Dictators and Daughters: The Succession Crisis in Central Asia

Guest Contributor: James V. Mersol

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President Putin of Russia and President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) meeting in the Kremlin, Moscow. December 19, 2012 (Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons)

Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev are arguably the two most successful dictators of the 21st century. Consider that both leaders have weathered the collapse of the Soviet Union and the democratizing ripples of the Arab Spring. Although there have been numerous calls from Western countries for these leaders to embrace democracy – or at the very least, improve their shoddy human rights records – Russia and China continue to provide Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with political and financial support. Despite occasional brutal crackdowns on protestors, neither dictatorship has become an international pariah on the scale of, say, North Korea or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Presidents Karimov and Nazarbayev may have insulated themselves against almost every threat to their governments, but there is one factor that they would be remiss to ignore: time. Karimov and Nazarbayev are 76 and 73 years old respectively. After a rumor surfaced last year that President Karimov suffered a heart attack, observers in the region have begun to wonder who will succeed these seemingly invincible dictators, and, more importantly, if they will be able to preserve authoritarianism.

Nazarbayev seems content to pass on his title of “President for life” to his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. Nazarbayeva is currently the head of the Asar party, the only opposition to her father’s Nur Otan party. However, Asar is not a true opposition party since it is actually funded by the government to give the illusion of choice. Her current position indicates that she is being trained for political leadership. But if she does become the president of Kazakhstan, then the nature of the transition and the government’s reaction to an “opposition” leader assuming power is unclear.

Islam Karimov (2009)

President Karimov of Uzbekistan during a visit to Brazil. May 28, 2009 (José Cruz/ABr/Wikimedia Commons)

In contrast, Uzbekistan’s succession is ambiguous. At the time of Karimov’s heart attack, most believed he was grooming his eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, as his successor. Karimova, a self-styled pop star who goes by the title “Googoosha,” was never a sensible choice to lead Uzbekistan. In the year since her father’s heart attack, she has fallen from grace. Most Uzbeks respect President Karimov, but dislike “Googoosha’s” hubris and lavish lifestyle. In response, President Karimov has shut down her companies and removed her from the public eye. Her Twitter account has laid dormant since last November when she posted statements that criticized her father’s government. President Karimov has now gone so far as to imprison some of her closest associates, and Karimova herself is reportedly under house arrest. Even if she is still free, her wealth is gone along with any political aspirations. Yet, if not his daughter, it is unclear whom Karimov will approve for succession.

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan may want to look to their southern neighbor, Turkmenistan, for an example of a smooth succession. In 2006, the Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov died of a sudden heart attack, igniting similar speculation about who would be the next Turkmen leader. Turkmenistan was an especially complex case, as Niyazov had spent the previous 15 years building a formidable cult of personality. During his reign, he renamed himself “Turkmenbashi” (father of all Turkmen), wrote his own holy book to be taught in schools and professional academies, and created a self-themed amusement park. Shortly after his death, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, the Minister of Health, emerged as the new president of Turkmenistan. In the eight years since Niyazov’s death, Berdimukhamedov has continued Turkmenistan’s stable authoritarianism. Although Berdymukhamedov has dismantled some of Niyazov’s more ostentatious symbolism – such as re-branding the amusement park after Turkmen traditions and folklore and shifting several important political offices to citizens from his native region of Western Ahal – he has worked with Niyazov’s inner circle to maintain his predecessor’s policies [1].

Since Karimov has evidently ruled out backing his daughter, he should follow Turkmenistan’s example and look to his closest political allies for a potential successor. If he chooses this option, it will almost certainly take place behind closed doors, and no one outside of that inner circle will know the successor’s identity until Karimov’s death. That successor will likely downplay Karimov’s legacy to cement his or her political rule, but in doing so, he or she will ensure that Uzbekistan remains stable for many years to come. When the alternative in Central Asia has historically been political turmoil and armed conflict, the desire for a smooth transition is all the more strong.

James V. Mersol is a senior at Davidson College majoring in political science.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

[1] Horak, Slavomir. “Changes in the Political Elite in Post-Soviet Turkmenistan.” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Vol.8, No. 3. p. 27-46.

