A recent political shake-up in Kazakhstan appears to strengthen President Nursultan Nazarbayev's position, enhancing his administration's ability to accelerate economic development plans.
Nazarbayev reshuffled his cabinet after accepting former premier Danial Akhmetov's resignation on January 8. Nazarbayev appointed Karim Masimov, a 41-year-old technocrat, to replace Akhmetov a move approved by parliament on January 10. In addition, the president on January 11 announced a change in the Senate leadership, naming the former foreign minister, Kasymzhomart Tokayev, as the new chairman of legislature's upper chamber, replacing Nurtay Abikayev, who will now serve as Kazakhstan's ambassador to Russia.
Nazarbayev appointed Marat Tazhin as the country's new foreign minister, and named Viktor Khrapunov, formerly the governor of the East Kazakhstan region, as minister for emergency situations. In addition, former economy minister Aslan Musin has become deputy premier and Galym Orazbekov a former deputy minister with experience in the defense and oil businesses has become trade and industry minister, while Zhanseit Tuymebayev the former ambassador to Russia - becomes minister of education and science. The president also named a former close aide, Yerbol Orynbayev, as the prime minister's chief-of-staff.
The new prime minister, Masimov, could push Kazakhstan in a slightly different trade direction placing greater emphasis on China. He has an extensive background in foreign trade, and is said to be a fluent Chinese speaker. He can also speak English, Russian and Arabic. His official biography states that he studied at Wuhan University in China, and worked as an official Kazakhstani trade representative in both Hong Kong and Urumchi. From 2003-2005, he served as an aide to Nazarbayev. He was a deputy prime minister prior to his appointment to the top post.
Tazhin, the new foreign minister, quickly took steps to dampen speculation about any radical foreign policy departures, insisting that Kazakhstan would continue "to pursue a multi-vector policy governed by the economic and political interests of our country," the Interfax news agency reported.
Although the timing of the reshuffle took some observers by surprise, the fall of Akhmetov's government had been long predicted. Kazakhstani media outlets began speculating about Akhmetov's fate following Nazarbayev's reelection in late 2005. The speculation subsided briefly before reviving last autumn.
Akhmetov was never a particularly popular or charismatic premier, but in Kazakhstan what counts in a prime minister is not charm, but loyalty. And Akhmetov had plenty of that. As a staunch Nazarbayev supporter, it was Akhmetov who was sent to take over as governor of Pavlodar Region when governor-turned-opposition leader Galymzhan Zhakiyanov was arrested in 2001. Akhmetov returned to head the government in 2003, becoming the fourth prime minister in independent Kazakhstan.
Masimov is another Nazarbayev loyalist who will be able to woo foreign investors and diplomats alike; the new government may also be seen as an attempt to give fresh life to Kazakhstan's 2009 OSCE chairmanship bid.
Addressing parliament on January 10, Nazarbayev outlined his priorities for the new government: to pursue his pet project of making Kazakhstan one of the world's 50 most competitive countries, continue administrative reform, improve state and budget planning, develop the regions, boost the pension system, continue the focus on macroeconomic policy, train a competitive work force, improve infrastructure, bring the best of corporate management into the running of the state and diversify the economy. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The last government was tainted by scandals over the deaths of opposition leaders Zamanbek Nurkadilov and Altynbek Sarsenbayev. The accuracy of the official verdict of suicide for Nurkadilov's 2005 death was openly questioned, while the trial and investigation into the 2006 murder of Sarsenbayev were held to be flawed. However, Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov, who came under heavy criticism over that case, kept his post in the new government. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A new government will help distance authorities from the scandals that unsettled Kazakhstan's political landscape. Changes in the Senate leadership more strongly signal Nazarbayev's desire to put the Sarsenbayev murder in the past. The announcement on January 11 that Senate Chairman Abikayev would become the new envoy to Russia upstaged Akhmetov's resignation. During the Sarsenbayev trial, Abikayev was implicated in the murder plot by the man subsequently convicted of the killing, who alleged that Abikayev had planned to stage a coup. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
With the Senate speaker constitutionally first in line to succeed the president in the event of the chief executive's death or incapacity, the post is a key one. The new Senate leader, Tokayev, is a Nazarbayev loyalist who is also seen as a significant player in his own right, and who is said to lead one of the most influential interest groups within the governing establishment.
Local political observers believe Tokayev - a former premier often tipped as a leading presidential possibility is the biggest winner in the reshuffle. Another group deemed to have gained is that of Timur Kulibayev, the president's second son-in-law, as Masimov is rumored to be his associate.
What remains unclear is the effect of the reshuffle on the president's eldest daughter and son-in-law, Dariga Nazarbayeva and Rakhat Aliyev. With Nazarbayev engaged in constant maneuverings to balance the interests of the rival clans, observers will be closely watching for further moves.
The change of government should be viewed as part of wider intrigues. Nazarbayev was not necessarily dissatisfied with the Akhmetov cabinet's performance. It was perhaps more a move driven by the needs of the moment: the president wants to shore up the executive in much the same manner that he strengthened the legislative branch by vastly expanding the presidential party -- as he enters a key phase of what is expected to be his last term in office.
Nazarbayev aims to ensure that when the presidential succession does occur, it takes place in an orderly manner, and follows the course he desires. Indeed, even while they continue to maneuver around the president, all the interest groups are keen to promote a stable transfer of power. The fall of the government and the change of senate leadership should be viewed in the context of maneuverings to secure the post-Nazarbayev era.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.