Central Asian presidents cannot stop appointing their relatives to high-level posts

Saida Mirziyoyeva, eldest daughter of Uzbekistan's president Shavkat Mirzioyoyev and the head of his presidential administration. Screenshot from BBC News Uzbek YouTube channel. Fair use.

On August 25, Uzbekistan’s president Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed a decree introducing personnel changes to his administration and appointed his daughter Saida Mirziyoyeva as the de-facto head of the president’s office. This became her second position after working there as the Head of the Communications and Information Policy Sector since last November. Mirziyoyeva’s new official title is Assistant to the President. However, the dismissal of the previous head of the presidential administration and removal of that position altogether make her the highest ranked official in the agency.

Expectedly, this appointment birthed speculations whether Saida Mirziyoyeva will replace her father as the next president. Since entering the country’s political life in 2019, she has quickly risen through the ranks to one of the most powerful government positions in the country.

Hers is not the first such story though. In fact, it is strikingly similar to that of Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the previous president Islam Karimov, who ruled over Uzbekistan from 1991 until his death in 2016. Karimova was an entrepreneur, diplomat, fashion designer, and singer. Until her downfall in 2013, when she was placed under house arrest, Karimova was the second most powerful person in the country. Similarly to Mirziyoyeva, some had predicted Karimova would succeed her father, but instead she ended up in prison for corruption.

Uzbekistan is not alone in its extensive exercise of nepotism in Central Asia. Its regional neighbors, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, all provide examples of the president's close family members occupying high-level government posts. The most glaring example of this practice is the current president of Turkmenistan, Serdar Berdimukhamedov, who succeeded his father Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov in 2022.

Here is a YouTube video about how Serdar Berdimuhamedov succeeded his father and became Turkmenistan's president.

Despite nepotism’s adverse effects, as displayed during the 2005 Tulip and 2010 April revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, political leadership in Central Asia continues to prefer blood ties over meritocracy and professional qualifications as the deciding factor in matters of managing succession and ruling the country.

Family always first 

Central Asian countries have a long history of nepotism. It has existed since the early days of their independence, which the regional countries acquired in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991. By the time the first presidents of Central Asian countries came to office and strengthened their positions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, their children had grown up enough to launch their own political careers. They also started creating their own families, creating a need to co-opt new members of the family, the in-laws. The cases of Saida Mirzoyeva, Gulnara Karimova, and Serdar Berdimuhamedov are just a few examples.

Kazakhstan’s first president Nursultan Nazarbayev was among the first to lead his family members to high-level posts. His 29-year long rule left a vivid trail of nepotism. Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, became a member of parliament in 2004, the deputy prime minister in 2015, and speaker of the senate in 2019. Her husband Rakhat Aliyev, a medical doctor by training, occupied the post of the deputy minister of foreign affairs before being exiled to Europe, where he eventually died in 2015 under suspicious circumstances. Nazarbayev’s two other daughters and their husbands were among the top business moguls during his reign.

Here is a YouTube video about the wealth of Nazarbayev's family members.

Kyrgyzstan’s first president Askar Akayev also reverted to nepotism during his rule, despite the hopes that he, as a trained physicist, would be an impartial figure. His scientific background and absence of political past were a deciding factor when Kyrgyzstan’s parliament elected him as the country’s first president in 1990.

Mairam Akayeva, his wife, emerged as the powerful shadow figure who granted access to the country’s market and resources to businesses and investors in exchange for hefty bribes. In 2005, his son and daughter ran in the parliamentary elections and won seats, angering the public and leading to the Tulip Revolution, which ended Akayev’s reign.

Kyrgyzstan’s next president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, made the same mistake by appointing his son and brothers to key government posts. His presidency ended in 2010 in what came to be called the April Revolution. Bakiyev’s overtly conspicuous practice of nepotism, which seemed to know no boundaries, was one of the factors that led to public irritation and overthrow of his regime.

Tajikistan’s president Emamoli Rahmon, who has been ruling since 1992, has nine children, meaning he has to apply more effort to advance his offspring’s political and business careers. One of his seven daughters is the head of the presidential administration. His son Rustam Emomali is forecasted to be the next president. He currently combines two important posts: mayor of Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe and chairman of the national assembly, which is the lower chamber of parliament. Rahmon’s remaining daughters and sons-in-law occupy high-level posts and wield considerable power with regards to all the economic activity in the country.

Here is a YouTube video about the rise of Rustam Emomali to the post of the second most powerful person in Tajikistan.

History keeps repeating itself

There are no examples of nepotism in Central Asia that end well or yield positive results for the countries and political regimes concerned.

The most infamous story in this regard is the downfall of Gulnara Karimova. Her damage to the country is estimated at USD 1.4 billion. She is reported to have monopolized whole sectors of Uzbekistan’s economy, taking over private businesses, and receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes in return for access to the lucrative Uzbek market.

Here is a YouTube video about how Gulnara Karimova excepted bribes from Russian and Swedish telecom companies.

After coming into conflict with her own family, in 2013, she was placed under house arrest with the approval of her father. After the death of Islam Karimov in 2016, she has been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.

Nazarbayev’s family members have also left their posts, lost influence, and been sentenced to prison sentences after he left office in 2019. The downfall of his relatives started in January 2021, after Nazarbayev lost in a power struggle with Kazakhstan’s current president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in the aftermath of violent protests known as Qandy Qantar (Bloody January).

Dariga Nazarbayeva stepped down from her parliamentarian role shortly after. Nazarbayev’s nephew and businessman Kairat Satybaldy was sentenced to six years in prison for theft. His other family members occupying major political and business posts were also dismissed.

The most devastating consequences of nepotism have taken place in Kyrgyzstan. After the Tulip Revolution in 2005, Akayev and his family were exiled to Russia where they live nowadays. Bakiyev and his family encountered a similar fate after the 2010 April Revolution, escaping to Belarus without a right to return home.

These former presidents’ apparent practice of nepotism alongside other violations cost them their regimes. Kyrgyzstan’s current president Sadyr Japarov is disregarding these past political events though. He has recently admitted that his young and seemingly unqualified son Rustam Japarov is working with foreign investors to build major infrastructure objects in the country.

Surrounding oneself with often incompetent close family members robs presidents of sound advice on important political and economic matters. Transferring power to informal shadow figures who are close family members stifles economic growth. Yet the political leadership and their family members have not learned their lesson from the failures of their predecessors.

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