The recent government reshuffle in Astana disappointed analysts who expected major changes. Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov had a rough 2005; he was strongly criticized for the scandalous takeover of PetroKazakhstan by the China National Petroleum Company, the Russian-Ukrainian gas deal’s detrimental consequences for the Kazakh economy, creeping inflation, the fuel crisis, and corruption in the top echelons of power.
Yet speaking before parliament on January 18, President Nursultan Nazarbayev said, “This government did not make serious mistakes and can continue with its work.” The docile parliament unanimously endorsed the reappointment of the 51-year-old Akhmetov. Even the fiercest opponents of the prime minister in parliament approved his reappointment. Many unpopular ministers also remained in their posts. The director of the Risk Assessment Group Dosym Satpayev believes that the reappointment of the experienced Akhmetov was a well-calculated move, as Akhmetov has no political ambitions and readily toes the line (Kursiv, January 19).
Obviously, Nazarbayev did not risk changing horses in midstream along his daunting journey to make Kazakhstan one of the 50 leading countries of the world. He would not tolerate any opposition among government members to his ambitious plans. At the same time, he could not rely entirely on a loyal, but single-minded prime minister and an inefficient government. According to recent opinion polls conducted by Kazrating Agency, only 26% of Almaty residents support Akhmetov’s economic policy, which neither reduced poverty nor raised salaries and pensions. The three-year rural development program was also a deep disappointment for the population.
Nazarbayev did make several significant personnel moves. He replaced two deputy prime ministers with Karim Masimov. The 40-year-old Chinese-educated Masimov will de facto be responsible for the country’s important long-term development strategy, while Akhmetov will be reassigned to the less significant role of managing day-to-day affairs.
Akhmetov set two urgent tasks before the new government: banking reform and construction of a nuclear power station. He stressed that nuclear energy is pivotal to industrial innovation. Nazarbayev actually set this economic course last year, but the clumsy bureaucratic machine derailed it. The emphasis on quickly developing a nuclear-energy program has been prompted by the grim prospects of a severe energy crisis in the wake of price hikes for Uzbek gas (from $42 to $55 per 1,000 cubic meters) and dwindling imports of Turkmen gas for South Kazakhstan. There is also growing political pressure from Russia, which has taken advantage of Kazakhstan’s underdeveloped gas industry, scant shipment infrastructure, and dearth of facilities to develop new deposits. To reduce gas imports from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan has begun to develop the Amangeldy gas fields, but those reserves cover only half of the amount needed to supply South Kazakhstan (Megapolis, January 23).
Thus developing nuclear energy is a dire necessity rather than a benchmark of technological progress. The best-suited man to cope with task would be former minister of energy and mineral resources Vladimir Shkolnik, who has been replaced by his former deputy, Baktykozha Izmukhambetov. In 1992 Shkolnik, the longest serving member of the Kazakh government, was the general director of the State Atomic Energy Agency. In the new government he heads the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. A second important figure of Russian origin in government is newly appointed Finance Minister Nataliya Korzhova, who replaced the young Arman Dunayev, who was much criticized by Nazarbayev for failing to curb inflation and raising external debt. Political scientist Dos Koshim believes that Nazarbayev brought two ethnic Russians into the government with an eye toward Kazakhstan’s fragile ethnic balance and future relations with Moscow. Former presidential political advisor Yermukhambet Yertysbayev’s appointment as minister of information, culture, and sports is widely regarded as a token of gratitude from Nazarbayev for his successful efforts to shape the president’s positive political image during election campaigns. But nationalists are deeply skeptical about the Russian-speaking Yertysbayev’s commitment to Kazakh national values (Turkistan, January 26).
Nazarbayev’s administrative reform policy is full of ambiguities. He has reiterated on many occasions that current economic and political reform efforts necessitate changes in the government, but in practical terms the recent government reshuffle did not produce anything new and promising. In the course of the last decade young, reform-minded ministers replaced some Soviet-era old-timers, but the basis of the governing system remains rooted in the old administrative, command-type management. Most of the loyal regional governors from the old guard have retained their posts. It seems as if Nazarbayev himself doubts the efficiency of the newly formed government. Recently he sharply criticized the former cabinet of ministers for financial mismanagement, red tape, and irresponsibility.
Ominously, the president has effectively backed away from his election promises to offer government posts to some opposition members. He did not utter a word about political reforms during his January 18 speech before parliament. That may signal that he, as before the elections, gives priority to economic development.