Rulers Tighten Their Grips On Resource-rich Ex-soviet Nations

Kazakhstan plans to increase oil production by 0.9% in 2018

ISTANBUL — Leaders of former Soviet-bloc nations near the Caspian Sea are tightening their grip on power as well as the wealth generated through rich resource reserves, paving the way for lifelong rule and for their children to eventually take over.

“We have built a beautiful country, and it will become even more beautiful,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said Sept. 29 in the capital city of Baku, in a nod to the nation’s various infrastructure projects funded by oil money.

Azerbaijan has been ruled by Aliyev’s father, and then by Aliyev, since 1993 — just years after the nation gained independence. The country voted in a Sept. 26 referendum to extend the president’s term from five to seven years and to scrap the minimum age of 35 to run for the post.

Aliyev’s oldest son is believed to be just 19 years old. The referendum likely was designed to ensure a smooth transition of power to a third generation should anything happen to the current leader.

In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been calling the shots since the Soviet days. He appointed his eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, to a key Senate post in mid-September. Many think Nazarbayev is grooming her to become Senate chair, from where she would legally become head of the Central Asian giant if the president died, and for her eventually to succeed him officially.

Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov makes no secret of his desire to remain leader for life. Last month he scrapped the age limit of 70 to run for president. In neighboring Tajikistan, a more agricultural than resource-based country, President Emomali Rahmon in May won a vote letting him remove his office’s term limit — but only in regards to him.

The death of Islam Karimov, who led Uzbekistan for more than a quarter-century, was made public in early September.

Long-reigning leaders across the region are strengthening their hold on power, but they also have been forced to consider how to pave the way for the next generation.

These autocrats have been able to turn their countries into an extension of their estate by quashing the opposition and restricting free speech. But anti-government protests erupted in May across several major cities in Kazakhstan. Azerbaijanis protested against constitutional change before the referendum last month. Long-term rule may bring stability, but with low resource prices squeezing the economy, these leaders will be unable to contain public frustration forever.

However, they face little external pressure for change. Russia, which wields the most influence over Central Asia, has an authoritarian leader. Though China sees the region as a key link in its Belt and Road Initiative, the country has no interest in the area’s political systems. The U.S. had stationed troops in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan during its war in Afghanistan, but has since left.

AKIHIRO SANO, Nikkei staff writer