Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 11

by Rafis Abazov

In the fall of 2002 Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akaev became the first Central Asian president to officially announce his intention to step down from the presidency after completing his constitutionally granted second term, which in his case ends in 2005. If he does so in a peaceful and orderly fashion, it will be an important event with significant implications for the region, as it would demonstrate to other Central Asian leaders that a peaceful political succession is possible. This is especially important in a region where the other leaders, lacking a viable and secure “exit,” seem determined to cling to power at any cost. In the dozen years since independence there is not a single example of peaceful political succession of a top leader in the region.


The issue of political succession has haunted the Central Asian states for decades. During the Soviet era, there were no clear rules or mechanisms to facilitate peaceful political successions. This was especially true in Central Asia, where the Brezhnev-era appointees remained in power for nearly two decades. Without any system of checks and balances in place, and without public accountability, the Central Asian Communist Party first secretaries built extensive patronage networks and engaged in widespread corruption.

This reliance on a network of loyal supporters and kin became extremely important as the level of corruption grew and penetrated into all corners of public life. And the phenomenon was not confined to the notorious cotton scandal in Uzbekistan, uncovered during the Andropov years, but was endemic throughout the region. For example, in Kyrgyzstan’s so-called “meat affairs,” corrupt politicians embezzled millions of dollars of public money through a series of crooked dealings. In order to maintain this particular institutional environment and political setting, it became crucially important for its beneficiaries to keep political power for as long as possible. In this region any fall from power had grave consequences and implications not only for individual leaders, but also for their wider network of supporters. The absence of proper succession mechanisms meant that a “winner takes all” mentality took hold.

A case in point is that of Turdakun Usubaliev, the former first secretary of Kyrgyzstan and a representative of the northern political clan, who was dismissed from his position in 1985. His successor–Absamat Masaliev, a representative of the southern clan–launched a war on the “corrupt practices of the past.” This led not only to the personal humiliation of the former leader, but also to a purge from their public positions of his entire network of associates, cronies and relatives. The situation was repeated when Askar Akaev–a representative of the northern clan–came to power. He humiliated Masaliev and his supporters and concentrated economic wealth and political power in the hands of his cronies, at the expense of the southern clan.

Constitutional reforms enacted late in the Gorbachev era and in the early independence years were to some degree designed to address the problem of succession. The constitutions of all the newly independent Central Asian states placed certain constraints on presidential power and, of great importance, stipulated a two term limit for the office of president.

However, the Central Asian leaders quickly learned how to manipulate the institutional setting in order to stay in power. Kyrgyzstan’s president did not go to the extremes seen in Turkmenistan, where President Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Niazov declared himself president for life, or in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov simply extended his term in office by means of a public referendum. Yet, President Akaev did manage to convince his Constitutional Court to let him stand for third term in 2000. He claimed that constitutionally this would be only his second term, since he was first elected in the Kyrgyz SSR, a different legal entity from the Kyrgyz Republic that came into existence in December 1991. Even though Akaev officially declared that he would step down in 2005, there are serious fears that his entourage will not let him go because they well understand that their own future is also at stake.


The absence of a stable system of succession carries important negative implications for Central Asia in general and Kyrgyzstan in particular. First, the political struggle between the incumbent president and his opponents is moving gradually beyond normal political give-and-take and threatens to destabilize the political regime. This was demonstrated by the Aksy tragedy of March 2002, when police killed six protesters in southern Kyrgyzstan. The political confrontation could deteriorate further and, if it proceeds unchecked, could lead to a violent confrontation with numerous casualties.

Second, under circumstances of political uncertainty and economic instability, in which at least one-third of all commercial activity takes place in the shadow economy, members of the current elite are focused on the short term and seek simply to grab as much profit as possible. Their ill-gotten gains are typically stashed in Swiss or other offshore banks–with no money whatsoever invested in their own communities–in large part because they face so many uncertainties about their own futures.

Third, in its struggle to survive the incumbent leadership is driving away the most capable and experienced opposition candidates. One of Kyrgyzstan’s most accomplished politicians–former vice president Felix Kulov–was imprisoned for seven years on dubious charges following a questionable trial. Similarly, a former opposition leader in the parliament, Daniar Usenov, was prosecuted on unconvincing criminal charges. These charges deprive him of constitutional standing to run for parliament or the presidency. The absence of experienced moderate politicians in the political arena opens the way for inexperienced radicals to bid for power. This carries grave consequences for Kyrgyzstan’s political future.

Finally, in an environment of political confrontation, one in which political parties cannot find the means to compromise, the military and law enforcement agencies have emerged as the only political force capable of stabilizing the country. Until his dismissal in May of 2002, strongman Temirbek Akmataliev, the interior minister, was considered one of the most likely presidential candidates. The danger is, however, that if the military does come to power, there is no guarantee that its leaders will agree to share power with civilians, or that the military leadership will seek political liberalization and democratization.


But the question of political succession is related not only to the political ambitions of rival contenders or to the desire of retiring presidents to secure guarantees against retribution. There is also an urgent need for institutional and political changes that can be introduced only through cooperation between the incumbent president and the opposition. And though there are no straightforward formulas for “exit” strategies of this sort, at least several of the necessary steps appear to be quite obvious.

There is, for example, a need to guarantee the personal security of the president and his family from the threat of persecution. The most painful and most controversial step required in the current environment involves a reduction in the power of the president and the establishment of a truly independent judiciary system–most probably under the control of the parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh. A second step would involve some form of amnesty for privatization and the business activities of the 1990s, and also an amnesty addressing the issue of capital flight for money that is returned from overseas accounts.

Given the murky legal environment in Kyrgyzstan and the rush of “wild capitalism” that took place in the 1990s, there is no single public or opposition official who could not be brought down on corruption allegations. Only the granting of amnesty, crafted to cover equally both opposition and government officials, might help solve the problem. And there are other, additional steps that need to be thought out and implemented in order to establish a system of succession in Kyrgyzstan and to set a positive precedent in the region.

Many observers suggest that Akaev may follow the model of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who gracefully retired in December 1999 after naming Vladimir Putin as his acting successor. But without some additional institutional arrangements in place, there is reason to doubt that Akaev will be able to carry out a Yeltsin-style succession.

Rafis Abazov is a PhD candidate at Australia’s La Trobe University and a visiting scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. He is an author of The Formation of Post-Soviet International Politics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (1999), the Freedom House report on Kyrgyzstan (2002) and author of the forthcoming Historical Dictionary of Kyrgyzstan (2003).