Post-Soviet States – Struggle for the Legitimation of Power
Author: Giorgi Turmanidze
According to the study conducted by the international organization Freedom House (Nations in Transit 2017, see the research), eight of 15 Post-Soviet states (all five Central Asian states, Azerbaijan, Russia and Belarus) have ended up in the category of consolidated authoritarian regimes which indicates the lowest level of democracy in these countries. Armenia was put in the category of semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes whilst Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova were assessed to be among transitional government or hybrid regimes category. Only the Baltic states, members of NATO and the European Union, were named among the consolidated democracies.
In such studies conducted by the international organizations, the level of democracy is assessed based on various criteria, one of which is the ability of voters to replace the incumbent government through elections. In this sense, the majority of the leaders in the Post-Soviet countries think about the means of maintaining their power, rather than thinking about the elections. That said, however, even the authoritarian rulers of the Post-Soviet states try to legitimize the hereditary transfer of their power and position, through referenda and/or constitutional changes. In this regard, there are two main trends noticeable in the Post-Soviet area:
- First, in the Post-Soviet states with clear authoritarian governments, the state leaders legitimize transferring their power to their family members through referenda and/or constitutional changes, planning out the careers of their potential political successors with special care.
- Second, in the Post-Soviet states with relatively higher levels of democracy, the Presidential models of governance are replaced with the Parliamentary models, which enables the incumbent presidents to continue their political careers as Prime Ministers, even after their Presidential tenures have expired.
In the democratic countries transferring power to family members is either forbidden by the law or considered to be an unacceptable norm. In Azerbaijan and the majority of the Central Asian states, however, the main concern and objective of the incumbent leaders is to legitimize the transfer of power to family members or close friends.
The only successful example of transferring power from father to son in the Post-Soviet area is Azerbaijan. The tenure of the third President of independent Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, started in 1993. In 2003, his son, Ilham Aliyev became the President through elections. The presidency of Aliyev junior had been under preparation for years. His career started to advance since 1994. He served as the Vice-President of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, Member of the Parliament, President of the National Olympic Committee and Prime Minister, appointed several months before the 2003 elections.
Mehriban Aliyeva, the Vice President and First Lady of Azerbaijan
The preparations for Ilham Aliyev’s eternal presidency started in 2008, when the legal restriction about only two presidential tenures was abolished with the “support” of the electorate, given that according to the governing party, such a restriction was “non-democratic.” Based upon the constitutional amendments adopted through referendum, Ilham Aliyev can run for presidency for an unlimited number of times. In 2013, Aliyev was elected with a five-year tenure for the third time. According to the 2016 constitutional amendments, however, he will be elected for a seven-year tenure on the following elections.
Despite the fact that Ilham Aliyev is a relatively young President (only 56 years old), he has already started thinking about a potential successor. The new constitutional amendments create well-founded suspicions that Aliyev’s successor and the major figures in Azerbaijan’s political elite will be his family members. Based upon the 26 September 2016 referendum, the article of the constitution, stipulating that no citizen under the age of 35 can become President of Azerbaijan, was removed. The age threshold for the membership of Parliament has been reduced from 25 to 18 years. This will enable Ilham Aliyev’s 19-year-old son, Heydar, to start his carrier from the Parliament. The main change, however, was the establishment of the position of the Vice-President. The suspicions that this change was designed for Aliyev’s spouse, Mehriban Aliyeva, proved well founded on 21 February 2017 with her appointment as the first Vice-President of Azerbaijan. It should be pointed out that if the President is unable to perform his duties, the Vice-President becomes the Acting President. Since 2003, when she became the First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva has been actively involved in both domestic as well as foreign policy of Azerbaijan.
The constitutional amendments and appointments in Tajikistan point to the fact that the incumbent President, Emomali Rahmon, is most likely getting ready to the hereditary transfer of his power. In order to create appropriate legal conditions, numerous constitutional changes have been made in the period of 2014-2015 in Tajikistan, including reducing the age threshold for presidency from 35 to 30 years, which is an amendment designed for the President’s eldest son, Rustam. In 2020, during the next Presidential Elections, Rustam, who will be 33 at that moment, will be able to participate, should his father deem it necessary. He has already gathered some experience of serving in the public sector. During different periods of time he headed the customs and anti-corruption services of Tajikistan. On 12 January 2017, 29-year-old Rustam assumed the position of the Mayor of Dushanbe.
