Central Asia is not exactly a region of primary interest to many decision makers in Brussels and wider Europe. There is, however, a profound political and economic risk in ignoring the momentous change that the region’s key country, Kazakhstan, is about to undergo.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s first and only President since independence in 1991, is old. So old actually, that the country was briefly rife with speculation over the autocrat’s departure already a decade ago. Now, at 77 years, it is clearer than ever that his exit from Kazakh politics will come sooner rather than later. And in today’s environment, it is more important than ever that Europe be ready for what will come the day after.
Presidential succession in Central Asia is a complicated and sometimes dangerous business, revolving around naked power, business interests and clan alliances. Kazakhstan is no different. But what are the possible scenarios that we are heading for? And how should the EU respond to the significant risks and opportunities that are about to arise?
Succession in Central Asia
So far, only one Central Asian country has managed to organise an orderly transition of power through competitive elections. The tiny mountainous nation of Kyrgyzstan has always been a bit of an exception and while its history is fascinating and recommended reading for anyone interested in autocracy, democracy and the way to get from one to the other, the Kyrgyz succession model is not of relevance to Kazakhstan – a much bigger, semi-autocratic state with a different background. Sure enough, there will be national elections after Nazarbayev’s eventual departure – though most likely not with the purpose to pick a successor, but rather to legitimise the person to emerge from backroom deals within the elite.
It is crucial to understand that succession in Kazakhstan will come with great risks attached. Any system that relies on personalised patron-client relationships and de-institutionalised governance is entering extremely hazardous territory when the captain is leaving the ship. And this is exactly what Kazakhstan is heading for. What makes things worse is a growing disquiet and frustration within the population over corruption, economic grievances (the plunge in oil and gas prices hit Kazakhstan’s insufficiently diversified economy hard) and anxiety over identity and sovereignty: an unsubstantiated scare that Kazakh land might be sold off to Chinese investors sent tens of thousands to the streets in unprecedented street protests in April 2016. Needless to say, such an environment is dangerous in the event of a botched transition.
The central source of instability, though, is the structure of Kazakhstan’s elite. What sets them apart from the political and economic big shots of other countries in the region is that they are much more diverse and, at times, combative. In Kazakhstan, you will find oil and gas tycoons, pro-Western bankers, regional and clan leaders and a young generation of bureaucrats that went to Western universities as part of the Bolshaq (“Future”) Program and are eager to finally enter into the top political jobs. Under Nazarbayev, the elite has mostly vowed to stay politically neutral and has usually accepted the President’s arbitration of their conflicting interests. Unless when they didn’t. The 2000s are full of rebellions of powerful elite groups against Nazarbayev himself: wealthy business leaders, regional governors and even the President’s family. That all those small uprisings ended to the detriment of the rebels is beside the point. Rather, this legacy means that if Nazarbayev’s succession is not handled in a way that will satisfy all important groups, it is reasonable to expect significant challenges to the new President from well-funded and entrenched alliances – with plenty of potential for destabilisation.
The Russia Factor
Northern Kazakhstan is home to millions of ethnic Russians who form the demographic majority there. From the beginning of his Presidency in 1991, Nazarbayev has pursued an inclusive policy of inter-ethnic tolerance, made Russian an official state language and allowed for the development of local identities under the common Kazakh roof. Given that demographics favour ethnic Kazakhs, who now make up for 65% of the population (1989: 39%), ethnic Russians are probably correct in expecting the next President to be distinctly more “Kazakh” in his policies and rhetoric. A struggling new leader might even go further and rely on toxic nationalism to bolster his position. This is partly why Northern Kazakhstan has witnessed a significant emigration of ethnic Russians over the last couple of years. With Nazarbayev’s departure, there will thus be further risk of conflict in Kazakhstan’s north.
Apart from that, Moscow’s reaction to a more nationalist Kazakh government gives cause for concern. When it comes to Russia’s neighbourhood, the Kremlin tends to interpret events that run counter to its interests as (at least partly) orchestrated by the West in an effort to encircle and threaten Russia. Feeling boxed into a corner, Russia’s reaction can take any shape, from economic pressure to the Crimean playbook.
A Managed Transition?
Not all scenarios for life after Nazarbayev are ridden with risk and conflict, though. The orderly transition of power after the death of Uzbek autocrat Islam Karimov in September 2016 to his prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been upheld by many as a potential route for Kazakhstan to follow. The key to the successful transition in Uzbekistan was the alliance of Mirziyoyev with Rustam Inoyatov, the powerful head of the security services.
Only days after Nazarbayev personally visited Karimov’s grave last year, he ordered a reshuffle that had resounding similarities to the Uzbek model: Baqytzhan Saghyntaev, a loyal ally of Nazarbayev with a broadly acceptable ethnic background, became prime minister and Karim Massimov, another trusted ally, was reshuffled to head Kazakhstan’s security services. Moreover, a set of constitutional reforms in early 2017 nominally diversified power away from the President and strengthened both cabinet and Parliament.
Since then, however, nothing has indicated that Nazarbayev might be willing to go any further. In fact, a number of other potential candidates for the succession – among them Nazarbayev’s daughter Darigha – were elevated to powerful posts. The President’s intentions are unclear and nobody knows if there is a succession plan in place or not.
Risks and Opportunities for Europe
There can be no doubt that destabilisation in Kazakhstan runs counter to the EU’s interest. Not only is the region vital to Brussels’ drive to diversify its energy supply, but it is equally important that Russia-EU relations and the very norms of international law are not further strained through a potential intervention in northern Kazakhstan. Towards that end, the EU must prepare incentives for a new Kazakh President to pursue a sensible policy. Brussels should offer technical assistance for Kazakhstan’s extractive resource industry or for diversifying the economy. Obviously, Europe’s influence in post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan will be limited, but the new Kazakh leader will be looking for quick wins in the economy to boost his legitimacy and might well respond positively to such incentives.
Secondly, EU diplomacy must constantly engage the Kremlin and build trust through small cooperative steps on a number of issues so as to progressively challenge the Russian government’s underlying assumptions about Western policy.
If an orderly transition succeeds, Europe should be mindful about a set of opportunities. Chances are that the new Kazakh leader will rely on more consensus-based decision-making, with greater breathing space for civil society. The EU should support and modestly reward such openings to create momentum.
Brussels should also prepare for the possibility that Kazakhstan would want to negotiate closer economic ties and deepen the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement of 2015. This is due to rising frustration towards the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) within Kazakhstan’s elite and society. Controversial issues with the EEU revolve around its new customs code, falling commerce between EEU members, trade conflicts with Moscow over Western sanctions and unpopular counter-measures as well as a general discomfort with Russia’s attempt to pursue some political integration through the EEU. Not to forget that the Eurasian Union was very much Nazarbayev’s personal ambition; it is unclear whether his successor will bring the same passion for the EEU to the table or if he will not prefer to position Kazakhstan differently in Central Asia’s key power triangle between Russia, China and Europe.
Nursultan Nazarbayev will not be the President of Kazakhstan for much longer. When the country will inevitably open this new chapter in its history, Europe must be conscious about the risks that come with a difficult transition as well as prepared to explore the opportunities that the future of EU-Kazakh relations can hold.