Dictators and Daughters: The Succession Crisis in Central Asia

Guest Contributor: James V. Mersol

CSTO Collective Security Council meeting Kremlin, Moscow 2012-12-19 02

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.

An Autocrat’s Guide for Dummies: How to Build Your Own Cult of Personality

As an autocrat, one of the smartest choices you can make for long-term political domination is to build a strong cult of personality. This is no easy task. Building your brand requires much dedication and effort, which will surely take away from many scotch tastings at your summer palace. Indeed, rumor has it Stalin only slept four hours per night due to his constant cultivation of his exceptional personality cult. However, the rewards of this strategy are bountiful. A personality cult attracts blind devotion in the minds of your subjects and instills fear in the souls of your opponents – the ever-rare opportunity to murder two birds with one stone! Indeed, history has shown that some of the most powerful autocrats, such as Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, enjoyed a long period of rule and a lasting legacy because of the success of their personality campaigns. The mass-appeal of the cult of personality syndrome is irrefutable, as even the humblest man would enjoy the constant ego stroking. By heeding the following recommendations, you too can develop your own brand that will stand the test of time.

1. Nail Down Your Style

Right: Graffiti of Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi in Knoxville, Tennessee. June 19, 2013. (Joel Kramer) Left: Muammar Gaddafi at the 12th AU summit in Addis Abeba. February 2, 2009. (U.S. Navy/Jesse B. Awalt)

Right: Graffiti of Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi in Knoxville, Tennessee. June 19, 2013. (Joel Kramer)
Left: Muammar Gaddafi at the 12th AU summit in Addis Abeba. February 2, 2009. (U.S. Navy/Jesse B. Awalt)

The communist-style grey suit is so 1950s. Kim Jong-un: please take note. While those drab American leaders all dress similarly and wear the same American flag pins, which are of course made in China, you should focus on dressing to impress. We recommend obtaining a military uniform and cramming as many shiny badges on your outfit as possible. People want a strong leader, and old-school military power projection will impress your subjects while making them more accepting of your militaristic police state over time. Muammar Gaddafi mastered the dressing game, switching between flashy traditional garb and his ornate military uniform to trumpet both his cultural and military credentials. A consistent, yet unique style will leave the newly minted members of your personality cult craving for more.

2. Plaster Your Face on Everything

Bundesarchiv Bild 137-075664, Polen, Betreuung von Umsiedlern

Child holds portrait of Hitler in Poland. 1940 (Wilhelm Holtfreter)

If there is one thing you should do, it would be to post your portrait everywhere possible, including private buildings, buses, churches, government buildings (give-in), postage stamps, flags, and children’s toys. This author would advise against toilet seats, although that is a potential option. Not only will everyone learn to recognize you, they may even develop an emotional attachment to your face. Let’s take a lesson from Comrade Stalin. His portrait was diffused so broadly throughout society that some Soviet families felt the need to turn his portrait against their walls if they criticized the Soviet regime. This is power you cannot buy. Hire a good photographer, take as many portraits as possible, and send them off everywhere. Additionally, a good skin regimen can help with regime perpetuation. You’ll thank me for this bit of advice when you’re before The Hague and the judges compliment your radiant glow of self-confidence.

3. Product Placement

Right: Portrait of Vladimir Putin. Unspecified date. (Russian Federation) Left: Putinka Vodka. February 5, 2011. (Reuben Yau)

Right: Portrait of Vladimir Putin. Unspecified date. (Russian Federation)
Left: Putinka Vodka. February 5, 2011. (Reuben Yau)

Extend your brand to everyday, consumable goods. You should connect yourself to the minds and souls of your subjects at as visceral a level as possible. Vladimir Putin has been able to link himself to the everyday pleasure of alcohol consumption by making a state-sponsored Vodka manufacturer label a popular brand of vodka, “Putinka,” after himself. It’s all about the subliminal advertising.  So the next time your subjects drink themselves to sleep, they will have raised many a glass to you along the way. Za Zdorovie!

