A little more than three decades ago Emomali Rahmonov was elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet of newly independent Tajikistan. The country had already started to disintegrate into civil war, and the 40-year-old former collective farm head was picked mainly as a compromise candidate who could later be replaced by a more charismatic leader. That was clearly a mistake. 30 years and six months later, Rahmon (he discarded the Russified -ov from his name) is still in power.
Data compiled by bne IntelliNews on prime ministers and presidents in Emerging Europe and Central Asia shows that he is now the longest-serving leader in the region, just pipping President Aleksander Lukashenko of Belarus, dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’, to the title. Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, but having brutally resisted pro-democracy protesters' efforts to oust him, he may finally be removed by his own ill health.
Lukashenko collapsed twice in May, the second time after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and was hospitalised in Moscow on May 27. Earlier, Lukashenko's sudden illness during the May 9 Victory Parade in Moscow had sparked rumours of his demise, though he later appeared again in public, where he seemed groggy and had difficulty speaking.
Recent years have seen the departure through deaths, electoral defeats or resignations of the last remaining political leaders whose time in power dates back before the end of the communist era.
President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, who became the first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan in 1989, died in 2016. Neighbouring Kazakhstan was ruled for 27 years by Nursultan Nazarbayev, the steelworker-turned-politician who was elected president by the Supreme Soviet 1990, and continued to lead Kazakhstan after independence the following year. Aged just 29, Milo Djukanovic first became prime minister of Montenegro in February 1991, just months before Yugoslavia started to disintegrate. Aside from a couple of short breaks, he continued as either president or prime minister of the small country until 2023, when he lost the presidential election to newcomer Jakov Milatovic.
Not the end of an era
Yet this is by no means the end of the era of long-lived political leaders. Putin, who came to power in 2000, has now racked up 19 years as president plus four as prime minister, adding up to a total of 23 years as Russia’s undisputed leader. He shows no signs of quitting, and is expected to run successfully for yet another presidential term in 2024, which would extend his rule until 2030.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev have both recently marked 20 years as leaders of their respective countries. Erdogan became prime minister for the first time and Aliyev took over the presidency from his father back in 2003. Erdogan celebrated his latest presidential election victory in May 2023, announcing a “new Turkish century” as he took office on the centenary of the Republic of Turkey for his next five-year term. Erdogan defied expectations that his authoritarian rule and chaotic handling of the economy would motivate Turks to back his rival, the unified opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, in large enough numbers to evict him from power.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took over the Uzbek presidency after Karimov’s death, had already been prime minister for 12 years before that, bringing his time in one of the top two positions to 19 years.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban has spent a total of 17 years in the prime minister position, from 1998 to 2002 and from 2010 to the present day. Despite controversies such as Orban’s clashes with EU institutions, concerns about the state of democracy and controversial policies on immigration, LGBTQ rights and other issues, Orban and his party have maintained electoral dominance in Hungary, with Fidesz winning multiple elections and holding a supermajority in parliament.
Democrats and despots
The former Soviet Union has become notable for its long-serving leaders. They may seek to look democratic by holding regular elections, but these are invariably a shoo-in for the incumbent. Typically leaders from Central Asia and other authoritarian FSU states are re-elected with improbably high shares of the vote on an improbably high turnout.
This isn’t the only world region where leaders manage to stay in power for decades. The world’s longest-serving president today is Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. Having turned 80 in 2022, he won yet another election, allowing his authoritarian 42-year rule to continue.
However, in the democratic world, such lengthy stints in power are not seen except in countries with hereditary monarchs as head of state.
Most of the countries in Emerging Europe and Central Asia that had the longest-lasting leaders are rated as Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes by Freedom House. Montenegro and EU member Hungary are the anomalies, being ranked among the Transitional Government or Hybrid Regimes, described by the NGO as “positioned in the grey zone between democracy and autocracy”.
Among the leaders of European democracies, two German chancellors – Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel – stand out for holding the position for just over 16 years.
When Putin was confronted by a Western journalist at an international event and asked how he could justify staying in power for a third term, he turned to the correspondent with a smirk on his face and replied: “You mean like Angela Merkel? She has been in office for four terms, hasn’t she? Longer than me.” But while Merkel stepped down in 2021, Putin remains in power.
