If there is only one lesson to be learned from Kyrgyzstan’s recent presidential dispute—a chain of tumultuous events that led to the arrest and detention of erstwhile leader A.S. Atambayev—is that post-transition relationships between Central Asia’s incumbents and its former presidents continue to represent one the most intriguing political mechanisms at play in the region. These relationships, it ought to be noted, seem to occur at very rare junctures: Central Asia’s leaders tend to remain in power for decades, reducing the transfer of power to élite-driven mechanisms that do normally set in motion only in the aftermath of a presidential death. The playbook for post-mortem tranzit vlasti was perfected through successfully orchestrated presidential successions in Turkmenistan (2006-2007) and Uzbekistan (2016); at the time of writing, there is no conclusive evidence to maintain that post-Rahmon Tajikistan will deviate significantly from this norm.
The option to observe newly elected (or appointed) leaders interacting with their predecessors is therefore only available in the Kyrgyz context, which continues to hold regular elections despite its continuously sliding democratic record and, since 19 March 2019, in Kazakhstan, where long-term leader N.A. Nazarbaev relinquished the presidency to facilitate the accession to power of K.K. Tokayev, an established regime insider, former foreign minister and, since 2011, the chairman of the Kazakhstani Senate.
Relatively free and fair elections do generally legitimise Kyrgyzstan’s elected presidents, who enjoy as a consequence a modicum of popular support throughout the single mandate allowed by the Kyrgyz Constitution. A set of different dynamics came to the fore in post-Nazarbaev Kazakhstan, where presidential succession was sealed through an élite-dominated process that sought its popular legitimation via a regime-controlled election. Here, the Kazakhstani population attempted to throw a spanner in the works of such a carefully orchestrated tranzit vlasti mechanism: both prior and after the vote that formalised Tokayev’s accession to the presidency, protests and demonstrations erupted in the country’s principal urban centres, as anti-regime sentiments came to the define the local political debates in the spring of 2019. It is precisely to the contribution played by Kazakhstan’s politically active population to the establishment of a working incumbent/predecessor relationship in post-Nazarbaev Kazakhstan that this blog entry devotes its ultimate attention.
Kazakhstan’s much anticipated transition
A look at the overarching strategy put into place by the Kazakhstani regime between 2014 and 2019, but most emphatically in the period that followed the death of Islam Karimov (August 2016), indicates that Nazarbaev’s resignation did not represent an impromptu decision. There is sufficient evidence to maintain that, in the timeframe in question, the Kazakhstani regime had designed and implemented a comprehensive process to orchestrate a transition out of the Nazarbaev presidency. A series of government reshuffles and the frequent introduction of legislative adjustments represented the two key drivers sustaining Nazarbaev’s attempt to instigate a thorough mechanism of leadership rejuvenation without incurring in the risks inevitably associated with regime change dynamics.
Placing the spotlight on the recent career trajectory of K.Q. Massimov—the second most powerful regime member of the late Nazarbaev era—identifies with some precision the élite component of Kazakhstan’s leadership change mechanism. Appointed to the country’s prime ministership in the spring of 2014, Massimov was eventually moved to the chairmanship of the Kazakhstani KNB (September 2016). Rather than an apparent demotion, this move came to embody politically the gap existing between the inner location of Kazakhstan’s authoritarian power and its institutional representation. Massimov’s appointment shifted an unviable candidate for succession—his ethnic profile is regarded as generally incongruous with the wider process of Kazakh-ification of Kazakhstan’s political life that has been undergoing in the post-Soviet years—to a position of not visible, yet certainly not marginal, influence. Massimov emerged as one of the king-makers in the identification of a suitable post-Nazarbaev leadership, while his appointment at the helm of the KNB replicated the structural organisation of pre-transitional Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where indisputably central roles in leadership selection were assigned to prominent representatives of the power ministries, namely A.K. Rezhepov in Turkmenistan and R.R. Inoyatov in Uzbekistan.
At the time of his accession to the prime ministership, B.A. Sagintaev, who replaced Massimov as Kazakhstan’s PM, had apparently been groomed for a top political appointment for at least five years. The 2016 reshuffle seemed to have in this established a solid transitional diarchy to regulate an eventual presidential transition, while the elevation of Darigha Nazarbaeva to a Senate seat guaranteed Kazakhstan’s first family a further stronghold in the institutional configuration of the late Nazarbaev era.
