Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazak President Recycles Prime Minister

Ex-premier Karim Masimov seen as loyal to the president, and as someone who can help refocus on China amid Russia worries.
  • Kazakstan‘s new prime minister Karim Masimov is no stranger to the job. (Photo: Vladimir Tretyakov)
    Kazakstan‘s new prime minister Karim Masimov is no stranger to the job. (Photo: Vladimir Tretyakov)

Analysts say the appointment of a China expert as prime minister of Kazakstan may indicate that President Nursultan Nazarbaev is looking to counterbalance his country’s reliance on Russia.

Karim Masimov, who previously served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012, returned to the post on April 2 after a period as head of the presidential administration. That role was filled by the speaker of the Majilis (parliament’s lower house) Nurlan Nigmatulin. In turn, Nigmatulin was replaced by deputy speaker Kabibulla Jakupov, whose post was taken by the president’s eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbaeva.

The outgoing prime minister, Serik Ahmetov, was appointed defence minister instead.

During his tenure, Ahmetov suffered a number of reverses – an unpopular pension reform that had to be shelved last year, a shock currency devaluation in February, and a rebuke from the president over its failure to keep foreign investment levels in line with the Kazakstan-2050 strategy, which aims to lift the country into the world’s top 30 developed nations.

But analysts say Ahmetov’s removal has less to do with any failure to deliver on reforms and development than with Nazarbaev’s strategy of building stronger links with China, which he plans to visit next month.

Securing investment for the Kazakstan-2050 programme from a partner other than Russia could help counter local fears about economic and political domination by Moscow. Kazakstan, with Russia and Belarus, is a member of the Customs Union bloc and is committed to joining the Eurasian Economic Union, that would bring even greater economic integration.

While still committed to the Eurasian Economic Union, Nazarbaev has repeatedly opposed Moscow’s suggestion that the grouping should go beyond shared economic policies and include supranational political structures including a parliament that would devise common approaches in areas such as foreign policy, security and defence.

Kazakstan’s concerns have been heightened by Moscow’s recent actions against Ukraine, not least the annexation of Crimea. (See Appeal of Russian Embrace Fades in Kazakstan.)

The government was particularly alarmed when Russian nationalist politicians made public statements drawing parallels between eastern Ukraine and northern regions of Kazakstan that are home to a substantial Slavic minority.

Despite its longstanding close ties with Moscow, Kazakstan did not support it on March 27 when the United Nations General Assembly voted through a resolution deeming the Crimean referendum illegal. Kazakstan abstained, and the only two former Soviet states that joined Moscow in opposing the resolution were Belarus and Armenia, which has hopes of joining the Customs Union.

KAZAKSTAN LOOKS EAST

Facing international sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, Russia is trying to shore up support among its former Soviet neighbours and is pushing for the Eurasian Economic Union agreement to be signed at the beginning of summer.

Kazakstan, however, wants to ensure it does not embark on any arrangement that might endanger its sovereignty.

“The authorities are in the process of talking to China and hoping it will be able to provide the support that’s needed to safeguard against Kazakstan turning into a region of Russia,” Serik Belgibay, head of the RealPolitik foundation, told IWPR.

Belgibay said the authorities planned to use Chinese investment to develop northern Kazakstan and hence boost loyalty to central government there, by creating jobs and attracting ethnic Kazaks from other parts of the country.

“It’s been reported that Kazakstan is intending to engage China as [an investment] partner to develop modern agro-industrial enterprises in northern Kazakstan, where jobs will be filled by people from the southern regions and members of the Kazak minority living in China,” he said.

From Nazarbaev’s point of view, the 48-year-old Masimov has the right credentials to deliver on this objective. He is regarded as one of the president’s most trusted loyalists, as well as being a close associate of Timur Kulibaev, an influencial figure who is the husband of Nazarbaev’s second daughter Dinara.

Masimov is, crucially, also a China expert. He speaks the language and retains good connections from the time he spent studying in Beijing and heading up Kazak trading operations in Hong Kong.

He also represents a new, media-savvy generation of politicians in Kazakstan. He uses Twitter and was one of the first senior government officials to have his own website. Political analyst Aigul Omarova notes that even while he was in government, Masimov built up a media empire including online, radio and TV outlets that enabled him to polish his image and shape public opinion.

PRESIDENT ASSEMBLES CLOSEST ALLIES

Some analysts say the revival of Dariga Nazarbaeva’s fortunes after some years spent in the political wilderness may cast further light on her father’s plans for a transition of power should he decide to stand down in 2016. Already a member of parliament, she was made leader of the ruling Nur Otan party in the Majilis at the same time as becoming deputy speaker.

Commentators say a number of other appointments may be linked to the succession.

One political analyst who asked to remain anonymous noted the return of former foreign minister Kasymjomart Tokaev, who – after a period as a United Nations under-secretary general in Geneva – came back to Kazakstan last October to become speaker of the upper house, the Senate.

“Now Nazarbaev is gathering an old, tried-and-tested team around him, people he trusts not to betray him,” the expert said. “He’s decided it’s best to place old associates in key positions in government. He brought back Tokaev and now he’s making Masimov prime minister.”

Political analyst Dosym Satpaev said the latest changes were a reflection of the way politics traditionally worked in Kazakstan.

“These reshuffles can’t be viewed without looking at the background against which they are playing out – a constant power struggle within the ruling elite,” he said.

According to Satpaev, Masimov’s relatively swift comeback shows that the small pool of individuals who get rotated around various top posts has narrowed to a small circle of trusted Nazarbaev loyalists, further cementing a system in which power remains in the hands of very few people. As a result, not many new faces are emerging in high-level politics. Satpaev said there was a “human resource crisis” with a deficit of professionals with the management and administrative skills needed in public office.

Economist Pyotr Svoik expressed similar doubts about the prospects of a new government staffed by re-appointed officials.

“There’s an obvious absence of new faces,” he said. “In point of fact, these are the same bureaucrats who sat in the first Masimov cabinet back in 2007, and are being rolled over from one ministry to the other.”

Opposition politician Amirjan Kosanov noted that this closed elite grouping served an even narrower interest – the will of one manwho held all the real power.

“That makes the entire political system very fragile,” he added.

Dauren Altynov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Kazakstan.