4. Crush Challenges to Your Image

Left: Stalin and Nickolai Yezhov (chairman of the Soviet secret police) at the shore of the Moskwa-Wolga-Channel. After Yezhov was tried and executed, he was purged out of from this photograph. April 22, 1937. (Unknown Author) Right: Nickolai Yezhov has vanished from this doctored photograph. 1937. (Author Unknown)

Left: Stalin and Nickolai Yezhov (chairman of the Soviet secret police) at the shore of the Moskwa-Wolga-Channel. After Yezhov was tried and executed, he was purged out of from this photograph. April 22, 1937. (Unknown Author)
Right: Nickolai Yezhov has vanished from this doctored photograph. 1937. (Author Unknown)


If an individual or a group tries to rain on your cult parades, you must remove them from the scene. The last thing a true leader wants is a competing figure or group stealing your thunder. You and you alone are the star – channel your inner Hollywood diva. Remove all opponents swiftly and by any and all means necessary through any force necessary, and most importantly, be sure to erase them from the annals of history. A few photo touch-ups should do the trick for well-known figures. Job prerequisite: a least two years experience with Adobe Creative Suite© and, preferably, previous experience in product marketing and re-branding.

5. Micro-managing is a Must

Lenin reading Pravda

Lenin reads Pravda newspaper at his study desk at his flat in the Kremlin. October 16, 1918.

You must maintain an active presence in the direct management of your cult or else it could be hijacked by the opposition, or worse, a not-so-loyal lieutenant. Stalin was a master of this management style and developed a habit of personally monitoring and directly approving or disapproving cult products that were to be distributed to the masses. So next time one your lieutenants offers to “take care” of management, politely refuse. Reply that you will “take care” of him and send him to Siberia to break rocks.

6. Conceal any and all Physical Faults


Kim Jong-il. October 7, 2010. (maxdavinci)

We know you’re perfect, but on the off chance that you have a physical or mental ailment, it must be concealed. You need to portray yourself as god-like, and to do this requires careful image manipulation. Kim Jong-il had a major speech impediment that prevented him from giving speeches or distributing recordings, but he was able to hide this impediment and keep his people in the dark. Rather, Kim was known to have Herculean sporting abilities where he would bowl and golf perfect games, and he was incapable of passing gas. Focus on your strengths and do not be afraid to highlight only your finest qualities, such as your ability to show off that priceless grin.

7. Bad Press is BAD Press

Edmund S. Valtman, What you need is a revolution like mine ppmsca.02969

This cartoon of Fidel Castro is critical of Cuba’s revolution in 1959. August 31, 1961. (Edmund S. Valtman)

The saying “any press is good press” should NOT apply to you. As supreme autocrat, you can afford to restrict any and all bad press. Any negative material could dampen your image and threaten your grip on power. It may be wise to invest in subtle social media filters, shut down freelance journalistic outlets (perhaps by accusing them of being “foreign agents”) and employ youth bloggers friendly to your regime to capture the minds and hearts of a more skeptical generation. Now there’s an image that makes every autocrat want to click the “like” button.

8. Keep it Funky

Vladimir Putin in Japan 3-5 September 2000-23

Vladimir Putin judo wrestling at the Kodokan Martial Arts Palace. September 5, 2000. (Russian Federation)

Unpredictability is a good thing. By dazzling your people and the international community, you will earn a reputation of being spontaneous and larger-than-life. Many autocrats have employed this technique. Chairman Mao accomplished this task by allegedly swimming the length of the Yangtze River. Putin constantly publicizes his wild activities, such as wrestling fellow Russians to the ground (that includes bears) or guiding endangered migratory cranes on a hang glider. Stability is a necessary ingredient to ironclad rule, but in order to build a good brand, a little funk is necessary now and then.

*Disclaimer: The aforementioned recommendations will only get you so far in an increasingly democratic world. In these volatile times, where a globalized press and social media apparatus seem to be exposing the ugly aspects of your brotherhood of autocrats left and right, the days of autocracy are increasingly numbered. Instead of building a cult of personality, consider democratizing your state’s society and liberalizing its economy. Until next time, Do Svidaniya.

Updated 2 November, 2013: formatting changes for better image-text integration.