Guest Contributor: James V. Mersol
Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev are arguably the two most successful dictators of the 21st century. Consider that both leaders have weathered the collapse of the Soviet Union and the democratizing ripples of the Arab Spring. Although there have been numerous calls from Western countries for these leaders to embrace democracy – or at the very least, improve their shoddy human rights records – Russia and China continue to provide Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with political and financial support. Despite occasional brutal crackdowns on protestors, neither dictatorship has become an international pariah on the scale of, say, North Korea or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Presidents Karimov and Nazarbayev may have insulated themselves against almost every threat to their governments, but there is one factor that they would be remiss to ignore: time. Karimov and Nazarbayev are 76 and 73 years old respectively. After a rumor surfaced last year that President Karimov suffered a heart attack, observers in the region have begun to wonder who will succeed these seemingly invincible dictators, and, more importantly, if they will be able to preserve authoritarianism.
Nazarbayev seems content to pass on his title of “President for life” to his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. Nazarbayeva is currently the head of the Asar party, the only opposition to her father’s Nur Otan party. However, Asar is not a true opposition party since it is actually funded by the government to give the illusion of choice. Her current position indicates that she is being trained for political leadership. But if she does become the president of Kazakhstan, then the nature of the transition and the government’s reaction to an “opposition” leader assuming power is unclear.
In contrast, Uzbekistan’s succession is ambiguous. At the time of Karimov’s heart attack, most believed he was grooming his eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, as his successor. Karimova, a self-styled pop star who goes by the title “Googoosha,” was never a sensible choice to lead Uzbekistan. In the year since her father’s heart attack, she has fallen from grace. Most Uzbeks respect President Karimov, but dislike “Googoosha’s” hubris and lavish lifestyle. In response, President Karimov has shut down her companies and removed her from the public eye. Her Twitter account has laid dormant since last November when she posted statements that criticized her father’s government. President Karimov has now gone so far as to imprison some of her closest associates, and Karimova herself is reportedly under house arrest. Even if she is still free, her wealth is gone along with any political aspirations. Yet, if not his daughter, it is unclear whom Karimov will approve for succession.
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan may want to look to their southern neighbor, Turkmenistan, for an example of a smooth succession. In 2006, the Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov died of a sudden heart attack, igniting similar speculation about who would be the next Turkmen leader. Turkmenistan was an especially complex case, as Niyazov had spent the previous 15 years building a formidable cult of personality. During his reign, he renamed himself “Turkmenbashi” (father of all Turkmen), wrote his own holy book to be taught in schools and professional academies, and created a self-themed amusement park. Shortly after his death, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, the Minister of Health, emerged as the new president of Turkmenistan. In the eight years since Niyazov’s death, Berdimukhamedov has continued Turkmenistan’s stable authoritarianism. Although Berdymukhamedov has dismantled some of Niyazov’s more ostentatious symbolism – such as re-branding the amusement park after Turkmen traditions and folklore and shifting several important political offices to citizens from his native region of Western Ahal – he has worked with Niyazov’s inner circle to maintain his predecessor’s policies .
Since Karimov has evidently ruled out backing his daughter, he should follow Turkmenistan’s example and look to his closest political allies for a potential successor. If he chooses this option, it will almost certainly take place behind closed doors, and no one outside of that inner circle will know the successor’s identity until Karimov’s death. That successor will likely downplay Karimov’s legacy to cement his or her political rule, but in doing so, he or she will ensure that Uzbekistan remains stable for many years to come. When the alternative in Central Asia has historically been political turmoil and armed conflict, the desire for a smooth transition is all the more strong.
James V. Mersol is a senior at Davidson College majoring in political science.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.
 Horak, Slavomir. “Changes in the Political Elite in Post-Soviet Turkmenistan.” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Vol.8, No. 3. p. 27-46.