Eddie Fenech Adami led Malta for close to 20 years, serving twice as prime minister, from 1987-96 and 1998-2004, then holding the presidency from 2004-09. François Mitterrand served two full seven-year terms as president of France; the presidential term has since been shortened to five years. Margaret Thatcher held the office of UK prime minister for over 11 years, the longest of any recent leader.
The longest-serving West European leader currently in power is Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, but his 11.3 years is dwarfed by the terms of numerous leaders from the eastern part of the continent.
Entrenched in power
For the leaders of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, and to a lesser extent some of the other countries of Emerging Europe as well, when leaders become established in a position of power they become increasingly difficult to dislodge.
Once in power, leaders have the immeasurable advantage of state resources at their disposal to use to cement their positions and win future elections.
Leaders get to staff the civil service and state-owned companies with their allies. Those loyalists can then be deployed to bring out employees en masse with instructions to vote for the incumbent when elections come up. There are many reports of civil servants or students being instructed to photograph their ballot papers and show them to their managers or professors; if the cross is for the wrong candidate their job prospects or academic record is at risk.
Then there is the intimidation at polling stations, outright vote rigging and fraud once votes have been cast, as witnessed by international observers and bne IntelliNews correspondents in multiple countries in Eurasia. The latest election in this patch is a case in point; it’s notable that Turkey’s Supreme Election Board (YSK) failed to provide public access to the data behind the officially declared results of the country’s May presidential and parliamentary elections and has also blocked access to the 2018 election data on its website.
Somewhat more subtle approaches include wall-to-wall favourable coverage on state media and lavish investments in the run-up to elections as the line between the incumbent’s electoral campaign and their job becomes blurred or disappears altogether. International election observers frequently point to the use of state resources by incumbents in their electoral campaigns everywhere from Central Asia to the Western Balkans. Even in Central Europe, Hungary in particular has been criticised for directing state companies’ advertising to friendly media; those with a more independent message are starved of funds.
In another example of the divide between the autocratic states of Eurasia and Eastern Europe, and the more democratic regimes further West, data compiled by bne IntelliNews shows that few leaders from Central and Southeast Europe served for more than 10 years. This is the length of two five-year presidential terms for most of the region.
The longer lasting leaders tend to be those that have served stints as both prime minister and president.
As well as Montenegro’s Djukanovic, they include Filip Vujanovic, who swapped places with Djukanovic as president and prime minister of Montenegro, holding the prime minister position from 1998 to 2002 as well as serving two terms as president of independent Montenegro and one as president while the country was still part of a union with Serbia, adding up to 20 years in total. Despite being born and brought up in Belgrade, Vujanović was a prominent advocate of secession from the union with Serbia, and, as outlined in an interview with bne IntelliNews in 2016, a strong advocate for accession to the EU and Nato.
Similarly, Janez Drnovsek held the presidency of Yugoslavia before its breakup, going on to serve as first prime minister then president of independent Slovenia. During his long years in power Drnovsek embraced change, evolving from Communist Party member to new-age vegan.
Resetting the clock
Part of the reason the Western Balkan leaders stayed in power so long was because the collapse of Yugoslavia reset the clock on the presidency.
Many states – including those in the new democracies of Emerging Europe – have two-term limits on the presidency precisely to stop presidents becoming entrenched in the position.
However, clearly it is not impossible to get around this, with leaders switching from presidency to prime minister, or deliberately tinkering with the constitution to reset the clock. This has become something of an art form in the eastern part of the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has employed both those tactics since coming to the presidency in 2000, and has given himself room to stay in power till at least 2030.
In the 2020 referendum, 78% of Russians voted in favour of changes to Russia’s constitution. The main amendment was granting Putin permission to run for another two six-year presidential terms. With the next presidential election now a little more than a year away, the war in Ukraine does not appear to have dented Putin’s popularity. Most recent polls showed that Putin's rating is trending at close to 80%, despite mass mobilisation, harsh political repressions and economic damage from international sanctions.
Similar tactics were employed by Central Asian leaders such as Rahmon, who extended his powers through constitutional referenda in 1999 and 2003, and Nazarbayev, who amended the constitution in 2011 to allow him to remain as president indefinitely.
Leaving the presidency
Kyrgyzstan stands out among the former Soviet republics for experiencing three revolutions in 2005, 2010 and 2020, resulting in the overthrow of ruling elites. The first of these, the 2005 Tulip Revolution, ousted former scientist Askar Akayev, who had led the country since 1990. Initially praised for his support of political and economic liberalisation – the country was once dubbed the ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’ – Akayev switched to an increasingly repressive approach and was ultimately seen as just another Central Asian dictator.
