When Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev fired the government, dismissed and then arrested the head of the security service, and replaced his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev in the position of head of the National Security Council, observers expected a cataclysmic change in the personnel of the country’s cabinet would follow. They were disappointed.
After the bloodiest days in the history of independent Kazakhstan, in the aftermath of a revolt that Tokayev alternatively calls an “attempted coup” or a “terrorist attack,” the main personnel of the government appears almost unchanged.
On January 11, after a long speech to the parliament, Tokayev proposed former Deputy Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov for the top government job. Members of the parliament and regional governors all shared words of support, rubber-stamping the decision. Hours later, the full ministerial team was formed.
Out of 18 ministers, the new government featured 11 veterans that had previously served under former Prime Minister Askar Mamin.
Importantly, among those who kept their posts, Tokayev retained Mukhtar Tleuberdi, minister of foreign affairs, and Yerlan Turgumbayev, minister of internal affairs. Roman Sklyar and Bakhyt Sultanov, former ministers, were promoted to deputy prime minister positions.
Turgumbayev’s confirmation was not fully expected, due to his ministry’s inability to quell the protest and the subsequent violence, which, according to Tokayev, “almost led us to lose control of Almaty,” the country’s largest city and the main theater of the violence.
Interestingly, the previous government, headed by Mamin, was nominated by Nazarbayev in February 2019, just weeks before his resignation after ruling the country for three decades. Even at that time, the Mamin cabinet featured many of the same ministers from the previous government.
Mamin, sacked on January 5 in connection with the eruption of violence in Almaty, reportedly shared the same secondary school classroom with Karim Massimov, the head of the security service, who was also sacked on the same day.
In his career, Massimov, a long-time ally of Nazarbayev, twice occupied the post of prime minister and was also in charge of the presidential administration for a short stint. In his role as head of the KNB, the state security service, since September 2016, he had perhaps gained an overwhelming influence on the security apparatus, which made him the most prominent scapegoat for the violent unrest in the country. On January 8, it was announced that Massimov had been arrested on treason charges.
It is safe to assume that in February 2019, Nazarbayev appointed a strong government that would guarantee continuity once he stepped down. In March 2019, Tokayev, also long-time ally of Nazarbayev, inherited both the presidential post and the cabinet of ministers freshly appointed by “01,” a popular moniker for Nazarbayev.
In an effort to “clean house” of the members of the elite closest to Nazarbayev, Tokayev got rid of Massimov and Mamin, as well as three key ministers: Beibit Atamkulov, Magzum Mirzagaliyev, and Marat Beketayev. Atamkulov is said to be one of the closest allies to Mamin and Nazarbayev; Mirzagaliyev was caught in the eye of the storm which had gathered over fuel prices in the west of the country and generated the recent nationwide protests; and Beketayev was considered an antagonistic figure within the cabinet.
The only member of the new cabinet that did not previously hold a ministerial post is Kanat Musin, formerly at the Supreme Court and now justice minister. He will inherit the “hot potato” of the thorny case against a Moldovan investor, which has lasted over a decade and has tarnished the country’s business climate record.
Formerly at Samruk-Kazyna, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, Bolat Akchulakov was appointed energy minister. He previously headed the country’s key industrial association KazEnergy and is a close associate to Timur Kulibayev, one of the country’s wealthiest men and Nazarbayev’s son-in-law. This seems to be a sign that members of the Nazarbayev family may largely retain their power positions in the country going forward.
Interestingly, another close member of the Nazarbayev circle, Dauren Abayev, formerly minister of information under Tokayev and Nazarbayev’s press secretary, was named minister of culture and sport. It is not yet clear whether this is a sidelining, a demotion, or something else.
On January 11, as the city of Almaty was being cleaned up, the city’s government moved to the old site that hosted the Soviet Communist Party in what is known as the “Old Square.” In Republic Square, the akimat, the seat of the city’s government, was severely burned on January 5 and is under reconstruction. Despite moving location and, most importantly, the mismanagement of the urban protests, Almaty Mayor Bakhytzhan Sagintayev retained his post.
After having reflected on the “illusion” that Tokayev represented in post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan, observers are now rushing to highlight how the new government could tread a different path. The lineup, however, seems to forebode a familiar refrain, rather than a surprise.