(bne) - When Nursultan Nazarbayev won April's Kazakh presidential election with a resounding majority, the issue of who would suceed the septuagenarian appeared to have been put on the backburner for the time being. But three months later, Nazarbayev's visit to Germany for medical treatment has put it firmly back on the agenda.
In July, the German press reported that Nazarbayev was receiving treatment at a Hamburg hospital. Bild reported that the then 71-year-old president had had a prostate operation after checking into the hospital on July 10. It's not unusual for wealthy Kazakhs to seek medical treatment outside the country, especially in Germany. But the operation followed shortly after repeated assurances from Nazarbayev's spokesman that he planned to serve out the full term after winning the election
Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since the country gained its independence in 1991. He has been re-elected three times, most recently in April when he took an implausible 95.5% of the vote on a turnout of 89%, according to official figures.
Democratic shortcomings notwithstanding, Nazarbayev is credited with building the Kazakh nation state, and maintaining peaceful relations among the country's many ethnic groups. Under his 20-year rule, Kazakhstan also pulled away from its Central Asian neighbours economically, and income per capita has increased from $700 a year in 1994 to almost $10,000 in 2010, although corruption remains a problem.
Foreign investors prize Kazakhstan's political stability almost as much as its oil and mineral wealth, but have become increasingly troubled about the future, especially since Nazarbayev has always avoided appointing a successor. "Succession has been the gazillion-dollar question for a very long time and remains one without an answer to date," said Milena Ivanova-Venturini, head of research in Central Asia at Renaissance Capital.
Those believed to be jostling for position include the president's son-in-law Timur Kulibayev, Astana mayor Imangaldi Tasmagambetov, former prime minister Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev and Karim Massimov, independent Kazakhstan's longest-serving PM. There have been rumours this year of an intense power struggle between the elites of west and south Kazakhstan.
Recently, Kulibayev seemed to have pulled ahead of his rivals. He was promoted to head up Kazakhstan's sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna in the post-election reshuffle, and voted onto Gazprom's supervisory board on June 30. According to Ivanova-Venturini, these events "are pointers in some more public convergence of power going his way," but she adds that "my personal view would be that also in the private domain, the question of succession remains just that – a question."
Timothy Ash of Royal Bank of Scotland believes that while the succession is a "key risk" for Kazakhstan, the elites should be able to pull off an orderly one. "Kazakhstan is so strategic to Russia, the US and China, in terms of energy supply, transit and in Russia's case the Baikonur space station plus a large ethnic Russian population, that I have some confidence that we would see a pretty smooth transition of power to someone in the inner circle."