Venetian Independence Explained

Guest Contributor: Yuri Serafini

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The Winged Lion of St. Mark watches over all cities once ruled by the Republic of Venice. (Wikimedia Commons/Nino Barbieri)

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, a frenzy over secessions has swept the media. Journalists have turned their attention to, among other regions, northeast Italy where a farcical event is taking place: the supposed Venetian secession. Unfortunately, media coverage in Italy – where the event is polarizing – and abroad has been both inaccurate and incomplete.

Recently, the xenophobic Lega Nord Party held an informal online poll on the independence of the Venetia Region of Italy. The results were trumpeted as a landslide “referendum” proclaiming the local population’s desire for independence. The question of Venetian autonomy has returned attention to the prevailing cultural and economic divisions between northern and southern Italy. These divisions are most pronounced in the northeast, where the economic landscape is characterized by small family-run enterprises. Furthermore, Venice boasts a millennial history as an independent republic that, at its height, controlled all of northern Italy east of Milan, the Dalmatian coast, and the Islands of Crete and Cyprus. Until the Great Recession, Venice and its surrounding area was one of the wealthiest regions in Italy. The city of Treviso still holds the highest rate of millionaires per capita in Italy.

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The sun sets behind an oil refinery in the Venetian lagoon. (Wikimedia Commons/Jorge Royan)

While large industrial groups based in Turin, Genoa, and Milan were historically built with unskilled labor imported from south of Italy, the family-run businesses of the northeast only began hiring unskilled labor recently, most of it coming from the Balkans. Further, those in the northeast are aggravated that the inefficient and self-serving political class in Rome is squandering their hard-earned taxes. As a result, northeastern Italians accept a united Europe, but not necessarily a united Italy.

The accusation of political irresponsibility is understandable, and in many respects, true. These beliefs have made Venetia, along with the neighboring regions of Lombardy and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a stronghold of the Lega Nord. Since 1991, when the Lega Nord was formed as a union of several regional independence movements, it has been a small but significant player in national politics. Its parliamentary presence – though minimal – was instrumental in the survival of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalitions despite poor election results.

Although allies on paper, Berlusconi never conceded to the Lega Nord’s requests for greater autonomy in the north. Even after the Lega Nord toned down its rhetoric, its proposal for “fiscal federalism” (i.e., granting regional governments the power to keep a greater portion of their tax revenues) did not pass parliament.

How did Berlusconi keep the support of the Lega Nord for close to 20 years without caving in to its legislative demands? The answer is simple: bribery. Berlusconi encouraged the Lega Nord to misallocate campaign funding, which in Italy is provided entirely by the state. Party leaders made several investments ranging from the stupid to the absurd, including the purchase of real estate, investments in a hedge fund in Tanzania, and a safe full of diamonds.

After years of denying that the global recession affected Italy, Berlucsoni conceded to domestic pressure and resigned from office in 2011. After consultation with parliamentary leaders, the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, summoned Mario Monti, a well-regarded university professor and one-time president of the European Council, to serve as prime minister of a “technocratic” government. Technocratic regimes are a bizarre occurrence in Italian politics, whereby in times of crisis, parliament summons various apolitical experts to run the country until the next election.

During Monti’s tenure, the parliament passed several austerity measures to save the country’s finances, including cutting social services and increasing taxes. However, they refused to curb the wasteful spending that had doomed Italy in the first place. Over the next two years, every political party took the opportunity to bash Mario Monti over the consequences of his failed policy. Additionally, legislation proposed by Monti to stimulate the economy at the cost of politically influential special-interest groups was continuously shot down in both chambers of parliament. In all this, the Lega Nord made the unwise move of vocally criticizing Berlusconi as his party voted in favor of the austerity measures.

Berlusconi’s reaction to the Lega Nord’s dissent was swift and merciless. He exposed the Lega Nord’s financial irregularities just as an exhausted and peeved Monti called for elections. Berlusconi’s media holdings were particularly thorough in their coverage of the scandal around election time. Umberto Bossi, the Lega Nord’s historic leader, was finally forced from power just before the elections. Additionally, key members of the party withdrew from national elections to stand locally, as key cities such as Treviso, Turin, and Milan fell into the hands of the center-left, along with the regional council of the Friuli region, northeast of Venetia. In the primary elections held a few months ago, Matteo Salvini, a young member of the European Parliament and an outspoken member of the party’s socialist fringe, was elected to the Lega Nord’s leadership.

