Kazak Premier Under Threat

The future of Kazakstan's beleaguered premier Kasymjomart Tokaev is looking increasingly uncertain.

Kazak Premier Under Threat

The future of Kazakstan's beleaguered premier Kasymjomart Tokaev is looking increasingly uncertain.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

President Nursultan Nazarbaev appears set to dismiss his prime minister Kasymjomart Tokaev in an effort to end the increasingly bitter feuding between rival government factions.


The battle for political influence has been brewing for some time, with the competing groups actively using the mass media to disseminate compromising material on their opponents.


Although unconnected with the various factions, Tokaev has failed to use his neutrality to stabilise the feuding administration. As a result, ministers and some key industrialist have turned against him, prompting press speculation over his future.


Ironically, Nazarbaev appointed Tokaev a year ago to try to end the political in-fighting between the financial-industrial groups which is threatening to undermine the president.


The previous premier, Nurlan Balgymbaev, only seemed to exacerbate the political friction. The former head of the national petroleum company, he was seen as serving the interests of the powerful oil lobby.


This did not go down well with another dominant interest group, Kazakstan's young technocrats, skilled professionals who've enjoyed a meteoric rise in the post-communist era.


Disagreements and rows between Balgymbaev and the so-called "Young Turks" frustrated Nazarbaev who had in the past been able to maintain some degree of equilibrium between the competing government factions.


"With the arrival of Balgymbaev, that balance was destroyed, which came as no surprise as the former prime minister represented the interests of one of the elites, " said political analyst Nurlan Taibekov.


The bickering was worsening relations with foreign investors who frequently complained to Nazarbaev that they found it hard to do business with a government in a constant state of turmoil.


The need to find a suitable replacement for Balgymbaev became all the more pressing in the autumn of 1999 following rumours that Nazarbaev's rival sons-in-law, Timur Kulibaev and Rakhat Aliev, were lobbying hard for their own men to be appointed to the post.


"If that had happened then the balance of forces within the administration would have been seriously jeopardised - and this would not have suited Nazarbaev," said political correspondent Kairat Mamkulov.


So it came as no surprise when the president appointed Tokaev prime minister. Since he was unconnected to any of the battling interest groups, it was hoped the new premier would be able to introduce some degree of political stability.


But his neutrality counted for little as the feuding not only continued but seemed to escalate. In October, it spilled out into the open when high-ranking government officials traded accusations of corruption and incompetence.


Some experts believe the squabbling signalled an attempt by Rakhat Aliev to take over the country's main law enforcement agencies and security bodies, which would strengthen his apparent bid to succeed Nazarbaev.


At the same time, the Kazak mass media, owned by the various business groups, sought to undermine Tokaev, spelling out his weaknesses at every opportunity and speculating that he was about to resign.


In Kazakstan, such rumours are invariably employed by the authorities to prepare the public for political changes. And although Nazarbaev denied the reports, the damage had been done, with the prime minister's position looking increasingly untenable.


Most analysts believe that Tokaev will probably be forced to resign by the end of the year. Some suggest that the opposition to him within government is now so strong that Nazarbaev probably won't even need to find an excuse to get rid of him.


Not that there's a shortage of possible pretexts.


Kazakstan, a major petroleum producer, has this year been profiting from the high world oil price. Revenue has flooded into the treasury, helping to cut the budget deficit. This has clearly pleased Nazarbaev, but if the oil price were to drop its unlikely that Tokaev would be able to deal with the ensuing financial and social crisis. Should the economy nosedive, there would inevitably be calls for the premier's resignation.


Alternatively, Tokaev may be forced out if relations with international investors deteriorate. The premier has recently been highly critical of foreign companies, particularly those operating in the oil sector, claiming that contracts they signed with the preceding government provided them with far too many benefits and privileges.


Some analysts suggest that his remarks could not have been made without the approval of the president. They believe it may be part of strategy to clear the way for a return to government of members of the business elite. Nazarbaev is apparently intending to use them to curb the influence of foreign capital in the economy, particularly the oil and gas sector.


But if the strategy backfires and investors begin losing interest in Kazakstan, Nazarbaev could absolve himself of any responsibility by sacking Tokaev.


Dosym Satpaev is IWPR Project Editor in Almaty


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