Akhmetzhan Yessimov, an influential member of the power elite in Kazakhstan, left his post as chairman of Samruk-Kazyna, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, in what could mark a watershed moment for both the fund and several of its affiliate companies.
A scanned copy of the draft decree that sanctioned the change at the top of Samruk-Kazyna was leaked to social media on March 21, just as the Nowruz holiday season kicked off. Unconfirmed for a week, the news tickled the curiosity of many observers.
Finally, on March 29, the doubts were dismissed as Askar Mamin, the country’s prime minister, held a closed conference call introducing Almasadam Satkaliyev, formerly managing director at Samruk-Kazyna’s Asset Management Department, as Yessimov’s replacement.
As noted in the press release, Mamin acknowledged Yessimov’s role in the modernization of the fund.
Both former President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, were quoted as saying that they wish “Samruk-Kazyna Foundation to create favorable conditions for further sustainable development of the national economy through the development of the fuel and energy sector, infrastructure, transport and logistics and industrial potential of the country, attraction of investments, and support of domestic producers.”
At 70, Yessimov might have been past his time to fulfill the task at hand. While his sacking was cordial, rather than hostile, it is not yet clear what he will do next. In the traditional formulas of Kazakhstan’s government reshuffling, the decrees often mention that the outgoing bureaucrat would be “reassigned to another position.” This was not the case this time.
“I leave this post with the feeling of having accomplished my goals,” Yessimov said upon his resignation.
During Yessimov’s tenure, Samruk-Kazyna embarked in what analysts called a “reverse privatization” with the buyback of upstream oil producer KMG EP’s shares from the London Stock Exchange and the effective nationalization of telecom companies Kcell and Tele2. The timid sale of Kazatomprom shares in the newly minted Astana International Financial Center in the capital city of Nur-Sultan was not enough to convince observers of a genuine push for privatization.
At the end of 2020, a parliamentary report lamented that Samruk-Kazyna’s performance had worsened in 2018, despite growing oil prices. One financial analyst who published a detailed report on one of the holding’s affiliated companies, was taken to court for libel.
The $63 billion fund was also under threat by a series of lawsuits concerning both the government of Kazakhstan and Samruk-Kazyna’s affiliated companies. The delay in paying an arbitral award to a group headed by a Moldovan businessman led to the freezing of billions of dollars across several jurisdictions.
Criticisms on the management of Samruk-Kazyna also reached Yessimov’s family connections. Samruk-Kazyna held around $350 million in deposit accounts at ATF Bank, which was owned by Yessimov’s former son-in-law Galymzhan Yessenov. The decision to hold cash at ATF contradicted the policy of the fund, which only allows collaborations with A-rated banks, whereas ATF was rated B- at the time. Yessenov sold ATF Bank in November 2020 to another bank, linked to Nazarbayev.
Twice minister of agriculture, ex-mayor of Almaty, and briefly head of the presidential administration, Yessimov had a stellar career in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. He also served as ambassador to Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg in 1998-2001 and was called to “clean up the house” at the Astana EXPO committee, after corruption scandals marred its reputation.
Yessimov has now been replaced by Satkaliyev, who rose to prominence in the mid-1990s as part of the ravenous elite that took over the management of the country’s oil and gas state companies. Since the mid-2000s, Satkaliyev served as a top manager at Samruk-Kazyna, which was created by the merger of a state asset manager and the sovereign wealth fund in 2008.
Satkaliyev’s era could coincide with long-awaited changes in the management of state assets.
At Samruk-Kazyna’s energy subsidiary Kazmunaigas, important changes involving the structure of the company could have contributed to the decision to swap the head of the holding. KazTransGas, the country’s gas infrastructure monopolist and once a subsidiary of Kazmunaigas, was spun off into a separate entity – still under the Samruk-Kazyna umbrella – earlier in March.
Possibly unrelated to the political dynamics that affected Samruk-Kazyna, another surprising resignation rocked one of the holding’s main companies. Sauat Mynbayev is said to have left the top job at Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, the country’s railway company and largest employer, for health reasons in the evening of March 29, after only two-and-a-half years at the helm.
While a renewal in the country’s elite is undoubtedly going on, the public agreement between the ex-president and his successor in assigning new appointees highlights that the “Nazarbayev Era” carries on.