January 10, 2007 (the date of publication in Russian)

Yaroslav Butakov


The appointment of Kazakhstan's Prime Minister is a message to Beijing

The shift, forecasted by analysts during the last year and a half, has eventually happened. On January 8, Monday, Kazakhstan's Cabinet of Ministers, headed by Daniyal Akhmetov, quietly and decently resigned.

The spontaneity of Mr. Akhmetov's resignation is only ostensible. Firstly, all the Kazakh governments are relatively "technical", while the Prime Minister plays a role of a top manager, selected by the head of the state, but never an independent figure. Undoubtedly, Akhmetov withdrew on a will from "above". Secondly, the decision was hardly made during the holidays. Most probably, a narrow circle of informed individuals was aware of the shift yet before Christmas.

For the first time, Akhmetov's withdrawal was seriously discussed yet before the Presidential elections of December 2005. Later, President Nursultan Nazarbayev was expected to propose a new candidature right after the elections. In summer and autumn, this possibility was discussed again. It took place only in January – this time, taking analysts by surprise.

So, why were the expectations of Akhmetov's replacement so regular, and why did it happen at the least expected moment?

The two questions are to be addressed separately.

Akhmetov's premiership was the time of Kazakhstan's economic success. The country displayed a bold increase of both production and living standards. In a number of indices, Kazakhstan became a champion among CIS countries – particularly, in such a significant criterion as average salaries of workers and employees. Kazakhstan's banking system is viewed by specialists as the most perfect among CIS countries. The country's achievements allowed President Nursultan Nazarbayev to formulate, in his address to the nation, an ambitious but realistic objective: to enter the number of the first 50 competitive economies of the globe.

The programs of national development, adopted and implemented in Kazakhstan, are fairly larger in their strategic scale than their Russian analogues. That is, primarily, the Kazakhstan-2030 Program, suggesting a comprehensive development of economy, the social sphere, and infrastructure for a 25-years period. This breakthrough endeavour, along with others, will be now associated not only with Nazarbayev's name, but with the name of Premier Daniyal Akhmetov as well.

Still, experts point at a number of drawbacks of Akhmetov's cabinet. Inflation, as well as the increase of consumer prices, permanently exceeded the calculations. The Government repeatedly faced a disparity between oil exports and the demands of the domestic fuel market. Because of that, two harvest campaigns, one year after another, were affected with insufficiency of fuel supply, resulting in a price hike for gasoline and lubricants. In addition, the populist declaration of the earlier government, influenced with the events in the Shanyrak quarter of Alma-Ata City, – to supply every Kazakh citizen with a free piece of land of 10 acres, – was not fulfilled.

The most significant drawback of Akhmetov's cabinet was a too sluggish shift of the national economy from the fuel export model to a more balanced economic structure, now displaying its strategic importance at the face of decline of global oil prices.

Still, the mentioned factors alone do not explain the decision to reshuffle the cabinet. In Kazakhstan, typically for the East, the real background of cadre decisions never surfaces in public policy. This is a principle.

Akhmetov's withdrawal was expected for a long time, as his position was supposed to be cleared for another figure. His tenure was regarded as unusually long: continuing three years and a half, Akhmetov's rule was the longest among the Kazakh Premiers. It was believed that Akhmetov should yield his seat to another contender. Therefore, questions mounted not over his drawbacks but over the choice of his successor.

For years, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been focused on selection of new managerial elite, characterized with high education, broad outlook and strategic thinking. And definitely, candidates for the new elite are supposed to be young. This new stratum of the Kazakh establishment has already been dubbed as "Young Kazakhs". From this standpoint, the choice of the new premier, approved by the Parliament on January 10, Wednesday, is especially interesting.

Karim Masimov, the new Prime Minister, is 41 year old. However, he has already served as Minister of Transport and Communications, Minister of Economy and Budget Planning, Deputy Prime Minister, President's Assistant. His biography includes education at the Beijing Linguistic University and the Wuhan University, as well as the job of the executive director of the Kazakh Trade House in Hong Kong. He is fluent in English and Chinese. For this and other reasons, he is regarded as a representative of the Chinese lobby in Kazakhstan.

An Uighur by origin, Masimov represents a figure of compromise in the debates over distribution of power among the successions of major tribal communities (zhouzes). At the same time, he is not regarded as a possible successor of the President. Rumors associate him with Timur Kulebayev, spouse of Nazarbayev's second daughter, Dariga. Still, the choice of this figure should be viewed rather from inter-elite considerations over the expected transition of power in year 2012. The Chinese connections of the new Premier are far more noteworthy. Astana has issued a clear message to everyone: for Kazakhstan, the relations with Beijing are today of the highest priority.

The question whether Masimov's figure is going to symbolize a long-time strategic shift towards rapprochement with the Chinese People's Republic, or this choice is rather tactical for Nazarbayev's administration, will be answered by the policy of the nearest future.

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