Political systems around the world inevitably end up shuffling high-ranking officials. The reasons are myriad; the effectiveness is variable. Analyzing such shuffles of the deck carries an air of reading tarot cards: It’s a matter of interpretation, reading into signals and constructing a convincing narrative. In Central Asia, where so much of the region’s politics are opaque and driven from the top down by strong leaders, shuffles are noted with regularity as especially telling.
But not all shuffles are the same, even in Central Asia, and this is worth keeping in mind.
“Shuffling of officials can be good or bad. Too much shuffling is always bad,” Jennifer Murtazashvili of the University of Pittsburgh told The Diplomat via email while discussing a recent wave of regional shuffles.
An associate professor and director of the International Development Program at Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, Murtazashvili noted that recent shuffles in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have different sources.
On February 11, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev shifted Defense Minister Abdusalom Azizov to the post of Chairman of the State Security Service, replacing him at defense with the former top commander of the Tashkent military district and head of the Tashkent police department, Bakhodir Kurbanov. Azizov replaced Ikhtiyor Abdullayev who had run the State Security Service (SSS; it’s the rebranded National Security Service, which had been known by its Russian acronym SNB or the Uzbek acronym MXX) since early 2018. After heavy critique of the service by the president in public, its longtime leader Rustam Inoyatov was removed and Abdullayev put in charge. Just a year later, Abdullayev is out.
In Kazakhstan, on February 12, long-serving Interior Minister Qalmukhanbet Qasymov was dismissed and replaced with his deputy, Erlan Turghumbaev. Qasymov was made a presidential aid and secretary of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Security Council. Qasymov has held the post of interior minister since 2011, making him the longest-serving minister in independent Kazakhstan’s history. Rather than a demotion, the shift keeps Qasymov close to Nazarbayev who is the Security Council’s head for life. The Security Council’s status, in turn, was changed last year from consultative to constitutional — giving it more heft.
What to make of these shuffles?
In the Uzbek case, the government says that Abdullayev resigned after two spinal surgeries. Three anonymous sources cited by RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik (summarized and explained in detail by Eurasianet here), however, claim that Abdullayev was fired and is the subject of a criminal investigation, with allegations swirling that the SSS was tapping Mirziyoyev’s phone among other things.
“In Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev has stated publicly that he is switching officials because he wants to ensure reforms are being implemented,” Murtazashvili said, speaking in general about shifts of officials. Murtazashvili said she doesn’t know why Abdullayev was replaced, though she has her suspicions.
“It is hard for some officials to keep up” with the breakneck pace of reforms under Mirziyoyev, Murtazashvili said, again speaking in general about the shuffling of officials. “On the other hand, you can clearly see officials in certain ministries stalling to move forward on reforms.”
One example that fits this description is the false-start to Uzbekistan’s visa liberalization in late 2016, early 2017. A huge announcement in December 2016 that no visas would be needed for citizens of more than 40 countries to enter Uzbekistan for a month was followed by a retraction a month later, with regional observers pointing to Rustam Inoyatov, who had led the SNB since 1995, as the reason. In early 2018, when Inoyatov was shuffled aside the visa reform efforts moved forward and have continued to do so.
“In some cases, officials may not implement reforms because they do not want them,” Murtazashvili said. “There is also fear among some because Mirziyoyev is asking for officials to change their ways in dramatic fashion and many are just not used to this and not sure how long this openness will last.” Hedging by officials uncertain about the future, in this way, can be said to contribute to the shuffling.
“Mirziyoyev has told us in his recent speeches about why he is changing up officials in Uzbekistan—because he sees hurdles facing implementation of his reforms,” Murtazashvili told The Diplomat.
In Kazakhstan, on the other hand, the recent shuffles are more difficult to assess. “Kazakhstan seems to be going through a period shift of appointees that may foretell a transition,” Murtazashvili said. “It is really hard for us to know the motivations in Kazakhstan.” There is consistent chatter about what Nazarbayev plans to do in the future — remain president or step aside when the next election comes up in 2020 (or earlier) — but little clarity. In an interview last year with The Diplomat, the Carnegie Endowment’s Paul Stronski put it perfectly: “The only person who knows what Nazarbayev will do is Nazarbayev himself.”
Importantly, shuffling — and the rate of shuffling — differs widely between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan, which has had more prime ministers than years of independence, the shuffling of officials is in large part a factor of its parliamentary political system (Kyrgyz call it their “Italian problem” Murtazashvili said, alluding to Italy’s similar habit). Frequent shuffling generates negative incentives, Murtazashvili said. “If ministers are always being shuffled (and their appointees at the sub-national level are being constantly being replaced)… it creates enormous incentives for appointees to take as much as they can because they don’t know if they will be in power tomorrow.” Shuffles in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, on the other hand, are the product of unchecked presidential power. In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Murtazashvili said, presidents “face few constraints on their authority — so changes usually come directly from the president and his administration.”
For that reason, perhaps, shuffles in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are watched more closely: if there’s a change it’s because the leader wanted it and while there are myriad reasons a leader may want a change, each shuffle is an additional data point from a system that often operates at a level far removed from public view.
“The bottom line is that shuffling is normal,” Murtazashvili told The Diplomat, “but if Mirziyoyev shuffles too much he creates expectations of instability and also creates incentives for officials to behave badly (unless they are routinely prosecuted).” In short: Mirziyoyev should seek a Goldilocks-like equilibrium in which officials are shuffled as needed, but not too much. It needs to be just right.
Turnover and shuffling is normal and a feature in every political system (just ask Australia about its prime ministers or the Trump administration about its turnover rates). It nevertheless remains a process worth watching closely, especially in Central Asia.