Follow the Leader?: Kazakhstan’s Succession Crisis

Katherine Crofts-Gibbons

On April 26th, the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev won re-election with 99.7% of the vote in a rigged snap election. The officially designated ‘Leader of the Nation’ is very good at what he does. He has overseen an economic boom and rising living standards in Kazakhstan. He has successfully maintained political stability and prevented the emergence of rivals and opposition movements.  He is genuinely popular, and would probably win a free and fair election were he to hold one. However, the President is 75 and, it is rumoured, in ill health. He can almost certainly, if he chooses, hold on to power until he dies, but, despite the aura of immortality his 26 years in power have conferred, one day he will have to let go. 

It is not clear what will happen next. There is no precedent for a transfer of power in Kazakhstan, and there are no institutions to manage one. Nazarbayev has spoken publicly about the need to put in place a system for the succession, but he does not appear to have taken any steps in this direction. The Kazakh political system is highly personalised, based on informal patronage networks, with the president at the summit, rather than formal institutional structures. To simplify slightly, in this sort of regime, to secure power, a single successor must win over a critical mass of these client networks by presenting him or herself as the strongest possible patron, and it is in the clients’ interests to coordinate around one successor, who can thus become an effective patron. 

The problem in Kazakhstan is that there is no clear successor for the networks to back. Although the workings of the regime are opaque, the consensus is that Nazarbayev has yet to pick one. Experts and insiders regularly come up with lists of potential successors, but they are usually six, seven or eight names long, with no consensus, or even firm answers, on who is most likely. Dariga Nazarbayeva, Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter (he has no sons), was considered the likely successor, but has since fallen out of favour. Her ex-husband, Rakhat Aliyev, was at one time the front runner, but he too fell from favour and committed suicide in an Austrian prison in February. The number of potential competitors will complicate the coordination of elites around a new patron, unless Nazarbayev can use his personal authority to install one. 

The President may yet have time to pick and groom a successor, following the example of Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, who successfully handed power to his son, Ilham, in 2003. Should the President’s chosen successor fail to win the loyalty of the Kazakh elites, or should Nazarbayev die before selecting one, a chaotic power struggle is likely, which could tip over into general unrest. 

A number of factors will add fuel to the fire.  There are fears of a ‘Ukraine scenario’; Kazakhstan shares 4,250 miles of border with Russia, and has a large ethnic Russian minority concentrated in the north. In 2014, Putin appeared to suggest that Kazakhstan’s existence as a state was tied to Nazarbayev. On top of this, and perhaps making Russian intervention to ‘protect’ ethnic Russians more likely, a recent spate of terror attacks reflects the growing presence of radical Islam. Home-grown sources of potential conflict include an increasing rich-poor divide, growing labour unrest and economic difficulties stemming from Russia’s economic crisis, cooling growth in China and low oil prices. Nazarbayev is strong enough to keep a lid on the instability these factors might otherwise create. His successor, particularly if the Leader of the Nation dies before designating an heir, may not be able to. 

Even if a successor does emerge, Kazakhstan faces an uncertain future. In order to hold on to power in the face of intra-elite competition and growing domestic instability, Nazarbayev’s successor, who will lack his popularity and personal authority, may turn to even tighter political control and repression. Rule of law is unlikely to be high on the agenda. Such a crackdown may provoke a popular backlash. 

Until a strong successor emerges, the stability of Central Asia’s largest and richest country rests on the, possibly delicate, health of a 75 year old man.