Could Kazakhstan be a model for a power transfer in Russia?

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.

"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."

Now live
03:05 mins.
DW News | 20.02.2019

Putin's popularity on the decline in Russia

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.

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

From KGB to Kremlin

Putin joined the KGB, the former Soviet Union's security agency, in 1975. In the 1980s he undertook his first foreign posting as a KGB agent to Dresden, Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin returned to Russia and entered Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin. When Yeltsin announced that he wanted Putin as his successor, the way was paved for him to become prime minister.

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

First presidency

On his appointment, Putin was virtually unknown to the general public. This changed when in August 1999 armed men from Chechnya invaded the neighboring Russian territory of Dagestan. President Yeltsin appointed ex-KGB officer Putin to bring Chechnya back under the central government's control. On New Year's Eve, Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned and named Putin as acting president.

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

Tough guy in the media

During an exhibition hockey game in Sochi, Putin’s team won 18-6, with the president scoring eight goals.

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

Limited freedom of speech

A protester wears a tape over his mouth reading "Putin" during an opposition rally. In 2013 the Kremlin announced that the state-owned news agency, RIA Novosti, was to be restructured and placed under the control of a pro-Kremlin figure known for his extreme anti-Western views. Reporters without Borders ranked Russia as 148 in its list of 178 countries in terms of press freedom.

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

Putin's Image: A man of action

Putin's image as a man of action, boosted by his having been a KGB spy, has long been part of his appeal in Russia. It is carefully maintained by means of photos where he is seen bare-chested on horseback, or tossing opponents onto a judo mat. In Russia, Putin has earned praise for restoring stability but has also been accused of authoritarianism.

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

Stifling democracy

When President Putin's United Russia party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in 2007, critics described the vote as neither free nor democratic. Dozens were detained as riot police broke up protests by demonstrators accusing President Putin of stifling democracy. In this rally the poster reads: "Thank you, no!"

The different faces of Vladimir Putin

Orchestrated events

In Sevastopol, Crimea, Putin looks through the window of a research bathyscaphe in the waters of the Black Sea. This dive in a mini-submarine was only one of his adventurous stunts; he has also been seen tranquilizing wild tigers and flying with endangered cranes. It was also aimed at cementing his image as an adventurer, and demonstrating his control of the annexed territory of Crimea.

Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.