endorse his son Rustam Emomali for the presidency. Although Rustam is very young he has already held several state positions and last year was appointed head of the Anticorruption State Agency.

Shaiyrbek Joroev, an associate professor at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), told The Diplomat that in Tajikistan, the government has become a highly family-centered regime. “The last changes to the constitution seem to be aimed at securing two options for keeping power in the family: to open to the way for the son, should that be necessary, but if possible, to open the way for unlimited presidency for Rahmon himself. In the face of increasing social and economic crisis, this seems to be one of the characteristic steps that Central Asia’s authoritarian regimes are taking to solidify their bases.”

In contrast, power succession in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is still unclear, as both presidents have only daughters, no sons. Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova, lived in Geneva and worked as the country’s representative to the United Nations from 2008 to 2010. According to press reports, Gulnara Karimova bought a villa in Geneva for $18 million. In 2013, Uzbek dissidents living in Switzerland located her house, then occupied it while putting a banner outside, which says “This villa belongs to Uzbek dictator Karimov’s daughter.” Falling a falling out within the first family, Karimov removed Gulnara from the public eye, shut down her companies, and now keeps her under house arrest.

In contrast, Kazakhistan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been keeping daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva in the political spotlight. Dariga founded a political party, Asar, which served as an opposition party of sorts, before merging with the ruling Nur Otan party in 2006. In 2014, Dariga became deputy speaker in Kazakh parliament. While her husband was charged with murder and money laundering, she was not accused of anything. On September 11, 2015, she was appointed deputy prime minister and has accompanied her father on official visits to Europe.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, who will turn this year 76, has urged scientists to find the elixir of life. “One important subject is anti-aging, or the study of prolongation of life. People of my age are really hoping all of this will happen as soon as possible,” he told an audience at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty. Failing immortality, Nazarbayev at least appeared to have taken the first steps towards his succession when he was awarded the title Elbasy (leader of the nation) in 2010. This special law granted him immunity from persecution and the right for a veto over all decisions until his death, meaning if he stepped down as president he would still hold the real power. But Nazarbayev has made it clear he doesn’t yet see a worthy successor.

Nonetheless, Daniyar Kosnazarov, a Kazakh political scientist based in Astana, told The Diplomat that succession is inevitable. “Kazakhstan started preparing legal basis for it from 2010 when the law on the Leader of Nation was approved. Uzbekistan showed a similar approach, and empowering parliament is seen as the right move. The transition in both countries, in that respect, is a topic presidents started to think about many years ago, even if they tried to hide that fact. The thing is that the processes of consolidation of power in the hands of presidents mainly was seen by many international observers and pundits as unrelated to succession. This is incorrect, as the leaders of both states first sought to accumulate all power in their hands in order to manage the process of the transition of power.”

According to Kosnazarov, parliamentary elections that will take place this year in Kazakhstan shows that the succession is approaching very rapidly. “Although I am not sure whether Dariga Nazarbaeyeva is the successor or not, in the parliamentary-presidential system her position as deputy prime minister or prime minister makes sense. What is certain is that the president will rely on family members.”

Although there are concerns about the political risk associated with power transitions in Central Asian, some experts argue that the worry is misplaced. After all, Turkmenistan managed it after the sudden death of Saparmurat Niyazov in December 2006. Shaiyrbek Joroev, an associate professor at the American University of Central Asia, told The Diplomat that a power transition “could develop very rapidly and work out as it did in Turkmenistan, with very little noise or disturbance, or things could go on for years – both presidents have given every indication that they plan to rule for a long time to come – and the transition eventually happen through a smooth handover. But I am afraid that truly open and democratic elections as a way of changing the leadership in either of these countries – certainly in Uzbekistan – is unlikely.”

Dictators Over Instability?

In light of the growing threat of religious extremism, the Ukraine crisis, and the Afghanistan border, there is a widespread belief that stability has been guaranteed only by these long-serving presidents. Government officials and the leaders themselves have reiterated their traditional argument that their strength has been a guarantor of stability. Some diplomats and publications argue then that the prospect of a political transition is a threat to stability. For instance, the Financial Times cited a diplomat saying “these presidents have done spectacularly well at maintaining stability and if you take them away, what happens next?”

Tamerlan Ibraimov, a political scientist from Kyrgyzstan, agrees that dictatorships can sometimes be better than chaos. He said that authoritarian regimes in the short-term can deliver good results and ensure stability, but in the long-term they tend towards chaos. “The examples of Central Asian dictators have shown that after many years on the throne they lose a sense of reality and become a hostage of corruption schemes. Some experts might argue that strong dictator regimes are good at restraining extremism and terrorism, but it is not true. The dictators’ tendency to suppress any dissent with draconian methods eventually leads to growing extremism and protests.”

Ivar Dale, a senior adviser at the Helsinki Human Rights Committee based in Geneva, said that the paradox is that authoritarian leaders themselves are the reason that a healthy democratic culture can’t develop. “In the long run, however, the presidents themselves become the source of potential instability in these countries, by banning opposition and independent media and thereby hindering positive development.”

Bernard Balas, a French expert on Central Asian issues based in Paris, told The Diplomat that the succession will be assured within the circles of power, without democratic elections. He added, “After the Arab Spring left many countries in chaos, Western countries didn’t want the same scenario in Central Asia and are reluctant to support active democratic movements. Instead they will continue to tolerate repressive attitudes.”

Indeed, few believe that Karimov, Rahmon, or Nazarbayev are planning truly democratic elections. These rulers might have a plan, but it is one that involves family members and their inner circle, not their people.

Cholpon Orozobekova is a Geneva-based journalist and analyst specializing in Central Asia.

The Diplomat, 5.02.2016


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