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Kazak 'Terminator' Becomes Premier

Government critics are concerned new premier may lead assault on liberties.
By Yuliana Zhikhor

Opposition activists say they fear last week's appointment of Danial Akhmetov as premier marks the start of a new government campaign to marginalise them further.


A trained civil engineer who was most recently the governor of the northern region of Pavlodar, Akhmetov, dubbed the Terminator, was elected on June 13 at a joint session of both houses of parliament, following the surprise resignation two days earlier of Imangali Tasmagambetov. He was presented as the choice of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and the vote for him was overwhelming.


He earned his nickname during his time as governor of Pavlodar region, a job he was given in November 2001 after Nazarbaev sacked the previous incumbent, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov. With Mukhtar Ablyazov, Zhakiyanov went on to set up an opposition party, Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK. Both men were jailed in 2002.


In Pavlodar, Akhmetov immediately set about firing many of his predecessor's team, especially those sympathetic to the DCK. While he was governor, most independent media outlets in the region were closed down. Zhakiyanov's wife Karlygash accused his administration of undermining her campaign when she ran in a by-election in December 2002. She lost.


Akhmetov's first remarks as prime minister were not encouraging. "It is necessary to build a constructive dialogue with our opposition," he said, but added, "There must be no dissidents in the country."


Opposition members believe Nazarbaev thinks Akhmetov is the right man for two difficult jobs - containing dissent at home and limiting the damage caused by the so-called "Kazakgate" scandal.


"Akhmetov has been appointed because he possesses two important qualities. He is absolutely loyal to the president, and in order to prove this loyalty, he has the capacity to act ruthlessly against any opponents of the leadership," said Pyotr Svoik, a leading DCK member.


The new premier's alleged involvement in making sure Zhakiyanov's wife failed to win a seat in parliament would also have been a plus for the authorities, given that local elections are scheduled for this autumn and a presidential election next year, Svoik said.


"They known that they won't be able to win without falsifying the results of these elections," said Svoik.


He added that Nazarbaev is surrounding himself with staunch supporters in case a US legal investigation into allegations that western oil firms made secret payments to senior Kazak officials produces more embarrassing revelations about the extent of government involvement in the scandal. A key figure in the case, US businessman James Giffen, was arrested in March and the signs are that a trial is imminent.


Outgoing prime minister Tasmagambetov resigned in protest at parliament's attempts to block his new draft legislation on land ownership. Many deputies oppose the legislation because they think it will open the way for rich businessmen to buy up farmland, and chipped away at it by adding amendments until an exasperated Tasmagambetov called their bluff by demanding a confidence vote on May 19. He duly won, but when he resigned he still accused some deputies of rigging votes against him.


Despite his acrimonious departure, Tasmagambetov has not fallen out of favour with the president. And analysts do not think the new government will alter course significantly. Most key ministers remain in place, and Akhmetov was careful to stress policy continuity in his opening remarks as prime minister. Parliament is scheduled to discuss the controversial land code again on June 27, and with Tasmagambetov out of the way President Nazarbaev may be in a better position to impose a compromise.


One important new face in the cabinet is economic reformer Oraz Jandosov, who made his name in the mid-1990s by slashing inflation as chairman of the national bank. Although more of a technocrat than a political player, he is a leader of the Ak Jol party, which is described as a moderate opposition party, but is not hostile to the president. He becomes head of the agency for regulating monopolies and competition, and gets ministerial status.


Political scientists Farkhad Kasenov sees Jandosov's appointment as a way of containing Akhmetov's political clout.


"A number of interesting appointments have been made in the government, which I think will provide a balance to the ambitions of the new prime minister," he said.


Two other new appointments are finance minister Erbolat Dosaev, previously deputy minister for energy and natural resources, and Adilbek Jaksybekov, the mayor of Astana, who becomes trade and industry minister.


Aside from his views on the opposition, Akhmetov's name may have come up because of his previous senior government experience as one of several deputy prime ministers in 1999-2000, and first deputy premier for the following year.


Nazarbaev recommended him to parliament as a "strong organiser who knows the practical sector of the economy well and has experience of working in the regions".


Few observers are predicting much change on economic policy, apart from some possible changes to the government's selection of which foreign companies to favour.


"The economic situation will continue the way it has been going," said parliamentary deputy Valentin Makalkin. "A change of prime minister does not affect the quantity of oil that is extracted. But it may well bring about a change in the companies that extract it."


Another deputy, Serikbai Alibaev, agrees, "Support for certain foreign companies working in Kazakstan will increase. The government will toughen its treatment of the media. They will also take a tougher line on the opposition."


The overall perception of business as usual appears to be shared by the public.


"What difference does it make, Tasmagambetov or Akhmetov? The money that goes into the treasury will not be used to feed the hungry mouths of the people, anyway," said Astana construction firm manager Andrei Vasilchenko.


Yuliana Zhikhor is a correspondent for the newspaper Nachnyom s Ponedelnika in Kazakstan.


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