Nursultan Nazarbayev was standing on a piece of white felt as he was sworn in for what is constitutionally his last term, following elections criticised by international observers as flawed.
Eight months after Nazarbayev’s received 91% of the vote, his son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, caused a stir by proposing “a constitutional monarchy, liberal, and, however paradoxical it sounds, democratic, with developed and genuinely independent institutions of power”, as the best future for this oil-rich Central Asian state.
If so, Kazakhstan would not be the first Central Asian state to experience life-time rule in the post-Soviet era. Turkmenistan’s leader was made president-for-life in 1999. Like Nazarbayev, he has been in power since Soviet times.
The region is no stranger to modern political dynasties, either. Across the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan, a dynasty-style succession cloaked in democratic institutions was achieved after the president’s death in 2003, when his son gained power in presidential elections.
Abiding by tradition
Aliyev – who is deputy foreign minister – is married to the president’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, herself a significant force in public life. Both have considerable political clout – although their influence with Nazarbayev has reportedly been waning following a public tussle between competing cliques surrounding the president.
Aliyev argues that in adopting a republican form of government when it gained independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhstan defied its traditions.
It pursued a form of rule inherited from the Soviets, who set up local republics within the USSR. Soviet institutions were simply renamed, he suggests; the time has come to find a system better suited to Kazakh customs and history.
But co-leader of the opposition Nagyz Ak Zhol party Bolat Abilov sees Aliyev’s proposals as a means of bypassing the democratic process.
“The most striking thing is that Rakhat Aliyev said what they really think – what they discuss at home … how to perpetuate their power,” Abilov told Aljazeera.net.
“They are fed up with holding elections, extending the president’s term and falsifying elections. [They think] it’s better to declare ourselves sultans.”
If Nazarbayev became monarch, theoretically his family would inherit power. “Dariga would become queen and Rakhat would become king or sultan,” Abilov adds.
Commentators analysing Aliyev’s proposal point to political upheaval since Nazarbayev’s re-election.
A month after Nazarbayev’s inauguration, a senior opposition figure was brutally murdered, sparking a vicious turf war among the power groups that form Kazakhstan’s elite.
In a country not known for political assassinations, the death of Altynbek Sarsenbayev in an execution-style killing caused an uproar which has not abated, despite the conviction of 10 people over his murder.
The official explanation – that a parliamentary official contracted the murder out of personal revenge – has attracted widespread scepticism. Accusations continue to be aired that high-flying figures with more convincing motives have walked free.
Aliyev’s overture could be an attempt to distract attention from the case, Abilov argues. The trial ended on 31 August; Aliyev’s article was published on 1 September.
Battle for succession
Commentators link Sarsenbayev’s killing to the battle to succeed Nazarbayev in 2012; some see Aliyev’s proposal as another link in the chain.
“This is a trial balloon,” analyst Dosym Satpayev said. “It is no secret that after the presidential elections many – especially in the presidential entourage – have been considering what comes next … what happens after Nazarbayev.”
This is possible, agrees Amirzhan Kosanov, secretary-general of the For a Just Kazakhstan opposition umbrella group. “For over 15 years President Nazarbayev has been in power; both biologically and politically the question of what follows Nazarbayev is on the agenda,” he told Aljazeera.net.
“I am sure that even those in President Nazarbayev’s close entourage are considering this… There may be forces in Nazarbayev’s entourage who fear the post-Nazarbayev era -fear for their business, for their finances, for their social status, fear responsibility.”
The idea that Dariga Nazarbayeva could become president in an Azerbaijan-style scenario has long been mooted. In the political fallout following Sarsenbayev’s murder, her position was eroded, but she remains a formidable public force.
Many powerful politicians in Kazakhstan are tipped as future leaders, including another presidential son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, Nazarbayev’s nephew, Kayrat Satypaldy, foreign minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev, Almaty mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov, and Senate speaker Nurtay Abikayev.
However, as the different cliques – who are often in conflict – consider the succession, they are aware of the need for compromise, Satpayev says. “They all understand that the successor should suit all those among the elite … The successor should be a more or less neutral figure.”
Calling for a public debate, Aliyev argues that a monarchy is the best means of assuring democracy. “If we examine which political system has achieved unquestionable successes in building a stable democratic society, top of the list – strange as it is – is the monarchy,” he says.
There has been no official reaction to Aliyev’s proposal. Nazarbayev has not commented publicly; the government-run press has been largely silent and the largest party in parliament, the pro-presidential Otan, has not responded. This has led the debate to be dominated by sceptics.
Kosanov is among them.
“First, when Kazakhstan gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union it was announced that it would be a secular democratic social state – this is in the constitution.”
“The second reason is that Kazakhstan openly and publicly declares its adherence to democratic values. Kazakhstan is not only an [Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe] OSCE member but lays claim to its chairmanship.”
Indeed, some observers have interpreted Aliyev’s proposal as a veiled warning that if Kazakhstan is not awarded the 2009 OSCE chairmanship, the results could be unpredictable.
Kosanov also points to Kazakhstan’s multi-ethnic nature. Since a khan would by definition be an ethnic Kazakh, the proposal could be divisive in a country where ethnic minorities account for 40% of the population.
Despite Aliyev’s appeal to Kazakh traditions, nationalists have not embraced the idea. “A good monarch could be the best option, but after a good khan a bad khan can follow. That’s why we need democracy,” Dos Kushim, leader of the Fate of the Nation party, told Aljazeera.net.
As the largest, richest country in Central Asia, Kazakhstan sees itself as a leader and model for other, more repressive states. Whatever path it chooses as it emerges from the post-Soviet era will be crucial to the future of the region – and to Nazarbayev’s legacy.
“President Nazarbayev is probably at an age and stage of his political career that he must be thinking not only about what will happen to the country, but also about what is said about him after he goes,” says Kosanov.
Nazarbayev prides himself on his country’s booming economy and – for the region – relative political freedoms. He is likely to think long and hard about how this legacy should be handed over – and to whom.