Earlier this week, the government of Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed changes to Kazakhstan’s constitution that would decentralize power away from the president. The changes would grant greater power to the legislature and government ministers. The legislature is to be given more power over the ministers, and the ministers will be granted administrative powers that were previously reserved for the president. While decentralizing his own power may seem a surprising move for a leader who is usually regarded as a dictator, it is widely believed that Nazarbayev is doing so with a future political transition in mind.
Kazakhstan is a vast country located on the steppes of Central Asia. It has the largest landmass of any landlocked country, and contained within its great expanses are valuable deposits of natural resources. The most significant of these are oil and natural gas, which have fueled a boom of modernization and development in the post-soviet country. As a result, it has a much higher GDP per capita than its Central Asian neighbors, all of which were also constituent republics of the USSR until 1991. Like many its Central Asian neighbors, however, Kazakhstan’s totalitarian roots have contributed to the rise of a de facto one-party state. Nazarbayev has been Kazakhstan’s president since before its independence, and since then he has ruled the country with an iron grip.
One of Kazakhstan’s aforementioned Central Asian neighbors is Uzbekistan, whose history closely mirrors that of Kazakhstan besides one key difference. It, too, was a Soviet Republic until 1991. It, too, developed an authoritarian dictatorship. In fact, it is considered even more corrupt and repressive than Kazakhstan. The key point at which the modern histories of Kazkahstan and Uzbekistan diverged occurred in September of 2016. It was then that Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, passed away.
Because Karimov had led Uzbekistan since its independence, just as Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan since its independence, his death gave rise to an unprecedented situation: Uzbekistan’s first political transition as an independent nation. Because Karimov had maintained such stranglehold on political power, there were fears that his death could give rise to a dangerous power vacuum. Analysts voiced concerns that such a power vacuum could lead to political unrest, and, considering the Karimov government’s hard-line opposition to radicalism, some even worried that the Muslim-majority nation could become a haven for Islamist extremists in the event of a sudden decentralization. None of that came to pass, however, and the country experienced a relatively smooth transition of power as the ruling elite rallied behind the Karimov’s Prime Minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The 76 year old Nazarbayev is less than two years younger than Karimov, so he likely paid close attention to the transition unfolding in his country’s southern neighbor. He knows that, eventually, his country will go through a similar transition, and he is likely keen on preventing a damaging power vacuum. As a result, he has been reshuffling key government positions in what analysts believe is an attempt to assemble an administration whose purpose is to guide the country through its future transition. The recent proposed constitutional changes, too, are viewed as an attempt to facilitate the country’s future transition. By weakening the presidency and strengthening both the legislature and ministries, Nazarbayev can create institutions that prevent a complete vacuum. He can create a state that is capable of functioning without an autocrat.
Throughout history, succession crises have again and again devolved into terrible chaos. Autocrats often act as the primary unifying figures of their countries while elites jockey for greater influence. Once the autocrat is gone, the elites have little incentive to maintain unity as they vie for the top spot. In Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, this phenomenon engendered violent sectarian strife. In many African countries, it caused a circle of dictatorship that reduced the likelihood of future prosperity. In nearly every case, it gives rise to numerous challenges associated with the corrosion of state control, some of which were discussed in last week’s article about the fall of Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia. Considering the violent history of political transition, it is no longer surprising that Nazarbayev would weaken his own office. Why? Because what he is actually doing is weakening the office of his successor.