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Constitutional Design and Post-Soviet Presidential Succession: The Kazakh Model?

William Partlett, Melbourne Law School

[Editor’s note: This is one of our biweekly I-CONnect columns. Columns, while scholarly in accordance with the tone of the blog and about the same length as a normal blog post, are a bit more “op-ed” in nature than standard posts. For more information about our four columnists for 2019, see here.]

Leadership change is an incredibly dangerous period in any system of highly centralized and personalized government.  This is true of much of the post-Soviet region where many presidents wield vast constitutional and informal power. Relinquishing (or losing) presidential power threatens both the interests of the outgoing president as well as his network of supporters.  For instance, in Uzbekistan in 2016, President Islam Karimov died in office.  This has led to the prosecution of Karimov’s daughter and other close associates, including Karimov’s Prosecutor General.

On March 19, 2019, one of the most well-established post-Soviet presidents–Nursaltan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan–resigned from the presidency after 30 years.  Although some declared this resignation to be a shock, Nazarbaev’s resignation is a clear attempt to ensure a “controlled transition” of power. The precise day of his resignation suggests that this announcement was premeditated: Nazarbaev relinquished his power the day before Navruz, the Persian New Year, and which has broad significance in Kazakhstan. 

Furthermore, the constitutional precursors for his resignation have been a long time in the making.  In 2007, Nazarbaev assumed the formal role of “Founder of Independent Kazakhstan, First President of the Nation” (Elbasy in Kazakh) in the Kazakh Constitution.  In 2017, he pushed through constitutional changes that weakened the power of presidency.  In 2018, he signed a constitutional law increasing the power of the Security Council and making the “First President of Kazakhstan”—i.e. himself—the Chair of the Security Council for life.  Furthermore, in early 2019, he asked the Constitutional Council whether the constitution would allow the president to give up his powers early.  Not unsurprisingly, the court said yes.  In his March 19 speech announcing his resignation, he reminded the Kazakh people that he would continue as leader of the nation, head of the powerful Security Council, and head of his party.  

Some have compared this to a Chinese-style succession where the leader formally steps down from power but continues to wield significant informal power behind the scenes.  Deng Xiaoping did this by stepping down from formal power in 1992 but retaining the status as “paramount leader.” In Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew followed a similar path.  There are some similarities.  In China, Singapore, and Kazakhstan, the informal power of the ex-leaders is maintained (in part) through a highly choreographed cult of leadership.  Nazarbaev’s final speech harbored echoes of these transitions, as he stated his desire to make space for the younger generation to take over but assured Kazakhs that his policies would be continued under the new leadership.  Furthermore, a cult of Nazarbaev has been methodically built in recent years.  His picture is already on the 10,000 tenge banknote and his birthday is a national holiday.  Finally, the capital of Kazakhstan has been renamed after Nazarbaev’s first name (Nur-saltan).  

There is, however, a key post-Soviet difference: The Kazakh model of presidential succession gives the ex-president a significant role in the ongoing constitutional design. As “First President of Kazakhstan,” Nazarbaev retains significant formal constitutional power.  Article 91.2 of the Constitution describes Nazarbaev’s “foundational principles” as “unamendable” parts of the constitutional order.  Furthermore, Article 46.4 of the Constitution requires a law determining the ongoing “status and powers” of the First President.  This law gives Nazarbaev 1) the power to formally address the legislature and introduce policy initiatives to the legislature, 2) immunity from prosecution, and 3) guaranteed housing, a pension, transport, and an office. Moreover, the powers of the next Kazakh President (elected in 2020) are now diminished; Kazakhstan’s next president will no longer be able to issue decrees with the force of law or direct certain activities of the executive branch government.

The Kazakh example raises an intriguing possibility: Is it a model for Vladimir Putin, who is facing the end of his final term as president in 2024? Despite predictions that Putin will abolish constitutional term limits and remain president for life, recent experience tends to show that staying in office indefinitely without a succession plan is a bad idea.  The Uzbekistan example above is just one example of the dangers to powerful elites of the dangers of perpetual leadership with no plan for succession. 

The Kazakh model of presidential succession suggests a solution to these problems. There are some signs that changes to constitutional design are being discussed in Russia. Aleksei Makarkin, Vice President of an independent think tank The Center for Political Technologies, says that there are currently active discussions in Russia about creating a State Council with significant constitutional powers that Putin could take over after stepping down from the presidency. Another possible change if Putin decides to initiate a controlled succession is a reduction of the formal powers of the Russian presidency to ensure that any successor could not use the powers of the presidency against Putin (and his supporters) after he leaves office.  Whatever happens, if Putin does step down in 2024, it is likely that Russia’s constitutional design will be changed to afford him an important role. 

Suggested citation: William Partlett, Constitutional Design and Post-Soviet Presidential Succession: The Kazakh Model? Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, May 1, 2019, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2019/05/constitutional-design-and-post-soviet-presidential-succession-the-kazakh-model/

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Published on May 1, 2019
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