Authoritarian leadership in CIS countries: How presidents maintain decades-long power"
In anticipation of the upcoming presidential elections in Azerbaijan and Russia, we have compiled an overview detailing how authoritarian leaders in CIS countries have managed to maintain their grip on power. They have endowed themselves with extraordinary authority, nullified presidential term limits, inherited power dynastically, and consistently manipulated electoral processes through falsification.
Nazarbayev, the leader of the nation
Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev emerged as the earliest and longest-serving leader in Kazakhstan’s history. He held the position of president for three decades, making him the first and sole president of the nation for that duration. Notably, a law entitled “About the First President of RK – Yelbasy” was even enacted, designating him as the “leader of the nation,” as “Yelbasy” translates from Kazakh.
Nazarbayev ascended to leadership during the Soviet era when he was elected president of the Kazakh SSR by the Supreme Soviet in April 1990. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, on December 16, 1991, he assumed the presidency of an independent Kazakhstan. In a move to consolidate power, he dissolved the opposition-leaning Supreme Soviet of the republic in March 1995. Subsequently, in April of the same year, he orchestrated a referendum to extend his presidential tenure until 2000.
Before the expiration of his presidential term, Nazarbayev took deliberate steps to prolong his stay in power. Initially, in October 1998, he amended the constitution to extend the presidential term from five to seven years and abolished the age limit, which previously restricted individuals from holding the highest public office beyond the age of 60.
At the age of 58, Nazarbayev then called for a special presidential election on January 10, 1999, which he unsurprisingly won. The final maneuver involved nullifying his presidential term. In June 2000, the constitutional council declared that Nazarbayev’s second election as president in 1999 was technically his first presidential term de jure, as the preceding election had occurred under the old constitution.
Nursultan Abishevich was re-elected president for a second term in early elections on December 4, 2005. In May 2007, Nazarbayev amended the constitution for the second time, eliminating the limit on the number of terms he could serve. Initially, the basic law stipulated that a head of state could only be elected to the post for a maximum of two terms. However, Nazarbayev specified that this restriction did not apply to the first president.
Furthermore, the first president acquired a distinct political status, formalized in a separate constitutional law titled ‘On the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan,’ as noted by Respublika.
These constitutional amendments also abolished the option of being elected to parliament through single-mandate constituencies, ensuring that parliamentary elections could only be conducted based on party lists. Subsequently, Nazarbayev dissolved the existing parliament and called for an extraordinary parliamentary election. The outcome of the vote led to the victory of the Nur Otan party, chaired by Nazarbayev himself. Consequently, the highest representative and legislative body of the country became monolithic, consisting solely of one party. Thus, the “first president” further consolidated his power.
As the end of his second presidential term approached, there were discussions about amending the constitution once again to extend Nazarbayev’s authority until 2020. The rationale was to avoid diverting the head of state’s attention from governance and to prevent the expenditure of budget funds on elections. Subsequently, amendments were made to the constitutional law “On the First President,” granting Nazarbayev the title “Leader of the Nation – Yelbasy” along with exclusive privileges for both him and his family members. A campaign was initiated to gather signatures in support of holding a referendum to extend presidential powers. While the parliament had drafted relevant amendments to the constitution, they were ultimately rejected by the constitutional council due to negative reactions from the international community.
The next presidential election was held early – on April 3, 2011. According to the CEC, 95.55 percent of votes were cast for the “leader of the nation”. Nursultan Abishevich was elected for his actual fifth term also early – on April 26, 2015. This time he beat his historic high of 97.75 percent of the vote.
On March 19, 2019, Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his resignation: “I have decided to terminate my powers as president. This year will mark 30 years of my highest office. The people gave me the opportunity to be the first president of independent Kazakhstan”.
Thus, the powers of the head of state passed to the speaker of the Senate of the Parliament Kasym-Jomart Tokayev. On June 9, 2019, Kazakhstan held extraordinary presidential elections, as a result of which the country finally had a second president. True, at that time, Nazarbayev’s departure was considered formal, as all the privileges and powers of the “leader of the nation” actually left power in his hands. For example, as head of the Security Council, Nursultan Abishevich could block any presidential action. As “Yelbasa” Nazarbayev sat in the Library of the First President. In fact, a dual power was formed in Kazakhstan; people used to say: “The “Library” sits over Akorda (White House).