Akayev’s fate was naturally watched with anxiety in the other Central Asian capitals, at that time all ruled by leaders in power since the late 80s or early 90s. Despite some outbreaks of mass violence, all brutally suppressed, there have been no Central Asian revolutions outside Kyrgyzstan. Yet the question of what happens to an authoritarian leader once he (they are all he’s) leaves office remains a vexed one.
Both Karimov and Saparmurat Niyazov, the first post-communist leaders of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan respectively, stayed in power until they died.
In Kazakhstan, the ageing Nazarbayev initiated a slow transition of power and eventually resigned as president in 2019, retaining significant influence but gradually handing over leadership to his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Yet there was no peaceful retirement for Nazarbayev. Deadly riots erupted in January 2022. Tokayev moved to shore up his own position at the expense of his predecessor; Nazarbayev was removed as head of the security council and a constitutional amendment, approved later that year by referendum, stripped him of his status as leader of the nation.
Lukashenko, meanwhile, has been working on contingency plans should he no longer be able to rule Belarus. While opposition leaders hope for new elections and regime change in the event of Lukashenko's death, he has strengthened his control over the country in recent years. Lukashenko issued a decree granting the Security Council, headed by his ally Alexander Volfovich, power over the country if he is incapacitated, bypassing the prime minister as outlined in the constitution.
There is another option for Eurasian leaders. The first dynastic succession in the post-socialist space happened back in 2003, when Heydar Aliyev handed over the presidency to his son Ilham in Azerbaijan in 2003. (There was a brief interlude when long-serving prime minister Arthur Rasizade served as interim president until an election to appoint Ilham was organised.)
Heydar was the leader of the Azeri SSR from 1969-1982, when he was promoted to first deputy premier of the Soviet Union. He returned to Azerbaijan after independence, leading the new republic from 1993 to 2003, when ill health forced his resignation after a total of 23 years in power before and after independence. Ilham Aliyev took over the presidency later the same year, and continued in the same authoritarian vein, buoyed by the country’s immense oil and gas wealth. (Incidentally Rasizade, while having a much lower profile than the Aliyevs, became one of the region’s longest serving leaders in his own right, holding the prime minister position for 22 years.)
Nearly two decades later, Turkmenistan’s outgoing president Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov handed over the reins to his son Serdar. After a rapid climb through the ranks, the relatively obscure Serdar Berdimukhamedov secured a predictable victory with 72.97% of the vote in the 2022 election. Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov continues to exert influence behind the scenes, though, and was recently appointed chairman of the powerful People's Council, while Serdar bestowed his father with the title of "national leader of the Turkmen people."
This could, in fact, have been Turkmenistan’s second dynastic succession, as there has long been speculation among the Turkmen exile community that Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov could have been the illegitimate son of the late Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were seen as two more countries with the potential for a dynastic succession, even though both countries’ first presidents had only daughters, not sons. However, despite the prominence of Nazarbayev’s oldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, power in the country was handed over to Tokayev and Nazarbayeva was removed from her position as parliament speaker. Karimov’s eldest daughter Gulnara Karimova was also seen as a potential successor to her father but decades of decades of plundering the economy (plus dabbling in fashion design and pop stardom on the side) eventually caught up with her. She was sent to prison in 2019, three years after the quietly competent Mirziyoyev took the presidency.
Now, with Rahmon’s health, like Lukashenko’s, reportedly failing, he too is understood to be grooming his son as a successor.
Last September, various posts on social media alleged that Rahmon had experienced a stroke. 18 months earlier, when Rahmon was absent from public view for several weeks, rumours emerged suggesting that he was facing health challenges. As reported by bne IntelliNews columnist Bruce Pannier, these incidents have sparked concerns and raised questions about Rahmon's well-being and his ability to fulfil his presidential responsibilities.
However, the long-anticipated transfer of power from Rahmon to his eldest son Rustam Emomali seems to be facing delays, potentially influenced by external events over the tumultuous last few years.
While some of the individual leaders from the region like Rahmon and Lukashenko are now approaching the ends of their long periods in power, this is by no means the end of the era of long-lived leaders. Events such as the constitutional changes in Russia and the re-election of Erdogan show conditions are still very much in place for leaders from the region to hold onto their positions for decades. In the eastern part of the post-socialist region, nothing has changed.