As Nazarbayev prepares his exit, Putin takes note

On March 26, 2019, the global foreign policy wonk community was abuzz with the news of the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev from his long-held post as Kazakhstan’s president. The non-democratic transition of power that this resignation has set in motion in Kazakhstan is an event of enormous political significance for the entire post-Soviet space. This is not only due to Kazakhstan’s growing geopolitical importance in the region, but also because the issue of succession is critical to the “personalist” authoritarian regimes that make up the largest and most influential group among former Soviet states. Transition of power is a fundamental challenge to such regimes and it determines the logic of their subsequent evolution in many ways.

Post-Soviet Cult of Personality Regimes

As far as non-democratic governments are concerned, personalist-type regimes are the most common and most effective among them today. Several regional subtypes of personalist regimes can be distinguished: African, Latin American, Arab (where a systemic crisis occurred in the early 2010s) and the post-Soviet.

Within the post-Soviet space, there are seven countries with full-fledged personalist authoritarian regimes: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Russia. Kazakhstan stands out as the most successful not only among them, but also among all personalist regimes globally. This is why the succession mechanism currently being instituted by Nursultan Nazarbayev is significant regardless of whether it succeeds or fails.

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that the transition of power in Kazakhstan has not been completed, and as of this moment its mechanisms are unclear.  It is not certain who will inherit the power and in which proportions. It is not clear whether Kazakhstan’s Acting President Tokayev will run in the presidential elections a year from now, or whether it will be Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga, who has claimed the Senate Chair post previously held by Tokayev. In that sense, what is unfolding in Kazakhstan now is the acme of the Nazarbaev personalism— the only certain thing is that he is the real decision-maker behind the process of transition of power and he alone has the capacity to determine who gets the power and how much.

Henry Hale’s Patronal Politics theory describes post-Soviet personalist regimes as hierarchical pyramids of patronage networks with an authoritarian leader at its helm. Unlike African regimes, post-Soviet personalist regimes are much more institutionalized and much less “voluntary”. They are based on complex systems of formal and informal institutions, agreements and traditions.

A key political mechanism of a post-Soviet personalist regime lies in the fact that, while it features a mature legal system, the norms of that system may or may not be enforced. There are no independent institutions able to enforce these norms. Instead, it is the regime’s leader and his patronage vertical who fulfil the enforcement function.  The leader, who controls the administrative system and the system of application of norms, is the informal de facto guarantor of key transactions and rights which are not guaranteed by formal law.

The Successor Dilemma

In practice, this means that the power of an authoritarian leader is accumulated in the process of the making of deals endowing specific actors or elite groups with rights to administer certain official functions or material resources from which they then collect rent. The continuous functioning of such a process is precisely what constitutes the regime leader’s power. This, in turn, shapes the essence of the succession dilemma of a personalist regime: the power of an incumbent leader is sustained as long as the guarantees that he offers are reliable; at the same time, the power of a new leader is a function of his ability to question previous deals and to renegotiate them.

The transitions of power which have already taken place offer ample material for understanding the issues accompanying transition processes within personalist regimes. The successor model is unable to solve its main dilemma. It is assumed that the successor will accept the responsibility of honoring a certain portion of the preexisting deals. However, as was clearly observed during the transition of power from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, it is difficult to draw a clear line between the secured and non-secured deals. The uncertainty as to where that line lies becomes a political problem in itself  and a destabilizing factor. The rise of a new leader is proportionate to the rise of his clientele, which must supersede in their capabilities the clientele of the previous leader.

This was roughly the underlying logic of the Yukos case, whose political outcome was not only the redistribution of Russia’s main oil assets to benefit the new clientele, but an outright departure of Putin from the umbrella of the Yeltsin “family” and a wholesale renegotiation of the system of guarantees and agreements. In the aftermath of the Yukos case, even those elite groups whose rights and positions were much better protected than Khodorkovsky’s (who never belonged to the immediate circle of Yeltsin and “the family”), found themselves in a radically new situation and precipitously lost their prior influence.

Events in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan developed along the same lines: new leaders who inherited systems of personalist rule enacted decisive changes at critical nodes and reoriented the systems around themselves. For the most part, they renegotiated the preexisting systems of agreements.

In contrast to this scenario, in the “tandem” scheme (the temporary shift of formal power from Putin to Medvedev between 2008-2011) no changes took place because the new leader didn’t have the ability to renegotiate deals guaranteed by the previous ruler. At the same time, the tandem experience demonstrated that a new ruler, however impotent in reality, is assumed to have access to at least some of the arsenal of informal power and as such forms his own clientele, a shadow court of sorts, which begins to accumulate power with the intent of shifting into an offensive. The power of a leader or a contending camp is determined by the proportion of elites that will turn to them with their grievances, to seek guarantees or a defense.

The unique characteristic of the post-Soviet variety of personalist authoritarianism is precisely the combination of formal and informal mechanisms of power. They function as of communicating vessels and thereby shape the internal dynamics of such regimes.

Today, it is clear that at the core of the power transition in Kazakhstan lies the family-constitutional troika consisting of Nursultan Nazarbayev as the national leader (elbasy), Tokayev as a formal, but as of now not-yet-elected president, and Dariga Nazarbayeva as the Speaker of the Senate (i.e., according to the Constitution, second in line to the presidency). However, the future factual division of power within this “orchestra” is unknown. It is possible that even the members of this troika are not certain about it either. Tokayev may turn out to be a cover or façade for a transition of power within the family; or he could be the real deal, balancing and checking the family influence.