However, if the upcoming European elections mirror recent national ones, Salvini might find himself out of elected office. The aforementioned online “referendum” has given him ammunition for national television. Unsurprisingly, the rally celebrating the success of the “referendum” was held in the recently lost city of Treviso, previously a stronghold of the Lega Nord run by party stalwart Giancarlo Gentilini for 12 years. Gentilini removed the benches from Treviso’s railway station when he wasn’t allowed to segregate them, and proposed dressing up all immigrants as rabbits to use them for target practice in preparation for the local hunting season. Gentilini, and now Salvini, are representative of a large component of the Lega Nord’s electoral base. Although this contingent has always been vocal during party rallies, it had never held elected office beyond the provincial level until now.

This has since changed. Salvini is a homophobe and racist who has advocated racial segregation, is openly demeaning towards southerners, and has criticized the archbishop of Milan for giving charity to gypsies. His success in any endeavor should be a cause for worry. The “referendum” is Salvini’s message to his radical base that he is one of them, as Umberto Bossi was one of them. And, as Umberto Bossi toned down and eventually abandoned his rhetoric, so will Salvini once he gets a taste of real power. If he has not already planned to do so, he will compromise with the center-right – his natural allies – whose political elites hail from the south, and require northern tax money to finance its corruption. After the next election, Venetian Independence will surely be off the table.

Yuri Serafini is a guest contributor from Milan, Italy. He currently studies Economics and Finance at Bocconi University.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

The Correspondents Weigh in: Crisis in Crimea

The Crimea Region is highlighted in Red on this map of the Ukraine (via Wikimedia Commons)

This piece will be the first of a special “Weigh In” series that is going to be started on Glimpse, which will focus on momentous current events.

Thomas D. Armstrong:

Recent op-eds have labeled Putin as a mastermind or a megalomaniac fool. I am of the opinion that Putin is a megalomaniac mastermind exploiting a disempowered US. However, debating Putin’s psychological profile is less constructive than analyzing the economic foundation of his regime. Putin and his Russia survive on energy revenues, and war is only making him richer. Unlike 2008, when Putin invaded Georgia, oil prices have held steady. In fact, the threat of sanctions on Russia have only driven oil prices marginally higher, up $2 dollars to $110.8/bbl as of writing. Putin is financing expansionist dreams (and his own savings account) thanks to his near-monopoly on Russia’s energy industry. Therefore, the best way to rein him in is to drive global energy prices down. The US can accomplish this quite easily with a reformed national energy policy. Currently, the US is sitting on an unused 727-million-barrel underground cache of crude oil, and is producing more and more natural gas by the day. If the US were to supplant Russia as Europe’s primary natural gas provider, and flood the global market with American oil exports, energy prices would plummet. A decrease from $110/bbl to $80/bbl would cost the Russian oil industry alone an estimated $120 billion, plus billions more in foreign exchange earnings. Putin is a deft leader, but even he could not survive such a sustained economic collapse.

Nick Kosturos:

Russia’s move to deploy soldiers in Ukraine is indicative of feelings of insecurity rather than confidence. Putin knows that such a large loss of influence in Ukraine, a critically important country in economic, cultural, and geopolitical terms, would be devastating to Russia’s ultimate goal of increasing its regional sphere of influence and international prestige. Putin’s domestic considerations and tensions can also shed light on these aggressive actions. If a small country like Ukraine can successfully stand up to the Kremlin by ousting its man from Kiev, what will Russians think of a leadership unable to control their “Small Russia?” Russia is acting out of desperation, not strength. Putin’s clownish justifications for Russia’s military actions do not hold up to scrutiny and are made under a façade by what I recently labeled an “imitation democracy.”

While the West has multilaterally condemned this act of aggression, which is a positive first step, it should now increase pressure on Russia to relent. In order to force Russia to withdraw and accept Ukraine’s sovereignty and a chance at a peaceful political transition, the West must maintain a multilateral and wide-ranging coalition of rejection, isolating Putin via sanctions on both his allies and competing oligarchs (including their overseas funds and visas), and by supporting Ukraine’s new government through assistance and advisement. At this point, conventional military power projection against Russia is not a viable option – no matter how tempting – as it could spark an unintended military provocation leading to conflict. The current situation is very difficult to manage, although the international community should know that the West ultimately has the upper hand. Russia’s desperate authoritarian strategy based on oppression is doomed to fail in the long-run.