The second constituent element of the authoritarian environment wherein to launch a presidential transition was represented by the establishment of an adequate legislative framework to safeguard, in case of a voluntary resignation from the presidency, the power position of Nazarbaev and of his immediate family, guaranteeing at the same time their business interests and immunity from crimes committed while in office. Carefully crafted and continuously amended between 2000 and 2010, the Law ‘On the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan—the Leader of the Nation’ was basically meant to avoid the repetition, in post-Nazarbaev Kazakhstan, of the dynamics that led to the political marginalisation and expropriation of the wealth held by Uzbekistan’s first family, with particular reference to the arrest and protracted detention of Gulnara Karimova, the elder daughter of the late I.A. Karimov.
The premeditated nature of Nazarbaev’s resignation became evident in early 2019. On 4 February, the president himself addressed the Constitutional Council requesting detailed information about the powers he would retain in case of voluntary resignation. Nazarbaev’s eventual backpedalling did not silence those observers who regarded a change of guard in Ak Orda as an option not to be discarded a priori. A few weeks later (21 February), Nazarbaev demanded the resignation of the entire Kazakhstani government, appointing A.U. Mamin as the country’s interim prime minister. The exceptionality of this latter development did not reside in Nazarbaev’s very public reprimands of the government’s agenda—a common trait in Central Asian authoritarianism—nor did it relate to the president’s attempts to scapegoat Sagintaev for Kazakhstan’s poor economic performance. Indeed, Kazakhstan’s authoritarian practice has regularly presented the president’s direct intervention as a panacea for even the most severe economic crisis. Rather, the governmental reshuffle of late February 2019 is significant insofar as it realigned Kazakhstan’s transitional team to the patronage network of its principal king-maker. As a long-term associate of K.Q. Massimov, Askar Mamin was expected to rule in unison with the KNB chairman, completing a triumvirate of which the Nazarbaev family has to be seen as the third vertex.
The authoritarian milieu described above was undoubtedly established with a view to facilitate an intra-regime mechanism of presidential succession, that is excluding political outsiders or regime dissenters from the highest institution in the Republic of Kazakhstan. It is nevertheless difficult to identify the single factor that accelerated Nazarbaev’s decision to resign from the presidency. Nazarbaev’s self-perception of his age, his preoccupation with a rapidly eroding legacy, or even the ultimate retribution of previously sealed élite pacts may be some of the key factors behind the decision announced publicly on 19 March 2019. Speculations aside, the president’s announcement clearly noted that the succession process initiated by his resignation ought to follow the constitutional dictates, which stipulate the assignment to the interim presidency to the Chairman of the Senate, a post occupied at the time by K.K. Tokayev. The latter’s selection, yet again, did not represent an accidental development: on the one hand, Tokayev’s loyalty to the regime preservation agenda was (and continues to be) unquestionable; on the other, executing a presidential transition following the constitutional dictates set Kazakhstan aside from the regional praxis, where power transfers had hitherto led to the arrest (Turkmenistan) or voluntary resignation (Uzbekistan) of the legitimate presidential successors. For a regime that has traditionally put a premium of differentiating between the governance practices of post-Soviet Kazakhstan and those followed by its immediate neighbours, the execution of a constitutionally impeccable transition at the end of a long, and ultimately post-colonial, presidency did indeed constitute a significant achievement.
The final adjustment to Kazakhstan’s post-Nazarbaev institutional settings was represented by the selection of Darigha Nazarbaeva as Tokayev’s replacement on the Senate Chair. While this author has always approached with vocal scepticism any discussion on the prospects for dynastic succession in Central Asia, it is nevertheless true that this appointment places Nazarbaev’s daughter into the top succession position should Tokayev die or become incapacitated while in office. To my mind, Nazarbaeva’s rise to a top institutional post is the institutional facet of the legislative guarantees enshrined in the First President law, inasmuch as it protects the mid-term power position of the first family, while ensuring that, at least until Kazakhstan’s first president remains alive, the dynamics we saw at play in post-Karimov Uzbekistan are not to be replicated in Kazakhstan.
