The news of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation as president of Kazakhstan has prompted discussions in neighboring Russia on the future of President Vladimir Putin. The Nazarbayev option — stepping down as president before the end of his term in order to head the security council — has been floated repeatedly in discussions on Putin’s inevitable power handover in 2024, when his term expires. Under this scenario, Putin would occupy a post that allows him to retain the functions of a strategic and geopolitical manager, and to exercise a veto right over the decisions of his successor. The Kazakh experiment is indeed relevant to discussions about Putin’s future, but in an entirely different context.
There is, of course, a certain similarity between what is happening in Kazakhstan and what could happen in Russia. Nazarbayev is no longer president, but he is not going anywhere. As head of the security council, his authority overshadows even the president and the government. He will also retain leadership of the ruling political party, and the lifelong status of Yelbasy: Leader of the Nation.
Nazarbayev can therefore step back from everyday affairs while guaranteeing his own safety and that of his family, and also shielding himself from potential mistakes by his successor. Even if the new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, proves a failure, Nazarbayev has insurance in the form of his daughter Dariga, who is waiting in the wings, having recently been appointed speaker of the Senate, making her second-in-command. Isn’t this what Putin dreams of?
Yet there are several aspects of the Kazakh experiment that make it less appealing to the Russian leader.
Putin and Nazarbayev may have shared a job title, but their roles are very different. Putin is a manager, a geopolitical entrepreneur, an opportunist, but in no way is he the father of the nation. To achieve that he would have to work much harder to be close to the population. Putin has not only distanced himself from human problems, he is visibly disconnected from his people and their needs.
He has also become disengaged from the Russian elites, having merged into one with the state like some kind of agentless machine whose self-preservation and expansion guarantee the well-being of both the people and the elites.
Another important difference is that the Russian leader lacks a crucial attribute of the Kazakh model: family. Nazarbayev has Dariga to step in as president if necessary, along with two other daughters and multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren; a large family that is deeply engrained in the system of authority.
Putin is a lone wolf who divorced his wife several years ago. His daughters sometimes feature in opposition-leaning or Western media, but they are absent from Russian politics. So Putin could never have Nazarbayev’s kind of insurance, which would in any case look somewhat out of place in a modern Russian society.
Therefore, unlike Nazarbayev, Putin was not as strongly affected by the death of the Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov and the ensuing division of power which ended badly for the late president’s family. Will Putin even leave behind much that will need protection? It seems that his primary concern will not be family or the family business, but problems of another dimension: what will become of Crimea, Russia’s presence in Syria, and the country’s ability to assert its sovereignty and withstand the confrontation with the U.S. and NATO.
If Putin decides that he wants to stay in power, all he needs to do is scrap the law banning presidents from ruling for more than two consecutive terms, and that would not require any lengthy or particularly cumbersome reforms to the system of government. If he wants to step down, as he often says he does, then with loyal people around him, he will find a place and new status for himself in the system. Constitutional reform is inevitable, but Putin has always demonstrated caution in this regard, so even if some redistribution of authority is really planned, it is unlikely to be particularly radical.
The Kremlin will, of course, watch the Kazakh experiment with keen interest and learn from it. But the focus will be not so much on how successful the transition is for Nazarbayev himself, as on the elites’ behavior. How the siloviki fit in to the new configuration, how the business elites build their relationships with the new president, how the transition affects the ruling party, and how the public mood changes.
If anything, Nazarbayev’s resignation could postpone the handover of power in Russia: there is too much discussion right now surrounding Putin’s departure. In the near future, we may see signals that Putin plans to remain in power for as long as possible, but rather than indicating what to expect in reality, these signals will simply be put out there to curtail any expectations of a forthcoming power transition.
Judging by what Putin has said in recent years, there can be no doubt that in his eyes, the Russian political system works just fine without his day-to-day intervention. It’s external observers who like to talk about a system of manual control, in which only the president really knows what is going on. Putin has made it clear on more than one occasion that he sees things differently: there is a strong presidential authority, which is necessary for a country like Russia, there is a constructive, mature opposition, there is a politically responsible elite, and so on. It doesn’t seem that Putin is afraid that everything will collapse without him, so there is no reason for him to embark on radical reforms as a way of guaranteeing his future.
The focus of the Russian president’s attention, therefore, will be not so much on the system, which he believes to be fundamentally sound, as on choosing a successor. Whether that person will be a placeholder acting under the watchful eye of Putin or a full-fledged ruler is a separate issue, but the president is known for generally acting with caution. This means that his departure will be gradual and measured, while the real transition of power may only begin after Putin steps down as president, and will be undertaken by the successor.
There are many options for the inevitable power transition in Russia, but all of them are quite distant from what is happening in Kazakhstan, which has different political traditions, an elite and society with a different structure, and fundamentally different geopolitical conditions and ruling logic. But the process of the transition and its consequences could certainly influence which scenario is chosen in 2024, and could also impact on the choice of successor.
If Putin does decide to step down, there is a greater chance of a provisional new tandemocracy taking shape. Just, like the arrangement from 2008-2012, when Putin sat out a presidential term as prime minister under a trusted presidential seat-warmer, Dmitry Medvedev, in order to respect the constitutional ban on more than two consecutive terms. Only this time, the tandemocracy 2.0 will have learned from previous mistakes.