Kazakh lessons for authoritarian leaders: How Putin and Lukashenka could fail the test

Before the January 2022 riots, Kazakhstan was a model for managing transitions of power in the post-Soviet world. The leaders of Russia and Belarus will be furiously taking notes on how to avoid a similar fate.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and former President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, during Informal meeting of the CIS heads of state at St. Petersburg on 28 December 2021
Image by Kremlin.ru

In June 2019, Kazakhstan held its first presidential election in 30 years not to feature Nursultan Nazarbayev; at least, he did not feature directly on the ballot paper. But the “leader of the nation” did effectively appoint current president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as his successor. Nazarbayev himself, attending the polling station on election day, said that “the people today choose not only the president, but also their future, their destiny.” Ironically, for the great Elbasy (Kazakh for “head”), by the early days of 2022 this choice had proved a fateful one.

Nazarbayev was the first of the post-Soviet authoritarian leaders to attempt a transition of power out of their family while also ensuring their own security and inviolability, protecting relatives’ financial assets, and preserving the autocratic political system. Nazarbayev moved to chair the Security Council, retained decisions on strategic state issues, maintained control over the security forces, and held a veto over numerous key issues. However, in his choice of Tokayev he had selected by no means a nominal figure. Tokayev had led the “vertical of power” that Nazarbayev and his network had constructed over decades, he was engaged in the day-to-day business of government, and he had already represented the country in the international arena. Until a matter of weeks ago, other authoritarian leaders of former Soviet states looked on Kazakhstan’s apparently successful slow and controlled transition of power as an example to follow.

When Vladimir Putin decided to amend the Russian constitution in 2020, road-testing the Kazakh model was one option for him. However, at the last moment, the Russian president changed his mind and reset his presidential terms instead, thereby postponing the decision about how to transfer power, and to whom. This step was probably influenced by his experience of ‘castling’ with Dmitry Medvedev between 2008 and 2012. Medvedev was largely a “puppet” throughout his term, and Putin’s political weight allowed him to dominate Russia even as prime minister. However, even around the loyal and weak Medvedev there began to emerge a circle of influential officials and businessmen who were interested in his rule continuing. Part of the Russian nomenklatura saw in Medvedev a chance for Russia to turn away from authoritarianism and follow the path of reform. This was quickly noticed in Putin’s entourage, so Medvedev’s presidential career ended after one term. The true tsar hastily resumed his throne.

Since Kazakhstan’s transfer of power in 2019, a similar set of positions has been forming. To the outsider, it seemed that the Nazarbayev-Tokayev pairing was working smoothly and the situation was under control. However, at the very first serious crisis to appear in the country, the accumulated contradictions between its two main politicians burst to the surface. And the point is less about any personal sympathies and antipathies between them, or even in the differences in their political positions. Rather, authoritarianism a priori does not accept dual power, and, according to the law of the genre, at some point one king must defeat the other. The uprising in Kazakhstan simply exposed a concealed but large-scale struggle. Tokayev seized the moment to consolidate his power, removed Nazarbayev from his post on the Security Council, and fired and arrested a number of officials close to Nazarbayev. To protect himself from a possible palace coup and other competitors, he invited Collective Security Treaty Organization troops into the country.

With this series of actions, the possibility of an enduring, peaceful transition of power within an authoritarian system vanished along with the smoke from the burning streets of Almaty.

Authoritarianism a priori does not accept dual power, and, according to the law of the genre, at some point one king must defeat the other  

This is bad news for one post-Soviet authoritarian who had been attracted by the ‘Kazakhstan model’. Belarus’s leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, survived the shock of mass protests in 2020, but to entrench his position he had opted for an ambitious restructuring of the political system he built over three decades. Lukashenka’s idea was for a new constitutional body to appear in the country – the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly. This would be a kind of super-parliament with the power to impeach the president, control the activities of the executive legislature, and appoint the judiciary. Presumably, the seat of chair of the assembly was originally prepared for Lukashenka. Like Nazarbayev, the retiring president would select his successor from among his most devoted officials.

However, in light of Kazakhstan’s bloody January, such a mechanism has lost its shine. A referendum on the new arrangements, scheduled for next month, is still likely to take place. But if the plans go ahead, then Lukashenka may now simply take both posts at once – the president and the chair of the assembly. But this will not solve the problem of the succession of power.

Putin’s and Lukashenka’s procrastination cannot go on forever. And the experience of their mutual friend Islam Karimov, who led Uzbekistan until his death in 2016, is a vivid demonstration of what can happen to the legacy of a strongman who failed to decide on a successor before his death. After Karimov died, his associates were removed from power, and his relatives were dispossessed and forced to emigrate. The memory of Karimov in Uzbekistan has been mostly erased, and a cult of personality has now formed around the new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

But there are more successful, often dynastic, transfers of power for leaders to look longingly upon, including in the post-Soviet states. The current president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, inherited the country from his father and has now led it for nearly 20 years. The current presidents of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are preparing similar scenarios. Events in Kazakhstan increase the likelihood that Lukashenka will also try to keep it in the family. Fortunately for him, unlike Karimov and Nazarbayev, he has sons who are ready to inherit power. Such a change may be unprecedented for a European country in the twenty-first century, but it should not be a surprise: the Belarusian regime has been both archaic and repressive since its birth.

Putin has a trickier task. Firstly, the structure of the Russian power pyramid is much more complex than in other post-Soviet countries. It is less hierarchical, its constituent parts are in regular struggle with each other, and it includes oligarchs and other people with no official status but who are personally close to the body of the leader. Secondly, Putin has no sons, who in his eyes could be strong enough to inherit power and rule the state with an iron fist. His daughters hold no senior positions or even have much public profile; they would struggle to claim his mantle even if they wanted to. This narrows Putin’s room for manoeuvre and increases the likelihood that the Russian president will stay in post and go the way of Soviet general secretaries, who retired feet first.

Be that as it may, in both Minsk and Moscow, the autumn of the patriarch has set in. And the Kremlin’s current sudden attack on the international world order is not so much about Russia’s struggle for spheres of influence and former greatness, but the awe of one person in the face of the inevitable.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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