This orchestrated process was meant to be concluded smoothly, as the regime expected a rapid electoral validation through a tightly controlled vote scheduled for 9 June. Beyond the immediate shock for the departure of a long-serving, and generally respected, leader, some segments of the wider Kazakhstani population reacted with visible dissatisfaction to the post-Nazarbaev transition. As a consequence, Kazakhstani-watchers spent the early Tokayev era by looking at changing patterns of regime-population relations, rather than speculating on the development of a working collaboration between Nazarbaev and his hand-picked successor.
Mis-managed expectations: The population’s reaction to Kazakhstan’s transition
The Nazarbaev regime was not the only actor to anticipate Kazakhstan’s inevitable presidential succession. The people, or at least some segments of the Kazakhstani population, have been preparing for years to, or at least discussing the context leading to, leadership turnover in Ak Orda. For much of the 2010s, Kazakhstan lived through a Twilight Zone, wherein flawed assessments of the country’s authoritarian stability and of the population’s political behaviour created an unstable political environment predicated upon Nazarbaev’s ageing leadership. The ambition to have an elected second president, rather than a merely appointed one, seemed to have been shared by a significant number of ordinary Kazakhs, and it underpinned the popular reaction to the orchestrated transition completed between March and June 2019.
The post-Nazarbaev era began with the brutal repression of popular demonstrations held across Kazakhstan to protests the perceived democratic deficit of the popular vote that sanctioned Tokayev’s election. The optics of video reports originating from Kazakhstan across June 2019 were quite dispiriting, establishing a direct parallel with the Zhanaozen events of 2011, in the sense that, yet again, we witnessed the public suppression of ordinary citizens manifesting their views while the country was meant to celebrate collectively an important landmark of its independent life.
The establishment of dissenting movements including Oyan, Qazaqstan [Wake up, Kazakhstan] and the popularisation of slogans challenging the nature of the presidential transition itself—Ot pravdy ne ubezhish’ [You can’t run from the truth]; U menya est’ vybor [I have a choice]—confirmed the views expressed by Dossym Satpayev so far as the leadership’s misperception of the population’s passivity as an indicator of its fundamental loyalty to rules and norms imposed by the regime. It is not clear whether the public moment that pro-democracy activists have come to experience in 2019 can evolve into the institutionalisation of established opposition forces. However, the diffusion of anti-regime sentiments as the first president leaves Kazakhstan’s political limelight reveals a disconnect between ordinary Kazakhs and the post-Nazarbaev élites, a disconnect that, incidentally, has not emerged as visibly in the Uzbek context, where the population seems to be largely onboard with the political agenda introduced by Sh.M. Mirziyoyev.
Tokayev choose to relate to policies and practices established by his predecessor through a posture of unwavering continuity, misinterpreting the significant demands for change that the wider populations expressed more or less openly throughout the 2010s. Much of the regime’s future stability may be therefore predicated upon its willingness and ability to address this fundamental governance problem.
 Global coverage of these events includes: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/07/world/asia/former-president-kyrgyzstan-arrest.html; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-49273236; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kyrgyzstan-atambayev/kyrgyz-ex-president-arrested-accused-of-coup-plan-state-media-idUSKCN1V30EJ ; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/08/kyrgyz-officer-killed-president-atambayev-evades-arrest-190808043214601.html
 For an overview of contemporary politics and society in Kyrgyzstan, see for example Kyrgyzstan: Beyond ‘Democracy Island’ and ‘Failing State’: Social and Political Changes in a Post Soviet Society, edited by Marlene Laruelle and Johan Engvall (2015).
 D. Satpayev (ed.), Sumerechnaya Zona ili lovuuski perekhodnogo perioda (Almaty: Alyans Analiticheskikh Organizatsii, 2013).
 Protests and arrests were highlighted in international media coverage of the election, for example https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48574540; https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/kazakhstans-presidential-election-protests-arrests-and-a-presidency-for-tokayev/; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/06/hundreds-arrested-kazakhstan-election-protests-190613201849137.html ; https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/09/world/asia/kazakhstan-election-president.html
 ‘Are Risks Increasing for Kazakhstan? An interview with Dossym Satpayev’, Voices of Central Asia, 18 April 2019. See also his recent commentary on these topics here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keaom9QJUp8&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR12Z_6WFp-TyfeUr0Ul0vg44CV24XjM1cw1HLTQqdaMwEmrAVPCfOCR_dc