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Kazakhstan: A model for power transfer in Russia?

Juri Rescheto
March 24, 2019

The resignation of Kazakhstan's president has given rise to speculation over the future transfer of power in Russia. Will Vladimir Putin follow Nursultan Nazarbayev's lead? Juri Rescheto reports from Moscow.

Vladimir Putin, hands clasped before him
Image: AFP/Getty Images/A. Nikolsky

"A free fantasy" is how Dmitry Peskov describes speculation about the future transfer of power in Russia. The Kremlin spokesman is quick to brush off media reports on the subject. But sooner or later the transfer of power will come, no matter what the spokesman says.

One possible date might be 2024, when Russia holds its next presidential election. Russia's constitution will prohibit Putin, who has served two consecutive terms, from running again. Moscow political science expert Alexei Kurtov tells DW that this is why there is nothing unusual about the Kremlin being permanently consumed with thoughts about maintaining its grip on power: "No matter who Putin is at that point, whether he stays or leaves: The bread and butter of any ruling system is to ensure that it stays in the driver's seat."

Read moreRussia and Ukraine in 2019: More conflict ahead? 

A monarch steps down

Why not approach the situation like neighboring Kazakhstan has? A few days ago, a leader who many thought would never step down did just that. After three decades at the helm, Nursultan Nazarbayev voluntarily resigned. Nevertheless, he is not really going anywhere. He will remain the chairman of the country's all-powerful Security Council for life, as well as the head of the ruling party. That would be possible in Russia, too; the country has a Security Council as well as a single ruling party, United Russia, which Putin has also led in the past.

Kazakh political scientist Marat Shibutov told DW, however, that planning for the transfer of power in Kazakhstan, which many saw as a surprisewas likely begun back in 2000. He says the president's resignation was simply the "last formality," a political step designed to clear the path for the country's opening to Western economic investors.

Shibutov's colleague, Aidos Sarym, also believes that although the transfer of power is taking place now, Nazarbayev's resignation has been in the works for a long time. "But it will present a major challenge for Putin," says the Kazakh political scientist. He does not believe the Kazakh model would work for Putin: "Power is distributed differently in Russia. The power structure is more complicated. There are more clans than in Kazakhstan, where power is concentrated in the hands of one clan. In Russia, there are a lot of people that are willing to slit each others' throats."

Putin's popularity wanes

Who's a model for whom?

Alexei Kurtov in Moscow says Putin will not look to the example set by Nazarbayev in giving up power voluntarily; in fact, he says, things are the other way round: "Everything that is happening in Kazakhstan right now is very similar to what happened in Russia in 1999. When President Boris Yeltsin stepped down, the country's presidential administration continued to be led by his clan. When presidential elections were called there was not a long list of candidates. There was only one — Vladimir Putin." He was Yeltsin's protege. And he guaranteed his protector and his clan both influence and immunity.

Today, there is much less open talk about whether Russia is run by clans than there was in 1999. Still, there are competing interest groups within the Kremlin and they will still be there in 2024. And that is why those in power are already thinking about the "sacred" issue of how to maintain it, as former Kremlin employee Andrei Kolyadin told DW: "It is all about the personal security and legal immunity of the leader and his family. The final decision as to the form of that transfer of power will depend on the situation when the hour arrives: the internal political situation, threats from abroad, the economy."

Read moreNursultan, not Astana — Kazakhstan renames capital to honor Nazarbayev 

In the end it's about the oligarchs

Ilya Grashenkov, director of the Russian Center for the Development of Regional Politics, is certain that there are "hundreds of different scenarios." He says that one possibility would be for the Kremlin to hand power to a loyal young technocrat, as it is currently doing with regional governorships. The risk is that they are too young and inexperienced to run the enormous country.

Another option would be to turn things over to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Putin's foil before. The risk: Medvedev's unpopularity could strengthen the hand of radicals and lead to a coup led by the communists or the military. Grashenkov believes neither the Kazakh model nor any other are applicable for the Russian president: "Unlike Russia, Kazakhstan has undergone dynamic development and has integrated itself into the international system. Russia, on the other hand, has been targeted with sanctions and no one wants to have anything to do with its functionaries."

The most-likely model will be one that helps those oligarchs currently suffering under international sanctions. It is in their interest to keep Putin in power for as long as possible. As far as they are concerned, Russia will exist as long as Putin is around.

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Juri Rescheto DW Riga Bureau Chief