When you’re a petrocrat, it’s one day at a time

As part of the tumult roiling the petro-producing world, we took the plunge last week and pondered who would succeed the aging president of one much-obscured corner of the globe should he become incapacitated or die. That corner was Kazakhstan, and we found good reason to settle on oil tycoon Timur Kulibayev to succeed his ...

Ilmars Znotins  AFP/Getty Images
Ilmars Znotins AFP/Getty Images
Ilmars Znotins AFP/Getty Images

As part of the tumult roiling the petro-producing world, we took the plunge last week and pondered who would succeed the aging president of one much-obscured corner of the globe should he become incapacitated or die. That corner was Kazakhstan, and we found good reason to settle on oil tycoon Timur Kulibayev to succeed his father-in-law, long-time Soviet-era ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev. In short order, we have received a form of validation in commentary by a court aide to Nazarbayev. In a pinch, the aide argued sensibly, Kulibayev would step in as a stabilizing force and "continue the president's strategic program."

For certain Kazakh individuals -- meaning the ruling class and all present-day oligarchs -- those were reassuring words. Is that why this aide was directed to convey them so publicly? We cannot know. With the political graveyards of Kazakhstan mottled with the remains of past would-be presidential successors, Kulibayev himself was like a deer in the headlights, James Kilner suggests at the Daily Telegraph in London. "Honestly, for me this statement came as a complete surprise. I have never positioned myself as a politician. To say these things about the current president and after the hype in the press about his health is, to say the least, improper," Kulibayev said in a statement to the Kazakhstan press.

Yet, this is one of the vital questions of the moment in large parts of the world -- what happens if our national leader suddenly goes? Read on to the jump.

As part of the tumult roiling the petro-producing world, we took the plunge last week and pondered who would succeed the aging president of one much-obscured corner of the globe should he become incapacitated or die. That corner was Kazakhstan, and we found good reason to settle on oil tycoon Timur Kulibayev to succeed his father-in-law, long-time Soviet-era ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev. In short order, we have received a form of validation in commentary by a court aide to Nazarbayev. In a pinch, the aide argued sensibly, Kulibayev would step in as a stabilizing force and "continue the president’s strategic program."

For certain Kazakh individuals — meaning the ruling class and all present-day oligarchs — those were reassuring words. Is that why this aide was directed to convey them so publicly? We cannot know. With the political graveyards of Kazakhstan mottled with the remains of past would-be presidential successors, Kulibayev himself was like a deer in the headlights, James Kilner suggests at the Daily Telegraph in London. "Honestly, for me this statement came as a complete surprise. I have never positioned myself as a politician. To say these things about the current president and after the hype in the press about his health is, to say the least, improper," Kulibayev said in a statement to the Kazakhstan press.

Yet, this is one of the vital questions of the moment in large parts of the world — what happens if our national leader suddenly goes? Read on to the jump.

In the New York Times, we view this question through a Russian lens in a piece by a trio of former senior Western ambassadors. In their piece, Denis Corboy, Bill Courtney and Ken Yalowitz argue that successive Russian leaders including the late-Boris Yeltsin (pictured above) have in important ways screwed up the fall of the Soviet Union. (The West didn’t do much better, Yalowitz told me in a followup email exchange. "In retrospect, the West should have been more generous as it might have given [Prime Minister Yegor] Gaidar and the young reformers more breathing space to do real ‘shock therapy,’" Yalowitz told me.)

Using that as a jumping-off point, these former envoys provide a laundry-list of advice for the new leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and any other country emerging from the Arab Spring with a fresh government. The list can be summed up thusly: Unconcentrate the wealth, strengthen institutions, and do it fast.

That is meaningful advice. But what about the emotions unearthed in big revolts? In the Financial Times, Claire Spencer ponders the sticky question of how populations treat their former leaders judicially. That’s a huge issue, and a main one underlying Nazarbayev’s possible selection of his son-in-law as a successor: Nazarbayev first wants to protect his legacy, and as a close second to try to ensure that neither he nor any of his relatives end up in prison or worse.

Is that possible — can any autocrat control the emotions of his people after his death? The record is not good, from the point of view of such leaders. Does anyone truly think, for instance, that the ouster of Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi will be followed by anything but utter bloody chaos? Would a mob treat either man well? Robert Worth considers the question of Saleh in a good piece here.

When it comes today’s petro-crats, like ordinary autocrats, they have to make plans — one does not know what comes next. Meanwhile, you send out the troops and hope you can stave off the fate of Hosni Mubarak.

 

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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