On June 17, following the CSTO and SCO summits, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev sacked the country’s first civilian Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov. The presidential press service refused to comment on the reasons for the dismissal, while confirming that the former defense minister and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army-General Mukhtar Altynbayev had replaced Akhmetov. Clearly, the Kazakhstani defense ministry is in turmoil, not least since this comes in the aftermath of sacking other senior officers in an apparent effort to combat high-level corruption. Akhmetov was Kazakhstan’s prime minister during 2003 to 2007, while Altynbayev has twice previously served as defense minster (www.kazinform, Xinhua, Interfax, June 17).
Speculation concerning the possible justification for sacking Akhmetov included two fires at ammunition dumps in March and June which resulted in four fatalities and 17 injured. On April 13 the head of the press service of Kazakhstan’s all-powerful National Security Service (KNB) Kenzhebolat Beknazarov, reported that its investigators had initiated charges against deputy defense minister Lieutenant-General Kazhimurat Mayermanov under part 2 of article 380 of the Kazakh criminal code (abuse of power and dereliction of duty) and that the military court had sanctioned his arrest. The case against him emerged as a result of Akhmetov ordering auditing checks of the MoD’s financial activities, which were carried out by the audit committee. On August 4, 2008, the auditors alleged the discovery of the "inefficient use of defense ministry funds worth 10 billion tenge (about $66 million). The KNB claimed that senior military officers had inflicted damage on the state by concluding two defense contracts with the Israeli companies IMI and Soltam Systems Ltd (Vremya, April 14; Kazakhstan Today, June 18).
The first contract related to the purchase of Nayza missile systems at an estimated cost of over $36 million, while the second involved the modernization of the Semser and Aybat artillery systems for $156 million. Moreover, the KNB said that these contracts had resulted from the lobbying of General Mayermanov since 2006 on behalf of these companies via the official representative of IMI and Soltam Systems and his former colleague Boris Sheynkman (now an Israeli citizen).
The auditing committee prepared a damning report on the contracts: "The Nayza missile systems, the Semser self-propelled howitzers and the Aybat self-propelled mortars, which were bought by the defense ministry of Kazakhstan, have serious construction faults, most of them are incomplete and some of them do not function at all. After the first firing from the above weapons, almost 80 per cent of the turning and other mechanisms malfunctioned. The Israeli companies’ proposals to modernize military hardware did not create any special and exclusive novelties; they were inefficient and this kind of modernization could have been carried out at domestic enterprises with the least expenses and better results. The cost of the military hardware delivered from Israel was overstated by 14 billion tenge (around $93 million)" (Vremya, April 14).
Nevertheless, previous allegations made against the deputy defense minister, and more widely relating to embezzlement over defense contracts had not resulted in such draconian action. On April 29, in an atmosphere of suspicion and doubts surrounding the motives of the KNB and the Kazakh government, Kazakhstan’s chief military prosecutor, Lieutenant-General Aytmukhamet Toleukhanov resigned without any explanation from the MoD (Kazakhstan Today, April 29).
The power of the KNB was targeted by Nazarbayev in February, primarily motivated by an effort to mitigate any damage to the state from the allegations made by his exiled former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev. On February 17 Nazarbayev abolished the KNB’s foreign intelligence department "Barlau," and created a new foreign intelligence service "Syrbar," in order to "optimize" Kazakhstan’s intelligence gathering capabilities (Interfax, February 17). While the country is unique within the region in separating its intelligence agencies in this manner, one factor which may have influenced the decision was the disclosure that Aliyev possesses Nazarbayev’s KGB file and promised to reveal damaging kompromat on the leader. Nazarbayev might have chosen to restructure Kazakh intelligence to avoid further damage from within, since presumably he fears Aliyev might maintain close KNB contacts. The KNB, in the meantime, is now involved in waging a domestic campaign of state sponsored intimidation against individuals throughout many sections of society. The military is only the latest example.
On April 22 Nazarbayev signed a decree "on additional measures to step up the fight against crime and corruption and further improve the law enforcement activities in Kazakhstan." This was widely regarded as legitimizing the state’s efforts to target individuals within the power structures which might have fallen from favor, rather than constituting any genuine concerted anti-corruption drive. "Fighting corruption and protecting citizens constitutional rights and freedoms from criminal encroachments are to be defined as priority fields of the law enforcement agencies’ activities, ensuring that the state’s response will be inevitable to any kind of violations and that responsible individuals will be held accountable as envisaged by law," the first clause of the decree stated (Interfax-Kazakhstan, April 23).
Moreover, this latest defense official to be sacked must also be interpreted in the context of an apparent underlying internal conflict within the elites, ahead of the next presidential election in 2012 and sanitizing the country’s international image ahead of its chairing the OSCE in 2010. The global financial crisis, reduced energy revenues and the near collapse of Kazakhstan’s banking system has exposed the inability of the government to cope with its present economic realities. In this context, the anti-corruption drive while good for PR purposes also appears sporadic, and at times quite far-fetched. In late May, for instance, the widely respected head of the nuclear agency Kazatomprom Mukhtar Dzhakishev was arrested along with eight of his deputies for allegedly stealing uranium (Economist, June 19). The custodians of the anti-corruption campaign are the unreformed KNB -successor to the KGB.
In this rather murky context Akhmetov was sacked; the instigator of the original audit that led to the Israeli defense industry scandal first being exposed. However, dismissing the country’s first civilian defense minister not only represents a setback in terms of civil-military relations, but a blow to its prestige: in a country where everything is image. Indeed, this tarnished image is also serving to shake foreign investor confidence.