Crossroads Asia

Steppe Shuffles: Kazakhstan’s Government Rearranged

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Crossroads Asia

Steppe Shuffles: Kazakhstan’s Government Rearranged

Same faces in slightly different places: decoding Astana’s new government.

Steppe Shuffles: Kazakhstan’s Government Rearranged
Credit: ninara / Flickr

Following the sudden reassignment of Karim Massimov from the prime minister’s seat to head of the chairman of the Committee for National Security (KNB)–viewed by regional analysts as a demotion of sorts–Astana has rearranged a wider swath of the government. The new government features mostly familiar faces in the same places, but a new ministry and still not much clarity on the regional hot topic: succession.

Massimov’s reassignment triggered the reformation of the government, which comprises of mostly the same old faces. Interfax reported that long-time Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov would keep his spot (he served from 1999 to 2002, then served as ambassador to the U.K. and then the United States before returning to head the Foreign Ministry again), as would Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov, and the previous ministers for education and science, health and social development, investment and development, and culture and sport.

Despite Kazakhstan’s economic malaise, thanks to oil and gas bottoming out last year and downwind effects of sanctions on Russia, the ministers of finance, national economy, and energy–Bakhyt Sultanov, Kuandyk Bishimbayev, and Kanat Bozumbayev, respectively–all were reappointed. Two had been appointed in shuffles earlier this year. The 36-year old Bishimbayev was placed in charge of the Ministry of National Economy in May during the post-protest reshuffle. Bozumbayev had been appointed to the energy ministry in March of this year. Sultanov has headed the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Budget Planning since November 2013.

Dauren Abayev, who was appointed to head the brand new Ministry of Information and Communication in May of this year, retained his post as well. The new ministry was established in response to the springtime Land Code protests, and widely panned by regional analysts as a “Ministry of Truth.”

This recent wave of shuffles included the establishment and rejiggering of two ministries. The Ministry of Civil Service Affairs had “Countering Corruption” added to its purview, with Kairat Kozhamzharov–who headed the former National Bureau for Countering Corruption–made chairman. The establishment of a new Ministry for Religious Affairs and Civil Society–with Nurlan Yermekbayev at its head–points directly at the country’s worries regarding religious extremism and the link–a tenuous one external analysts say–between civil society and extremism. Notably, Yermekbayev was previously a presidential aide and National Security Council secretary. The tethering of religious and civil society affairs to those with deep experience and connections to the security services is no accident.

Beyond Massimov, there were a few other shifts. Saken Zhasuzakov, who had been a deputy defense minister and chief of the general staff of the armed forces, was promoted to defense minister and the previous minister, Imangali Tasmagambetov, appointed a deputy prime minister. The deputy head of the Presidential Administration, Marat Bakytzhanov, was dismissed and made justice minister. The previous justice minister, Berik Imashev, was appointed to the Central Election Commission.

The former first deputy prime minister, Bakytzhan Sagintayev, was appointed prime minister.

One of the three deputy prime ministers, President Nursultan Nazarvayev’s daughter Dariga, was reassigned to the Senate as a deputy–a move succession-watchers will eye with interest. The chairman of the Senate is technically next in line for the presidency, should the president die in office. The chairmanship is voted by the Senate but nominated by the president. In effect, the president appoints the Senate chairman.

With the recent death of the region’s oldest leader–78-year old Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan–76-year-old Nazarbayev may feel inclined to finally set succession. Uzbekistan looks set to eschew constitutional protocol in the vein of Turkmenistan’s 2007 governmental transition. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, prime minister of Uzbekistan since 2003, was appointed acting president after the chairman of the Senate Nigmatilla Yuldashev declined the post. Uzbekistan will hold an election in December, but the only real mystery is how large Mirziyoyev’s victory margin will be.

A regional analyst, who preferred to remain anonymous, noted the timing of the recent reshuffle in comments to The Diplomat. “These appointments were made after [the] president’s visit to Uzbekistan and probably succession in Uzbekistan had some impact,” the analyst said.

The subtle shifts–for there are hardly any new faces in the new government–point to both thoughts of succession and hopes for tighter cooperation between the new religious ministry and the country’s’ security apparatuses. “Massimov is very close to the president, so his control of the security agency is also important for Nursultan Nazarbayev,” the analyst said. Another appointment worth noting is that of Imashev to the Election Commission. Imashev is the father of the president’s nephew’s wife, the analyst said. “Having someone from closest friends of the family to control [the] Elections Committee is important.”

On Yermekbayev, the analyst noted that his appointment, “shows that security agencies and new ministry will closely coordinate their efforts” to implement new laws on fighting terrorism and laws regarding NGOs. “These two spheres” — salafism/jihadism and externally financed NGOs — will be “be monitored closely.”

The cliche “shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic” comes to mind here at first glimpse. Few new faces means few new ideas, but that isn’t the point. Nazarbayev–now the region’s eldest statesman–is perhaps contemplating his own demise and setting the stage for a clean and constitutional–if pre-arranged–succession. It will be worth watching not only the positioning of Dariga with succession in mind, but also the new religious ministry and its cooperation with the security services, as this seems to be how Astana plans on tackling the specter of terrorism and the nuisance of civil society.