Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s death in 2016, coupled with Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation earlier this year, represent the most significant political developments in Central Asia in recent memory. In mid-March of 2019 Nazarbayev, the long-standing ruler of Kazakhstan, resigned and designated Qassym-Zhomart Toqaev, the former speaker of the senate, to succeed him as president. Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, replaced Toqaev as speaker in a unanimous vote. The government at Toqaev’s request also renamed Astana to Nur-Sultan in honor of Nazarbayev. Thereafter, a presidential election was scheduled for June 9th. It was obvious from the outset that Kazakhstan’s ruling elites had no intention of holding a free and fair contest. Yet the powers that be apparently did not anticipate the spate of protests (particularly in Nur-Sultan and Almaty) that arose and continued for several months. To stifle the protests, the authorities occasionally throttled internet access, made hundreds of arrests, temporarily detained journalists, and even conscripted some protesters into military service. Overall, the holding of the presidential election turned out to be a success in the sense that Nazarbayev’s designated successor convincingly won the contest. On the other hand though, the “state-managed process” to determine the country’s president, coupled with the resort to repression to stymie the protesters, has tarnished the government’s image among the local population. If Kazakhstan’s citizens once harbored any doubts about the nature of their political system, they know now what type of regime presides over them. In spite of what Kazakhstan’s constitution proclaims, the government is not democratic. The protests have since quieted down, but the country’s future is now somewhat uncertain. Although the regime remains entrenched the government has suffered a blow to its legitimacy, and it is unknown if the elites can win it back.
Islam Karimov ruled over Uzbekistan for more than a generation. His regime was infamously known for brutalizing anyone who spoke out against his harsh brand of authoritarianism. Perhaps the most notorious aspect of Karimov’s rule transpired in May of 2005 in the city of Andijon, where authorities massacred hundreds of innocent people who had assembled in the main square in the aftermath of an armed jail break to free a group of businessmen the previous evening. Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev succeeded Karimov after his death in the fall of 2016. Several months later, Mirziyoyev was elected president of Uzbekistan. The December 2016 presidential election was neither free nor fair, but Mirziyoyev has been busy building a power base and implementing reforms ever since. In addition to instituting a series of political shakeups across the country, publicly criticizing various bureaucracies, and relieving the leader of the infamous National Security Service, Mirziyoyev has also established a series of “free economic zones” and streamlined the bureaucratic process related to the opening of businesses and exporting of goods. Such moves have reignited interest in the country, and although authoritarianism still predominates progress has been made in terms of the government under Mirziyoyev’s supervision initiating a noticeable break with its past by introducing a welcomed set of initiatives.
Although the prospects for democracy blooming anywhere in the region are highly unlikely, two divergent models of authoritarian governance are coming to the forefront in the midst of the political transitions away from the so-called “founding fathers” of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In Kazakhstan “caretaking” (which entails preserving the foundations of the Nazarbayev system) has been taken up by the ruling elites, whereas in Uzbekistan key powerbrokers are adhering to a governing style focused more on “reforming” (certain) tenets of the Karimov dictatorship (at least for now anyways). The main difference between these models is that the latter has the potential to assist a government in transitioning away from authoritarianism, pending the ruling elites fully commit to it. Moreover, these contrasting models could theoretically have far-reaching implications with regards to American and European relations. On this point, should Kazakhstan wish to preserve Nazarbayev’s personalist system of rule while Uzbekistan gradually revises the foundations of the Karimov dictatorship, then such developments could serve to direct Western interest away from the former and towards the latter.
The Nazarbayev cult of personality is extensive. Toqaev has even called for the major streets in all cities and towns across the country to be named after his predecessor along with the construction of a grandiose monument dedicated to the first president in Nur-Sultan. Still, the regime relies upon a measure of coercion to keep the society in check. Such coercion was put on display when balaclava-clad security forces roughed up and detained citizens protesting against the government’s unwillingness to consult citizens on important national issues. As Kazakhstan’s first political leader, Nazarbayev retains some degree of respect and admiration. Moreover, Kazakhstan is a wealthy country awash in oil and gas reserves and has been relatively stable since attaining independence. The government has also drafted a plan of action known as the “100 Concrete Steps” designed to modernize the economy by the year 2050. That said, the protests that arose shortly after the Majlis oversaw Astana’s name change indicate that the ruling elites miscalculated (at least in terms of timing). Prior to the onset of the transition, the government had been facing mounting concerns from vocalized public assemblies on issues related to the provision of adequate housing, higher wages, and increased social benefits. Such matters, coupled with speculations about the president’s health, arguably spurred Nazarbayev to resign while the foundations of his regime and his legacy are still intact. But why rename the city formerly known as Astana?
The rebranding of Astana amounts to a political maneuver inspired by a desire to maintain elite unity in the midst of Kazakhstan’s maiden transition. The transition is still underway, for the uncharismatic Toqaev (who did not even partake in a televised debate) wields no real power, namely as long as the 79-year old Nazarbayev is alive. In this sense, by endorsing the renaming of Astana to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s governing officials in the Majlis have overtly pledged their continued allegiance to Elbasy (a term officially reserved for Nazarbayev which translates as the “leader of the nation” in Kazakh). As an additional safety precaution, Nazarbayev retains his post as chairman of the Security Council as well as the ruling party Nur Otan, thereby assuring his continued hold on power. Kazakhstan’s average citizen though seemingly interprets this changing of the guard as a gambit initiated by Nazarbayev’s inner circle. In essence, the ruling elites’ poor timing has sent a signal to the wider population that they care more about staying in power than allaying people’s socio-economic concerns.
