As Kazakhstan's capital gears up for lavish 10th anniversary festivities, all eyes are on Astana's new mayor, Imangali Tasmagambetov. A charismatic politician often mentioned as a possible successor to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Tasmagambetov has found himself in the media spotlight, albeit perhaps not in the way he would have wished.
The unwelcome press attention began in late May, when stories surfaced in the British press that Tasmagambetov's son-in-law, Kenes Rakishev, had purchased property from a member of the British royal family at 3 million pounds above the asking price. The Sunday Times reported that Rakishev had bought Sunninghill Park for 15 million pounds from Prince Andrew, Britain's international trade envoy and also honorary patron -- along with Nazarbayev -- of the British-Kazakh Society. The report pointed to Prince Andrew's links with Kazakhstan and questioned why the property had been sold above the asking price. It did not cite the source of the information that Rakishev was the buyer.
After Kazakhstan's media raised questions about the transaction, Tasmagambetov took time out from preparing for Astana's extravagant July 6 anniversary celebration to deny the reports. "This publication is a provocative insinuation. None of the members of my family have any relation to this deal," he said in a May 27 statement. Rakishev -- who could not be reached by EurasiaNet for comment -- is married to Tasmagambetov's daughter and is chairman of the management board of the Almaty-based Sat&Co company, which has interests in engineering, petrochemicals and infrastructure projects.
Some observers are looking beyond the disputed facts of the purchase, and are focusing on the timing of the story. Given that the sale reportedly took place last year, questions have been raised about how the media got hold of the story, with some seeing the hand of Tasmagambetov's rivals behind it. "A smear campaign is not unheard of in politics here," said Ustina Markus, associate professor at the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research. "Probably the most obvious thing is that it would be a political rival, or just someone who's his sworn enemy."
Tasmagambetov's appointment in April as Astana mayor could have prompted his political enemies to undertake efforts to discredit him, Rico Isaacs, a political scientist from Oxford Brookes University who specializes in Kazakhstan, told EurasiaNet. "Tasmagambetov has rivals and they would have been disappointed he was appointed mayor of Astana, which -- while some argued it was a sideways move -- was in reality a good promotion."
Like any high-profile politician, the 51-year-old Tasmagambetov -- whose resume includes many of Kazakhstan's top jobs -- has his fair share of rivals. He was prime minister from 2002-2003 and later head of the presidential administration. In 2004, he became mayor of Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial center, where he enjoys relative popularity for tackling some of the city's pressing infrastructure problems in his three-and-a-half-year tenure. His reputation was blighted by violent protests in summer 2006 when mainly poor settlers from Kazakhstan's provinces were removed from land that authorities asserted had been occupied illegally. The removals left many people homeless. Tasmagambetov's characterization of them as "social outsiders" did not win him popularity points among the rural poor. Nevertheless, he has a reputation as a no-nonsense manager who can get quick results.
It is this skill that may have motivated Nazarbayev to draft him in to oversee Astana's anniversary celebrations, some observers believe. Others suggest the move could reflect Nazarbayev's desire to keep Tasmagambetov beside him to ensure that his political star does not rise too far too fast.
Markus takes doubts that Nazarbayev was striving to curtail Tasmagambetov's power. "Astana's the capital -- it's hardly a demotion," she said of his appointment. "If anything it could be an indicator that Nazarbayev wants him near where the decisions are taking place."
Kazakhstan's political establishment has long been obsessed with the question of who will succeed Nazarbayev. As Isaacs points out, Tasmagambetov is seen as a political survivor and a strong potential candidate when the time comes. He has the support of some sections of the elite, is not closely aligned to any of the competing financial-industrial groups, and has maintained a degree of independence while staking out a position loyal to the president. He once described himself as "Nazarbayev's product."
One thing that could work against him is his high public profile, suggested Maria Disenova, an analyst at the Institute for Economic Strategies-Central Asia. "Tasmagambetov is too much of a public figure to succeed Nazarbayev," she told EurasiaNet. The next president "will be someone more in the shadows, but more convenient for all elites, someone whose name is known but not enough to be marred by scandals."
Isaacs agrees that ultimately the establishment will have to find a compromise figure: "In a post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan the informal elite influence groups which control and have access to the political and economic resources of the country will need to find a figure who is more neutral [than Tasmagambetov] and agreeable to all."
Despite all the maneuvering, Kazakhstan may not get a new president any time soon. Last year the constitution was amended, exempting Nazarbayev personally from term limits and leaving him free to stand for re-election. That move was seen as his bid to put an end to maneuvering among the various factions operating in government. Analysts say Nazarbayev would be almost certain to win any future poll with a landslide. "As long as he stands for elections he will win," says Disenova.
Nazarbayev has never confirmed whether he intends to use his privilege to stand for president indefinitely, but on June 6, at a press briefing after an investors' forum in Astana, he gave the firmest hint yet that he may well seek the presidency again in 2012, at the age of 72. "I'm not planning on going anywhere for the moment, and intend to work for as long as my health permits, and for as long Kazakhstan and its people need me," Nazarbayev said. Tasmagambetov is likely to stick by his side in the meantime, seeking to maintain his balance on the political tightrope.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.