Everything shifted following the protests in January 2022. The cult of personality surrounding Nazarbayev is gradually being dismantled: the “Day of the First President” is no longer observed as a public holiday, the capital, previously renamed Nur-Sultan at Tokayev’s suggestion, has reverted to its former name of Astana. Nursultan Abishevich has been stripped of all authority, exclusive privileges, and the title of “leader of the nation.” Furthermore, Nazarbayev’s relatives are either under investigation or have already been convicted in various criminal cases.
Belarus: Lukashenko sets the precedent for resetting presidential terms
Alexander Grigorievich Lukashenko holds the record as the longest-serving incumbent president among the CIS countries. July 10 marks the 30th anniversary since his election as president of independent Belarus in 1994. Just two years later, the nation encountered a political crisis when the parliament initiated impeachment proceedings against the president for constitutional violations. In response, Lukashenko called for a referendum to amend the constitution, seeking to consolidate presidential powers.
On November 24, 1996, following the referendum on constitutional amendments, Lukashenko’s presidential term was effectively reset, and his authority expanded as he dissolved the parliament. A new supreme representative body comprised of pro-presidential deputies was established.
During the second presidential election on September 9, 2001, Lukashenko secured victory once again, winning 75.65 percent of the votes according to calculations by the Central Election Commission (CEC). In 2004, he conducted another referendum on constitutional amendments, this time eliminating restrictions on the number of presidential terms in the country’s fundamental law. Subsequently, these restrictions were officially abolished in the 2006 law “On the President.” And thus, a precedent was set…
Lukashenko has consistently and predictably emerged victorious in all subsequent regular elections held in 2006, 2010, 2015 (where he garnered a maximum of 83.47 percent of the votes), and 2020. Following each presidential election (with the exception of the first one), protests erupted in Belarus, only to be brutally suppressed. In 2010, the number of protesters, as estimated by various sources, ranged from 10,000 to 60,000, with presidential candidates being imprisoned. The largest and most prolonged protests occurred in 2020, with ongoing persecution of individuals continuing to this day. The country currently holds nearly 1,500,000 political prisoners, some of whom are incarcerated for offenses such as insulting and defaming the president.
According to Euroradio, individuals have been imprisoned for actions as seemingly innocuous as “insulting” a government official or tearing down red and green flags. In addition to politically motivated criminal prosecutions, Lukashenko’s regime is notorious for its involvement in the mysterious disappearances and killings of his adversaries.
Recent amendments to the law “On the President” grant Alexander Lukashenko, in the event of resignation, with extraordinary privileges and guarantees, closely resembling those of his Kazakh counterpart, although lacking the official status of “Batka Natsiya.” The law prohibits the former head of state from being held accountable for actions “undertaken in connection with the exercise of his presidential powers,” extending the same protection to his family members.
According to Euroradio, “It will be impossible to arrest or confiscate housing, cars, personal archives, correspondence, and so forth from the former president. The financial support for the former president must be the same as during the presidency, regardless of any other sources of income. Additionally, the ex-president is exempt from income tax.”
Lukashenko has opted to “bequeath” power in the country to the Security Council of Belarus. In May 2021, he signed a decree outlining the transfer of power in the event of his violent demise.
Russia: Putin and the land of political prisoners
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin stands as one of the enduring figures in the power structure of the CIS. March 26 will mark 24 years since his initial election as president of Russia in 2000. Succeeding Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, Putin assumed the role of acting president following Yeltsin’s resignation. After completing his first term, Putin secured re-election in 2004. In 2008, he faced term limits, leading to a hiatus mandated by the constitution – a maximum of two consecutive terms. Consequently, the presidency was temporarily assumed by Dmitry Medvedev, while Putin assumed the role of Prime Minister of the Russian Federation.
Subsequently, Putin was re-elected president in 2012 and 2018. In the forthcoming presidential election scheduled for March 15-17, Putin is seeking a fifth term collectively. In 2020, Putin effectively reset his term limits through constitutional amendments. This reset was comprehensive – his presidential tenure until 2024 is regarded as a “zero” term. This innovation was proposed by State Duma deputy Valentina Tereshkova. Novaya Gazeta provides an in-depth analysis of how this came to pass and why the “space amendments” are deemed illegal.
