On December 13, Astana hosted the first meeting of a working group on the issue of redistributing powers between branches of government, established by the decision of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The meeting was an important step in preparing for a future transition of power in Kazakhstan, a process inspired by events in Uzbekistan. There, after the death of long-time President Islam Karimov in September 2016, the transition was both smooth and well-organized. It was officially completed by December 4, when Uzbekistan’s presidential election took place.
The death of Karimov, the first and only president of independent Uzbekistan, created a new reality for both Uzbekistan and the whole of Central Asia. The population of Uzbekistan accounts for almost half of all the people living in the region. Moreover, Uzbekistan, the region’s geographic center, is the only country that has borders with all other Central Asian countries. Historically, in Soviet times, Tashkent was one of the most important cities in the region, with an advanced and vibrant industrial base. For all these reasons, the situation in the republic has significant impact on its neighbors.
However, the first several months after Karimov’s passing showed that Uzbekistan is successfully coping with the challenge of its first transition of power as an independent state. The political establishment quickly chose a candidate to be Uzbekistan’s second president, appointing Shavkat Mirziyoyev as interim leader. Prime minister since 2003, Mirziyoyev was appointed as the head of the committee organizing Kasimov’s funeral. This decision might seem symbolic, but in the region’s political tradition the head of the funeral committee usually has the highest position in the local bureaucratic hierarchy.
Later, on September 8, the Uzbek parliament appointed Mirziyoyev the interim head of state. According to the constitution of Uzbekistan the speaker of the Senate, Nigmatilla Yuldashev, should have taken this position but he declined. All these steps guaranteed the confident win of Shavkat Mirziyoyev in the presidential election, which took place on December 4.
Of the regional capitals, Astana has likely been monitoring the situation in Uzbekistan most attentively. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two biggest states in the region, have many similarities in their political systems. Both have strong, top-down government systems, where the figure of president is the center of power for the political establishment and society. But the main resemblance lies in the personalities of the presidents. Before Karimov passed, both he and Nazarbayev had been in power since the collapse of the USSR. Both were considered leaders who created and ensured the independence of their countries, when such an outcome was not necessarily a given.
For the last several years, the ages of these two leaders and the uncertainty surrounding eventual transitions of power in Tashkent and Astana have been one of the main question marks for stability in the region. Now that the Uzbek leader has passed away, Kazakhstan remains the only republic in Central Asia yet to have crossed this threshold and successfully witnessed a presidential transition.
A week after Karimov’s funeral, Nazarbayev conducted a serious reshuffle in the government. All of a sudden the long-term prime minister and number two in the Kazakh hierarchy, Karim Massimov, was appointed as the head of the National Security Committee (KNB). This might signal that during an upcoming transition of power, he will be an informal moderator of the process. In his place, the government is now headed by his deputy, Bakytzhan Sagintayev. Local experts believe that he is a temporary figure, who has no chances to be Nazarbayev’s successor.
Other key players, who are currently considered as probable successors of the president, were given new assignments. Thus, Nazarbayev’s elder daughter, Dariga, was appointed to the senate. Prior to becoming the chairman of International Affairs, Defense, and Security Committee of the upper chamber of Parliament, she was a deputy prime minister. Meanwhile the former mayor of the capital, Minister of Defense Imangali Tasmagambetov, became the deputy prime minister. Dariga Nazarbayeva’s new assignment doesn’t look like a demotion; rather it is a horizontal move in the Kazakh hierarchy. At the same time, Tasmagambetov’s new position gives him more opportunities to prove himself compared with previous postings.
The reshuffle in the Kazakh government was made under the influence of events taking place in neighboring Uzbekistan. The Kazakh leader’s latest steps might indicate that he is going to use the Uzbek experience to prepare the political system of Kazakhstan for the upcoming transition of power. But it will be quite difficult to realize the Uzbek scenario in Kazakhstan.
Despite the number of similarities, these two states have a lot of divergences as well. First, Kazakhstan has a more liberal, open political and economic system. Like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan has several powerful political groups, but unlike the neighboring republic, these political groups have both economic assets and media resources. Given this situation, it may prove be extremely troublesome to forge unity in the political establishment in the event of a presidential transition, as each group will be able to use public opinion as an instrument in the struggle for power.
The other very important difference is the presence of the influential head of the National Security Service (SNB), Rustam Inoyatov, in Uzbekistan. He is too old to run and has no political ambitions, and for him being an “éminence grise” is a more usual and familiar role. The likelihood is that Inoyatov was the moderator of the closed negotiations among Uzbek power centers. Inoyatov, in that sense, has been the main provider of stability in post-Karimov Uzbekistan.
The Kazakh president decided to follow this example and appointed Karim Massimov the head of the NSC. For several years Massimov has been the most influential politician in Kazakhstan after Nazarbayev. However, he is not commonly considered as a potential successor to the current president because of his ethnicity: Massimov is half Uyghur (a minority group mostly resident in China near the border with Kazakhstan in Xinjiang). Most likely this is why Nazarbayev has decided to entrust Massimov to be the moderator of the future transition.
However, this step may be insufficient to ensure a stable transition. On the one hand, the influence of the KNB is less significant than its Uzbek counterpart. As mentioned above, Kazakh society is more open. On the other hand, if Massimov really wins authority to moderate the upcoming transition of power, it is possible he will have his own vision for who should be the next president of Kazakhstan — a vision that may be different from Nazarbayev’s.
However, Nursultan Nazarbaev is a very experienced and astute leader. No one can say for sure whether the existing balance of power in the Kazakh political field is the final one or just a temporary configuration. As mentioned at the outset of this piece, on December 13 Astana hosted the first meeting of a new working group on the issue of redistributing powers between branches of government. As a result of these deliberations, the parliament and the government may acquire more influence. The power of Kazakhstan’s second president in this case could be limited.
Regardless of which scenario is chosen for the transition of power, the political establishment of Kazakhstan and its society will face a new challenge. The main priority in any case will be maintaining stability. In this regard, the Uzbek experience of transition of power might appear quite a useful and pragmatic one for Kazakhstan to seek to emulate.
Stanislav Pritchin, Ph.D., is Research Fellow at the Central Asia and Caucuses Research Center, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Science.