Political succession in the countries of Central Asia -- how each president will leave office has developed into a high-profile issue. Though important differences exist between the five countries -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- they have this in common: power is concentrated in the executive branch of government, at the expense of the legislature and judiciary.
Regional experts note that each president has formed a highly personalized regime, with the fate of the country seeming to rest on an individual, rather than on an existing political system. Nowhere is this clearer than in Turkmenistan, where President Saparmurat Niyazov has developed a Stalin-style personality cult. Niyazov was the first Central Asian leader to make his plans known: Last December he declared himself president for life.
Now, in Kazakhstan, a country with a comparatively progressive reputation, the passage of a new law granting President Nursultan Nazarbayev lifelong powers and privileges raises questions about how power will be transferred in that country. The Law on the First President of Kazakhstan, passed June 27, grants Nazarbayev immunity from criminal prosecution, access to future presidents, and influence over future domestic and foreign policy. The legislation also ensures perks for the president and his family. Proponents of the bill say the law is necessary to prevent backsliding on reforms after Nazarbayev leaves office.
Nazarbayev has denied having any role in the promulgation of the legislation. Many political experts, however, remain skeptical because of the obvious political benefits the president will receive. The law makes any future president beholden to Nazarbayev personally. Nazarbayev told the media that he does not want "to become a khan or a president for life." But the new law effectively makes him just that, as he will be assured a voice in all future decisions in the country.
Regional experts point out that this latest move follows a pattern of presidential behavior that stretches back to the mid-1990s: Nazarbayev has used other political institutions in the country in particular the legislature and the judiciary -- to advance his own political agenda. For example, in 1995, Kazakhstan's Constitutional Court nullified the country's elected parliament because of alleged election fraud. Speculation about Nazarbayev's hand in that decision arose because the move paved the way for the national referendum later that year that extended his presidential term through 2000. Then in 1998, six days after Nazarbayev outlined measures to establish an effective balance of power among branches of government, the legislature approved measures to increase the powers of the executive branch.
And that is where power has been concentrated ever since. Last year's parliamentary elections, which excluded opposition candidates and witnessed widespread polling abuses, drew international criticism from many Western governments and non-governmental organizations, including the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe and the US State Department.
But Nazarbayev seems impervious to such charges and appears intent on guiding Kazakhstan on its own political path. Martha Brill Olcott, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who is a leading expert on Kazakh affairs, suggested that Nazarbayev might be laying the groundwork for a dynastic political succession. Olcott continued that Nazarbayev, who is 60, might be thinking of retiring. The logical successor would be Nazarbayev's daughter Nagima, who runs the powerful state-run television.
Though the current group of Central Asian leaders are all men, according to Olcott, Kazakhstan might attempt to "reshape nomadic tradition in a way in which it would not be possible for a woman to become president." Such a transition could be based on ancient models of queens in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
The new law coincided with another political development: the news of an international investigation of alleged money transfers between Western oil companies and Kazakh officials, including Nazarbayev and his family members. With the new law in place, Nazarbayev need not worry about facing repercussions from financial misdeeds. According to the country's 1995 constitution, Nazarbayev is eligible to run for re-election when his current term expires in 2006. But the president may choose to forego another presidential term so long as he can pick a successor, much in the same manner as former Russian President Boris Yeltsin did in December. Indeed, Nazarbayev may be content to wield power from behind the scenes, in a way similar to that of the former Chinese leader Deng Xiao Ping.
Whenever and however Nazarbayev decides to relinquish his office, the new law makes it increasingly unlikely that an outside candidate can win power in the oil-rich Central Asian republic.
Bea Hogan is a journalist who is an expert on Central Asian political and economic affairs.