To maintain his grip on power, Putin bypassed laws concerning himself and instead tightened legislative measures against all dissenters. This led to the introduction of the “Foreign Agents” law in Russia, which has broad applicability, potentially encompassing anyone. Further details about the law itself, its proponents, the process of its enactment, as well as its implications regarding disinformation and attempts to discredit opposition figures, are elaborated upon.
In earlier years, specifically in 2012 and 2014, amendments to the administrative code significantly heightened penalties for organizing peaceful demonstrations and protests. This included increases in fines, lengths of potential incarceration, and widened the scope of liability for organizers. Additionally, the formation of “Navalny clubs” was banned. By the end of 2020, regulations were implemented to monitor the financing of protests. This included restrictions on funds originating from abroad or labeled as coming from “foreign agents,” as well as anonymous donations. Organizers of rallies attended by over 500 individuals are now obligated to report their expenses to the authorities following the event. Subsequently, in February 2021, fines for illegal financing of protests were added to Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code.
Furthermore, in 2012, Russia implemented an updated law on rallies. While it did not deter participants from joining the March of Millions, a protest held in June to challenge Putin’s inauguration in 2012, the subsequent criminal cases stemming from the Bolotnaya Square protests and resulting prison sentences significantly impacted the protest climate in Russia.
The Memorial human rights organization has identified over 600 political prisoners on its list. These individuals face charges under various criminal statutes, including those related to “anti-war” activities and state treason. However, it’s important to note that this figure isn’t exact due to the secretive nature of criminal proceedings, making it difficult to identify all individuals affected. Memorial has maintained this list since 2019. Additionally, the human rights initiative “OVD-Info” has been compiling a database of politically motivated criminal prosecutions since 2012. As of November 2023, the total number of defendants exceeds three thousand individuals.
Azerbaijan: Aliyev inherits the presidential mantle
Ilham Heydar Oglu Aliyev has held the reins of power in Azerbaijan for 21 years, succeeding his father, Gaidar Aliyev. In the upcoming elections, Aliyev Jr. is seeking a fifth term in office.
Aliyev Sr. assumed the presidency of Azerbaijan on October 3, 1993, amidst the military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. On March 12, 1995, a revolt by a special police unit occurred in the country, but was swiftly quelled. With the internal political situation stabilized, Heydar Aliyev was re-elected for another term on October 11, 1998. In 1999, the Azerbaijani president suffered a heart attack, leading to the formation of opposition groups in the country while he received treatment in the United States. However, Aliyev maintained his grip on power. As the next presidential elections approached in 2003, Aliyev Sr. withdrew his candidacy in favor of his son, who was also undergoing medical treatment in the United States.
On October 15, 2003, Ilham Aliyev secured victory in the elections with 79.46 percent of the vote, according to the calculations by the Central Election Commission (CEC), while concurrently serving as the country’s prime minister.
“Tens of thousands of opposition activists who took to the streets during the pre-election period were subjected to police violence and brutal torture in police stations. Reports indicate that there were fatalities and severe injuries among them. However, following a power transition – contentious for the opposition but advantageous for the Aliyev family – Ilham Aliyev assumed the presidency on October 31, 2003,” as reported by Meydan.
In the spring of 2005, Ilham Aliyev assumed leadership of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, founded by his father.
“During the preparations for the 2005 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, opposition voices were harshly suppressed. Consequently, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party emerged victorious in the elections,” according to reports from Caucasian Knot.
Aliyev secured re-election for a second term on October 15, 2008. By March 2009, he had orchestrated a referendum on constitutional reform in the country. Naturally, term limits for the presidency were abolished, paving the way for Ilham Aliyev’s re-election for a third term on October 10, 2013. In 2016, he further amended the constitution, extending the presidential term from five to seven years.
According to Freedom House, Azerbaijan ranks 193rd out of 210 in terms of political and civil liberties, earning a “not free” designation, as reported by Novaya Gazeta Europe. Social discontent in Azerbaijan has long been met with harsh suppression.
Reportedly, there are over 200 political prisoners held in Azerbaijani jails.
“During Aliyev’s presidency, there have been suspicious deaths of critical journalists, along with the arrests of numerous media representatives. Towards the end of 2023, the crackdown on independent media intensified once again,” as highlighted by Meydan.
Furthermore, in 2022, Azerbaijan implemented the “On Media” law, significantly curbing media freedom.
“Many aspects of the law grant the government broad authority to curtail media coverage, thereby hindering criticism of the government,” according to JAMnews.
Zhanna Baitelova, Mediaset