The revolutionary fervor that has gripped the Middle East has not yet spread to the relatively stable former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The only weak link among these durable post-Soviet regimes is Kyrgyzstan, which has seen a series of government overthrows since 2005.
But while enjoying relative political stability at home, Central Asia’s ruling elites are no doubt taking in the lessons of North Africa.
For example, an “election campaign” for April’s early presidential vote is underway in Kazakhstan. The country’s government has changed its track several times since mid-December, entertaining the public with some truly original plot twists.
Voters in a national referendum overwhelmingly supported extending President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s term until 2020, but the president rejected the offering, vetoing parliament’s motion to bring the referendum into law. The lawmakers insisted that Nazarbayev heed to the will of the people, and he relented.
The Constitutional Council challenged the legitimacy of the proposed amendments on the grounds that they are “vaguely worded.” The president did not protest. Rather he called an early election and registered as the ruling party’s candidate. Now his triumphant reelection is only a matter of time.
But his “triumph of democracy” seems a bit fishy if you consider that the whole reelection game got started immediately after Kazakhstan’s OSCE presidency, which the country had worked toward for a long time and which was supposed to be a symbol of its democratic maturity.
Nazarbayev’s choice to stand in a conventional election rather than accept the results of the referendum may have been a response, in part, to recent developments in North Africa and the Middle East. Which is not to say that the Kazakh president feels vulnerable. On the contrary, he is quite secure in his position and confident that he won’t suffer the same fate as Mubarak or Ben Ali.
Indeed, Kazakhstan stands out from the other post-Soviet countries, especially those in Central Asia. A savvy foreign policy has allowed the country to maintain good relations with all world powers, including Moscow, Washington, Beijing, and Western European capitals. It’s safe to assume that no one outside Kazakhstan has any interest in supporting an opposition movement. However, the anti-government protests in the Middle East show that turmoil may break out just as a spontaneous expression of popular discontent, not a plot by foreign governments.
Of all the post-Soviet rulers, Nazarbayev is the only one who could have had an even more spectacular career if the empire had not fallen apart.
He may have become Soviet prime minister, perhaps even rising to the very top of the country’s political hierarchy, if only the masterminds of the August 1991 military coup had not derailed the signing of the Union Treaty.
Alas, it was not to be. Nazarbayev became the leader of a much smaller country. But he has achieved impressive results nonetheless.
Kazakhstan has come a long way since gaining independence twenty years ago. Now it is the most powerful country in this corner of Eurasia, with a higher political profile than most of its neighbors. This is all the more impressive when you consider that Kazakhstan’s statehood began with the rule of Nazarbayev and that he had no historical tradition to rely on.
Nazarbayev is successfully balancing Asian-style moderate authoritarianism and Western European decorum. But any government based on the rule of a single man is vulnerable and his is no exception.
Every autocratic ruler faces the same problem: how to achieve a smooth transfer of power. The only post-Soviet leader to have solved the succession problem is Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev, who transferred power to his son. But hereditary rule does not work everywhere. The current turmoil in Egypt, Libya and Yemen shows just how much outrage this nepotism can provoke, especially when the son is seen as unfit to lead.
Turkmenistan is another country that has achieved a smooth transfer of power, despite the unexpected death of President Saparmurat Niyazov. The country is ruled by a reclusive, hard-line government, reminiscent of North Korea’s.
In comparison with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan looks like an oasis of openness – an asset not worth risking by attempting to found a political dynasty.
Singapore is a role model for all post-Soviet rulers, from Nazarbayev to Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili. Despite its lack of democratic freedoms, it has become one of the world’s most prosperous nations.
And the transition achieved by Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, offers cause for optimism. He stepped down as prime minister more than 20 years ago, handing over the post to a well prepared successor, while reserving for himself broad oversight powers.
His son, Lee Hsien Loong, took over only in 2004 and has been running the country ever since.
Lee, Sr., now 87, remains the nation’s main stabilizing force and the principal guarantor of its future development. Every effort is being made to prepare for the blow against the system his death may cause.
It cannot hurt dreaming of Singapore, of course, but the lack of liberal democracy is perhaps the only feature shared by that country and former Soviet states. All of Singapore’s assets – meritocracy, zero tolerance for corruption, an efficient bureaucracy, a cult-like devotion to education – are not to be found in any of the post-Soviet nations.
Lee, Sr. is renowned worldwide as one of the greatest politicians of the 20th century, and his achievement is, indeed, outstanding. But while admiring Singapore’s helmsman, post-Soviet leaders should also try to learn the lessons of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi. And the sooner they do their homework, the better.