Kazakstan: Does Reshuffle Herald End of Masimov Government?

Some argue the current cabinet faces imminent dismissal.

Kazakstan: Does Reshuffle Herald End of Masimov Government?

Some argue the current cabinet faces imminent dismissal.

A recent reshuffle of the judiciary and law enforcement in Kazakstan is increasingly being viewed as the first sign of more sweeping changes ahead. As ministers are forced to admit for the first time that the economy is in poor shape, some are predicting a change of government.

On April 3, the Kazak parliament approved four appointments proposed by President Nursultan Nazarbaev, meaning that Musabek Alimbekov became head of the Supreme Court, Kairat Mami is the new prosecutor-general, Rashid Tusupbekov is justice minister, and Serik Baymaganbetov is minister of internal affairs.

Speaking at a televised meeting in the presidential palace, Nazarbaev said the reshuffle was needed in order to enforce law and order and maintain public security during the current economic crisis.

The changes amounted to more of a rotation than a purge, as the new chief prosecutor was formerly head of the supreme court, and the man he replaces, Tusupbekov, is now justice minister. The outgoing minister, Zagipa Balieva, enters the Senate, the upper house of parliament, where some seats are in the president’s gift. None of those moved from their jobs was given a dressing-down, as sometimes happens.

Local analysts predict that Nazarbaev is gearing up for bigger changes.

“Experience shows that as a rule, these focused reshuffles presage a change of government,” said Viktor Kovtunovsky of the non-government group Grazhdanskoe Obschestvo (Civil Society).

Apart from anything else, he said, Prime Minister Karim Masimov’s cabinet may have overstayed its welcome. Masimov was appointed in January 2007, and prime ministers in Kazakstan tend not to last longer than two or three years.

When his predecessor Danial Akhmetov was removed, he was accused of failing to curb inflation, mishandling social programmes and not doing enough to broaden the base of an economy that is heavily reliant on oil. Now it may be Masimov’s turn to carry the can.

“Masimov is just unlucky to be heading the government at a time of global economic crisis,” said Kovtunovsky, arguing that the government had fallen down in a number of areas, including by having to rewrite the budget several times as economic forecasts grew increasingly gloomy.

For a long time the government denied Kazakstan was in trouble, but on April 21 it had to come out with a public acknowledgement of the first signs of recession.

In the first quarter of this year, the economy contracted by two per cent compared with the same period in 2008. That is an alarming reverse on January-March 2008, when gross domestic product grew six per cent on the previous year.

Kazakstan’s labour ministry is predicting that 135,000 jobs will be cut this year, mostly in banking and construction.

As the banking sector found itself over-extended with borrowing on international markets, it began curtailing its lending from late 2007. One of the main knock-on effects was that with loans thin on the ground, the hitherto booming construction industry was pulled up short, projects ground to a halt and builders began shedding staff.

Last year the building industry slowed to two per cent growth year on year, compared with 12 per cent in 2007. Shareholders in numerous unfinished apartment blocks have been staging protests in the two biggest cities, Almaty and the capital Astana, calling on Masimov’s cabinet to resign.

The government has in fact taken steps to restore financial stability, bail out the building industry and property market, and support small businesses, infrastructure projects and agriculture through the crisis period. It has launched a rescue programme involving ten billion US dollars taken from the National Fund, where money from oil export revenues has been stored against just such a rainy day.

This leads at least one analyst to suggest that the cabinet is coping with the crisis rather well. According to Anton Morozov, head of the department for social and political research at the Kazakstan Institute for Strategic Studies, the president may go no further than the recent reshuffle.

“If the president’s actions had been related to a crisis in Karim Masimov’s government, it would have been logical to expect a reshuffle in the economy-related ministries,” he said.

Morozov foresees no change in government policy, and says all the president was trying to do was inject fresh blood into the judicial and law-enforcement agencies.

Whenever personnel changes occur in government, analysts in Kazakstan tend to look for signs that the tectonic plates are shifting in the relationship between rival elite groups. That is the case with the recent reshuffle of judges, prosecutors and ministers.

“Of course there’s a connection,” said Almaty-based political analyst Dimash Aljanov, referring to the power struggles that many believe go on unseen in the higher echelons of government. “But it’s hard to say who represents what interests.”

Not everyone would agree that the reshuffle is merely the outward reflection of Nazarbaev managing the rivalries between elite groups.

Daniyar Ashimbaev, who edits the almanac Who’s Who in Kazakstan, believes that interior minister Baurjan Muhamedjanov and justice minister Balieva had to go because they had been widely criticised for failings in their respective areas of responsibility.

Elmira Gabidullina is a journalist in Almaty.

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