In 2016, as a result of secretive elections held in order to fill the free position of MP in the Parliament, the son of the current President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, Serdar, became the Member of the Parliament. Before this Serdar worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as for the State Natural Resource Governance Institute. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who is only 60, has enough time to legitimize the transfer of power to his son.
The President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev who is 77 years old, has three daughters, which complicates the matter of transferring power from father to his child in a traditional society such as Kazakhstan. The family members of the President play important roles in the life of their country. In this sense, the most important figure is the President’s eldest daughter, Dariga, who heads the Senate International Affairs, Defense, and Security Committee.
Dariga Nursultanqyzy Nazarbayeva, Member of the Parliament of Kazakhstan and Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan
She also served as the Vice Premier and has a rather ample political experience. Dariga’s children also hold important positions. The 32-year-old Nurali Aliyev worked as the Vice-Mayor of Astana and is currently in the business sector. The 26-year-old Aisultan Nazarbayev is also very active. In the case of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s wish and the agreement between the political groups, one of his family members could become his successor.
The transfer of power took place in Uzbekistan in a rather calm environment in 2016. The President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who led the independent Uzbekistan for 25 years, had two daughters. The eldest daughter, Gulnara, was also considered to be his potential successor; however, her participation in well-publicized corruption scandals and the court intrigues removed her from the competition for the seat of the President.
From Presidential to Parliamentary Republic
In October 2010 the Parliament of Georgia adopted the constitutional amendment package, based on which the country transferred from Presidential to Parliamentary governance model in 2013. The changes raised suspicions that President Mikheil Saakashvili, coming to the end of his second and last tenure as the President of Georgia, wanted to continue his political career as Prime Minister of Georgia, which the law did not prohibit. Saakashvili used to answer to the questions about this issue rather vaguely, which further fueled the suspicions. Saakashvili clearly stated his position only after the defeat of his party in the 2012 Parliamentary Elections became obvious, saying that the position of Prime Minister was not interesting to him anyway.
In 2011, Almazbek Atambayev became the President of Kyrgyzstan, elected with one tenure of six years. According to the current constitution, Atambayev cannot run for President for a second time. However, the 11 December 2016 referendum points to the possible future political plans of the current President, as it has increased the powers of the Prime Minister and reduced those of the President. Such changes made a year before the Presidential Elections raise suspicions that Atambayev might be attempting, without harming his positive image of a democrat, to retain power in the position of Prime Minister after 2017 Presidential Elections.
The model of political governance was changed through a referendum in Armenia as well. As a result of changes based on 6 December 2015 referendum, the power of the President will be diminished since April 2018 and the country will move to the Parliamentary model of governance. The main reason for the transfer to the Parliamentary model is considered to be the end of the second and last Presidential tenure of Serzh Sargsyan. Sargsyan, which is the most powerful politician in Armenia, appears to be creating appropriate legitimation for maintaining his power. Given the fact that Sargsyan cannot be elected as President for the third time and has refused to make changes to this rule, transferring to the parliamentary governance model is the most legitimate way for him to remain in power.
Situation in other Post-Soviet States
Both Ukraine and Moldova have seen many Presidents change through elections from their independence to date; however, some important flaws can still be observed in the election processes. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko is 63 years old and there are already talks that he might want to transfer power to his son, Kolya, who has been attending all important events together with his father for the past several years. As for Russia, Vladimir Putin also tries to follow the rules of the game of democracy at least formally. In 2008, he refused to be elected as President for the third time in a row and waited for the 2012 Presidential Elections in the position of Prime Minister, continuing to govern the country through an informal arrangement with Dmitry Medvedev.
Changing governments peacefully, through elections, remains among the top challenges for the Post-Soviet states even after 25 years of independence. Given the weak democracies they find themselves in, the leaders find it difficult to cede power; however, they still want to be seen as democrats. Hence, even the authoritarian rulers of the Post-Soviet states attempt to legitimize maintaining or transferring power to their family members by democratic means, with popular “support” through referenda. The constitutional changes adopted through these referenda are usually made in the name of improving the level of democracy and maintaining stability.
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