Luke Phillips:

The situation in Crimea is nothing more than the Russians managing their own geopolitical periphery, and so far as it has to do anything at all with expansion, it is only due to the fact that Russian power is presently contracted to levels far below what Moscow would like. America would do and has done the same thing in the event of revolutionary unrest in our neighbor states, as is evidenced by our interventions in Mexico a century ago and in Cuba a half-century ago.

The question here, I think, is what the United States is going to do about it. Part of our grand strategy since the end of the Cold War has been to keep the Russians from establishing formal or informal dominion over the former U.S.S.R. Another part has been supporting the thin veil of liberal international order that girds the power politics flowing subtly underneath in an effort to at least grant a semblance of order and harmony in international affairs. These imperatives have come under increasing pressure in recent years, but in 2013 and 2014 more than ever before. I don’t know what the proper policy response should be, but I hope it isn’t more of the lectures, gestures, and silences with which President Obama responded to the Russians in the Snowden and Syria affairs.

Jacob W. Roberts:

America is in no position to intervene nor should it.  To the western world, Putin’s actions appear nefarious, but from the perspective of many Russians he is acting well within the parameters of international law.  Professor Tatiana Akishina of USC argues that, since the prime minister of Ukraine’s semi-autonomous Crimea region has called upon Putin for military support, his intervention is in accordance with international law.  Moreover, America has intervened with greater frequency and intensity over the past century, thus it is highly hypocritical of US authorities to castigate Russia for meddling within its region.  That being said, it is somewhat disturbing to witness Russia fail to respect the sovereign rights of an independent nation.  One can only hope that Putin’s intervention into the region will be short lived.

Alessandro M. Sassoon:

There is a risk of ethnic cleansing. It starts with classification. Weeks before this conflict made the front pages of the New York Times, reports emerged that Russian-Ukrainians in Crimea were being given Russian Passports. Russians have lived in Crimea for some 200 years, and Ukraine has held the territory for half a century. Then there are the Tatars, the people for whom Crimea is an ancestral home dating back to the Mongol Khan Empire. The Tatar population, which accounts for 13% of Crimea’s inhabitants, is predominantly Sunni Muslim. Under Stalin’s Russia, the Tatars were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and deported en masse to other parts of Russia (read: Siberia). It should come as no surprise then that they are more keen on being governed by Ukraine than by Russia. As things stand, there are three populations with strong ethno-nationalist tendencies who inhabit a geographic area they all feel they have a historical, political, or legal claim to. Of the eight stages of Genocide, we’ve passed #5: polarization. That means preparation, extermination, and denial are next.

Sabrina Mateen:

Before this conflict, my knowledge of Ukraine consisted solely of “ex-USSR”. I assumed the region consisted of Russian natives, and that they were considered to be allies with their ex-country. However, with the news of an outbreak of civil war, it has become apparent that there are opposing nationalities, languages, and mindsets that are all helping to tear Ukraine into pieces. The conflict seems to be reaching increasingly dangerous heights as Russia begins to put pressure on Ukraine in the form of planned military drills and in one case, an unspecified military presence that looked to be Russians supporting Crimeans. Although the conflict is being called a civil war, it is beginning to seem like one of the many moves Putin has been making to restore Russia to its USSR-era square footage. It is important to see what the United States plans to do, as the Obama Administration is already under scrutiny after the ill-advised response to the crisis in Syria.  Any move from the newly war-shy United States will be seen as an escalation in a conflict that has all the makings of a new Cold War.

Kerry Collins:

Recent developments in the volatile Ukraine situation show the autonomous Crimea region voting to join the Russian Federation. Crimea has a Russian ethnic majority and is predominantly Russian speaking, so it might not come as a surprise that the region is in support of the secession. If it is what the people want, then perhaps the region should have never been a part of Ukraine to begin with. These recent moves that Crimea has made are violations of international law, which puts the United States in a tough response position. The President has been making frantic calls to Putin urging a diplomatic end to this crisis, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Putin doesn’t seem particularly concerned with US warnings. What the EU and the US bring to the table are economic sanctions, and it will be interesting to see if those “sticks” are enough to make Putin falter.