The first generation of Central Asian presidents will not be around forever. It is only a matter of time before the region experiences several successions stemming, most likely, from the death or incapacitation of a leader. What follows the passing of the head of state has been a topic of much speculation among Central Asia watchers, who in the last decade have spent inordinate time analyzing predictably unpredictable Kyrgyzstan. In the next decade, the chances are high that some of the predictably predictable states of the region—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—will experience major leadership turnovers. The former two have septuagenarian leaders and unclear succession plans. The latter two are ruled by somewhat younger heads of state who came to power after independence, but they preside over equally opaque and convoluted political systems (and are also approaching the life expectancy for men in their countries).
Most analyses of succession in Central Asia tend to the extremes. One scenario envisions a smooth transition decided behind closed doors (aka the Turkmenistan Scenario): high-ranking officials meet in a conclave and select a mutually acceptable and pliant figure who can protect the interests of the relevant “clans.” Stability prevails, but so does authoritarianism. The elite-led nature of the transition prevents any political openings that could enable any mass movements to bid for power. For those inclined to wager, this is probably the most likely scenario, given that it has already occurred in Central Asia, as well as in Azerbaijan.
The other scenario—more frequently mooted, since it provokes the imagination and spills a greater amount of ink—involves state collapse and anarchy. With no plan for succession, elites compete for power without clear guidance for who should take the reins, leading to a violent struggle that spills out onto the streets. This “failed state” paradigm of political change allows analysts to implicate their favorite regional scourge once order breaks down, the more popular ones being rival clans, Islamists, neighboring hegemons seeking to protect kinsmen, or a resurgent Russia—not necessarily in that order.
This memo details a middle course between these two popular yet contradictory narratives of succession. I undertake a thought experiment on the plausible dynamics and most likely players in a political struggle after a leader’s passing. In order to give the scenarios, speculative as they are, surface plausibility, I anchor the assessment in institutional patterns and political dynamics that have been witnessed before: in Russia before Putin, Tajikistan during its civil war, and Kyrgyzstan in 2010. I identify two arenas of power that have suffered relative analytical neglect in discussion of the post-succession dynamics in Central Asian states: elites outside the president’s entourage and social sources of order that emerge in response to the unraveling of a ruling coalition in the capital. […]