Monday, August 29, 2016

When Dictators Depart – The Karimov Case and the Future of the Post-Soviet Space

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 29 – The apparent heart attack on Saturday and at least temporary incapacitation of 78-year-old Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov has not only sparked concerns in that key Central Asian country about who will come in his place but also reopens the larger issue of political transitions in those parts of the former Soviet space governed by dictators.

            Twenty-five years ago when the USSR collapsed, activists in many of these countries and their Western supporters argued that democracy was the best form of government because it allowed the people a voice in decisions about their own lives. Far less attention was paid to the fact that democracies, unlike dictatorships, breed new elites and have regular successions.

            One result of that stress on popular rule rather than new elites and succession has been that in many cases, many post-Soviet dictators have hijacked democratic phraseology to cloak what are inherently undemocratic regimes and by design created situations in which no one can point to an obvious successor generation or even imagine the departure of the incumbent ruler.

            But even if such leaders are not replaced by coups or revolutions, they will eventually pass from the scene because of illness or age. No one lives forever, and if there are no new elites waiting in the wings or procedures for their regular rotation, transitions will inevitably be bumpy or even disastrous – a certainty that many dictators invoke to maintain support for themselves.

            Not surprisingly, following the announcement of Karimov’s hospitalization, his regime and many observers fell back on the nostrums that everything was under control, that he would be back, and that his policies would continue (

            Other outlets have reproduced earlier discussions, many extremely useful, about what the passing of Karimov would mean for Uzbekistan and for other countries involved in Central Asia given the central role Tashkent plays as the capital of the most populous and arguably most powerful country there (

            In the coming days, there are likely to be more of both, but they may soon give way to broader discussions about the ways in which the reliance of Uzbekistan and some other post-Soviet states on dictatorial regimes has put delayed action mines under each of them and of the region as a whole.

            Perhaps the first of these has been offered by Marat Tolibayev, a Kazakh economist and blogger, who argues today that “when an authoritarian leader of a state leaves unexpectedly, his country does not experience happiness and well-being, in any cases, not immediately afterwards” (

            In most cases, he writes, the old dictator is replaced by someone in his entourage or even his family or alternatively “by an accidental figure who turns out to be in the right place at the right time.”  And he points out that one does not have to look far in distance or time to see examples of both.

            An individual who comes to power out of the entourage of the old dictator will first proclaim his commitment to democratic values and criticize “’the cult of personality’” of his predecessor. But within a short time, he will decide that he and his regime are irreplaceable and that everything must be done to keep him and it in place, with force if need be.

            As a result, Tolibayev continues, the regime will remain authoritarian in the extreme and corruption will flourish: “A narrow stratum of people will become incredibly rich while the country will remain poor or even become poorer still.”  Then, the new leader “will age and depart and the scenario will be repeated again.”

            Alternatively, he argues, the death or departure of a dictator can provoke a revolution which more often than not will bring to power either populists without experience in politics or administration or those who are simply greedy and see political power as a means to increase their personal wealth.

            Neither of these scenarios is “desirable,” the Kazakh commentator says.  And that raises the question: is there another which avoids the problems of the first and the second. According to Tolibayev, there is; but it requires some conditions which are only rarely to be found. The most important of these is a willingness of the old leader to start the process before he dies.

            Indeed, he suggests, the very best thing a dictator can do is to announce that he is leaving office in five years, thus opening the way for “a thaw” and for the emergence of alternative political leaders who will focus on policy issues rather than concentrate itself only on the replacement of the leader.

            Even better, the dictator anticipating his departure should move away from a presidentialist system, which only encourages the concentration of power, to a parliamentary one in which politicians will have to compete over programs more than over personalities.  In it, “the interests of clans will move into the background.”

            If a dictator president can think about the future – and that is no easy thing for him to do -- his taking those two steps, Tolibayev says, will ensure that his time in office was not wasted, that a new dictatorship or a revolutionary situation will not occur.  And he will be remembered not for his misdeeds but for his contribution to the development of his country.

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