Nazarbayev and Mirziyoyev have hinged their political legacies on instituting reforms designed to improve the livelihoods of their citizens. The key difference, however, is that the latter has recently come to the highest office following the death of his ruthless predecessor, while the former seeks to live out his final years in comfort by designating a weak successor. In other words, Mirziyoyev has the ability to revise the foundations of Karimov’s rule (and in doing so augment his own legitimacy) as/when he sees fit, while Nazarbayev has chosen Toqaev to serve as lead caretaker for his personalist regime, at least until he dies. The irony here is twofold. On the one hand, despite Nazarbayev’s efforts to nurture a legacy grounded in stability, development, and social harmony, his slow-motion exit from power serves to undermine the regime-tailored narrative of his benevolent rule. The government has thus sacrificed a portion of its legitimacy in favor of ensuring some degree of elite unity. In contrast, although Mirziyoyev served under Karimov for years, Uzbekistan’s new leader can further enhance his own legitimacy by distinguishing his rule from that of his old boss via reforming the old system.
The Road Taken
Western interest in Central Asia is limited in scope, specifically since the landlocked “Stans” are situated next to Russia and China (both of which wield much more leverage than the United States and Europe) and the rule of law does not pervade across the region. Furthermore, judging by the current state of great power relations with emphasis on the Asia-Pacific and Middle East, Central Asia is likely to remain a low strategic priority in Washington and European capitals. Lastly, neither Nur-Sultan nor Tashkent will publicly antagonize Russia for assuming confrontational stances toward the West on major geopolitical issues. In the coming years, policymakers should thus expect for the Central Asian republics to drift further into Russia’s orbit, particularly if graft and greed continue to dominate local politics. Yet what if Kazakhstan and/or Uzbekistan’s ruling elites were to seriously commit to carrying out reforms designed to foster greater modernization and liberalization?
Democracy is not likely to emerge in Central Asia. These landlocked countries of minute geostrategic importance lack previous democratic histories, are ruled by strongmen, and maintain an extensive array of political, military, economic, linguistic, and historical ties with Russia. That said, if Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan seek to court Western investment (presumably so as to balance against Russian and Chinese influence) then it is imperative upon the ruling elites to carry out meaningful reforms designed to strengthen governing institutions. Such reforms (both economic and political) could help attract Western investment by narrowing existing power disparities between governing officials and citizens, thereby making these systems more legitimate, stable, and predictable in the long run. Undoubtedly, reforms emphasizing economic modernization and political liberalization pose significant dangers, particularly to those who wield power. But if neo-utilitarianism and fear continue to guide elites’ decision-making calculus then Western interest will only drift further away and the “Stans” will more so come to resemble vassal states of nearby great powers. To its credit, Kazakhstan has taken some initiative in drafting a blueprint designed to modernize its economy. Foreign investors, however, will stay away as long as the rule of law ceases to flourish and personalist rule pervades. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, can continue shedding its pariah status by instituting reforms and possibly come to eclipse Kazakhstan as the one Central Asian republic that is most deserving of the West’s attention. Western interest in Uzbekistan has risen in response to the government’s freeing of some political prisoners, partial relaxation of media censorship and internet controls, and revision of visa travel requirements for foreign visitors. Yet Mirziyoyev also surely understands that the strengthening of institutions over time will curb his ability to stay in power indefinitely.
Judging by their recent conduct in orchestrating a sham presidential election, the ruling elites in Nur-Sultan have apparently chosen to take Kazakhstan down a path characterized by enhanced societal restrictions and perpetual institutional weakness. The elites have opted for serving as caretakers to the system in favor of reforming it. It is unlikely that they will backtrack, for the opposition lacks a clear set of goals along with a strategic vision to press for change and inertia can carry the government along since no elite will try to buck the system which Nazarbayev still leads. His daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, also sits at the helm of the senate and will likely remain a major political actor for years to come, so it is unlikely that the system will undergo any major changes even after Nazarbayev is gone. Kazakhstan’s elites prefer to talk about reform but do not do anything of significance to change how the system operates. This strategy has proven to be effective for some time, but popular dismay has been growing more palpable as of recently. In brief, Toqaev’s victory in the 2019 presidential election has both assured that the elites will strive to preserve the foundations of the Nazarbayev system and (inadvertently) further undermined many citizens’ sense of confidence in their own government.
Meanwhile, the ruling elites in Tashkent are hopefully thinking hard about whether to follow the caretaking model that Kazakhstan has chosen or chart a different course (one that involves the strengthening of institutions and gradual dispersal of power through the sustained implementation of reforms highlighting the rule of law, free and fair elections, political party competition, an independent media, and civil liberties). Uzbekistan’s dark cloud has lessened considerably since Karimov’s passing in 2016, and it could disappear altogether should Tashkent faithfully adhere to this alternative model. Of course, should Mirziyoyev decide to slow the government’s reformist drive and further solidify his own hold on power then Western countries will soon forget about Uzbekistan’s potential. At this time, the key question concerning which foundational structures of the Karimov dictatorship are susceptible to reform and which are off-limits to change lacks a definitive answer. On a positive note, Mirziyoyev has recently ordered the closure of Karimov’s infamous Jaslyk prison. In the final analysis, Western governments can work with any of their Central Asian counterparts in further developing their economic and political systems by assisting with reforms, but the ruling elites within these countries must demonstrate that they genuinely wish to commit to adopting reforms in search of a better future.
The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not represent those of Nazarbayev University.