Sovereignty and Security: Doctrinal Legitimacy

Formal institutional aspects of the transition, about which so little is known, merit a thorough consideration.  These institutional aspects reflect important trends within the evolution of contemporary authoritarian regimes— first and foremost, their propensity toward ideologization, i.e., the quest to identify specific state/regime values as the foundation for their long-term legitimacy. This aspect of the transition in Kazakhstan has direct implications for Russia.

As has already been announced, Nazarbayev, having left the presidential office, kept his posts as the National Security Council and the Leader of the “Ruling Party”. Let’s examine the first post. The institutional side of the Kazakhstan transition is clarified by two laws: the National Security Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the National Security Council Law.

The National Security Council Law endows the founding president of the Republic (elbasy) with the right to head this agency indefinitely and describes the powers of the Chair. These powers are quite broad, though not without limitations.  For example, the members of the Council are picked by the President, but with the approval of the Chair. Therefore, the actual influence of the President and the Chair respectively in this process is determined by the informal weight of each and can change over time.  Among the Council’s functions is consideration of candidates for top positions at national and local executive branch agencies under the direct purview of the President. The rulings of the Council and its Chair on candidates are binding and subject to strict adherence by State agencies, organizations and functionaries (Chapter 2, Article 6, Paragraph 6).

The National Security Law is a true marvel worthy of having been authored by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and not by mere Kazakhstan visionaries. The law postulates a so-called “broad understanding of security” in the interest of defending national sovereignty—a concept that encompasses literally everything. The law in detail enumerates threats to the national security in all spheres and the responsibilities of various agencies in countering them. Just as in the speeches by the Russian President, the notion of national security in the Kazakhstan law balloons into a value universe of sorts, which counterbalances and limits other value systems, specifically, democracy and human rights. National Security is something to be defended, including from the citizens themselves; it is something definitely above the rights of an individual or rights of groups of people. Ideological manipulation of security threats and the concepts of security and protection of sovereignty forms the popular foundation used to circumscribe universal application of values of democracy and human rights.

The two laws offer us an idea on the institutional structure of the transition of power in Kazakhstan and the ideology supporting it. The Security Council and its Chair are akin to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard: something that is above the will of the people and having its own doctrinal legitimacy. Therefore, a president — elected by the people and tasked to fulfill the will of the people who elected him — is at the same time limited by the framework of the security doctrine and sovereignty, and also by the organs ensuring compliance with this doctrinal understanding of security and sovereignty.

Beyond Russia and Kazakhstan, and in fact throughout the majority of countries worldwide, security and sovereignty are increasingly set forth as values offered to citizens in exchange for circumscribing their rights, their freedom, and frequently their prosperity. Such an ideological trend not only changes the balance and hierarchy of universal values within civil societies, or serves as a means of further legitimization of authoritarian regimes in the mass consciousness, but also facilitates the deepening of the existing authoritarian regimes.  And therein lies the global challenge to open society.

The Transition of Power in Kazakhstan and the Constitutional Shift in Russia

For Russia, where according to the Constitution Vladimir Putin is not able to run for another term in 2024, the Kazakhstan experience has a limited implication. The limitations arise from a number of factors. First and foremost is the age difference between the two leaders. Putin is 12 years younger than his colleague, which implies yet another presidential cadence (two 6-year terms). The 79-year-old Nazarbayev is genuinely concerned with preparations of wrapping up his political career. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, does not intend to end his political career in the next decade. This creates a much wider spectrum of possibilities for Putin.

Another difference is in the positions the two presidents occupy within the political history of their respective countries. Nazarbayev is an authoritarian success story. It is not only due to the fact that Nazarbayev is the actual founder of the Kazakhstan statehood, while Putin is a Russian usurper trying to redefine it. Nazarbayev is a unique example of successful implementation of the Gorbachev Modernization Centrism policy. This is a fascinating story which makes us look at Gorbachev himself in a slightly different light (though this is a separate topic). Putin, however, is an eccentric radical attempting to revise the history of the previous 20 years, the reality that frames his counter-modernization policies.

Putin’s radicalism is tied to two key circumstances. First of all, it is tied to the marginal and borderline nature of “Putin’s group” within the context of the traditional Russian elites. Such tightly-knit marginal elite groups frequently find success in taking over power and sidelining their opponents, but this requires levers (leverages) for ideological and political radicalization. Putin’s self-radicalizing, anti-Western stance of 2010 is precisely that type of such a leverage.

The second radicalization factor is the protracted economic stagnation experienced by Russia during the past 10 years. Average GDP growth rates between 2009-2018 stood at 0.9%. Around 2000, the legitimacy of Putin’s rule in many ways hinged upon the high economic growth tempo and high tempos of income growth. Putin’s popularity translated into a rapid expansion of his personal clientele who claimed resources and revenue sources. As growth weakened around 2010, these conquests faced serious risks. This forced Putin’s coalition to seek new foundations for its legitimacy after Putin’s return to his presidential seat in 2012. However, the economic fundamentals during that period remained quite weak. Average GDP growth was stuck at 1% and the real income levels of citizens shrunk by 1.3% per year.

In Kazakhstan, the economic dynamism of the early 2000s also slowed by the second decade of the century. However, the average growth rates remained at 4% per year, and individual income continued to grow at 2% per year. These indicators, coupled with the much higher level of legitimacy that Nazarbayev enjoyed as the Founding President of the state, have preserved his ability to sustain a careful authoritarian modernization. This contrasts with Putin, who must rely upon much more radical policies in order to overcome the constitutional limitations that he is facing.

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