The resignation of Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov caused little public reaction when it was announced on January 8. The demise of the Akhmetov era had been rumored throughout 2006, as the Kazakh government had briefly resigned last January following the December 2005 presidential elections, in accordance with constitutional procedures.
After three and one-half years as prime minister, the 52-year-old Akhmetov had outlasted most of his predecessors in this post. He was generally recognized as an efficient reformer with an authoritarian streak and as a dedicated engineer of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s social and economic reforms, particularly in housing construction, technology, and space programs. Speaking at his final cabinet meeting as prime minister, Akhmetov thanked Nazarbayev for the “honor of working with [Nazarbayev] and the trust placed in him by the President” in the years he headed the government, years he described as a “period of intensive development of the country’s economy” (Kazakhstan TV, January 9).
According to the constitution, the president will nominate a new head of government who will then be submitted to parliament for approval. However, with the pro-presidential Nur Otan political party holding an overwhelming majority in parliament, this seemingly democratic procedure is reduced to a sheer formality. Nazarbayev reportedly held a closed meeting with leaders of Nur Otan during which he proposed Deputy Prime Minister Karim Masimov to succeed Akhmetov. Nobody at the meeting raised any objection (Channel 31, January 9).
The unprecedented fact that the president chose to discuss such an important matter with party members reveals Nur Otan’s growing political weight. As predicted, on January 10, the parliament unanimously approved Masimov’s nomination, and Akhmetov was made minister of defense. Presenting Masimov to parliament members, Nazarbayev named housing construction and social development as priority tasks for the new government, suggesting continuity with the former government’s agenda. But while addressing an OSCE session in Brussels just one month ago, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev had announced that Nazarbayev would outline a new reform program soon. However, Masimov seems to be as remote from political issues as his predecessor. Masimov creates an impression of a docile doer, like all other prime ministers over the last fifteen years, with the exception of Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who held the post from 1994 to 1997 and then joined the opposition.
But there is little reason to believe that the new prime minister will introduce radical economic and political changes. First, no matter how hard a new head of the government may try to push forward economic and political reforms, he will never go beyond the boundaries set by the head of state. Second, the 41-year-old Masimov lacks the popular support Akhmetov enjoyed.
Nevertheless, Masimov, a Chinese-born Uighur, reputed Sinophile, and a fluent speaker of Chinese, may play a key role in reshaping bilateral relations with China. His appointment comes immediately after Nazarbayev’s recent visit to Beijing and Hong Kong (see EDM, January 9). Masimov has solid experience in Chinese relations as a former chief expert at the Urumchi (China) branch of the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations and as head of Kazakhstan’s trade office in Hong Kong. Prior to his appointment as a deputy prime minister in January 2006, he held various responsible posts as a department head at the Labor Ministry, as minister of transport and communications, and as the chairman of Halyk Savings Bank.
But Masimov, often considered an outsider by a wide section of the population and often ridiculed for his poor knowledge of Kazakh, faces an uphill struggle to win public confidence. Unfortunately, he inherited not only Akhmetov’s impressive economic achievements, but also a host of problems, such as rising inflation, strained relations with the National Bank and ATF Bank, rampant official corruption, financial mismanagement, and lax control over the performances of ministries. Observers note that Masimov, a law graduate from Uhan University in China, prefers an iron hand for economic problems. Unlike the more pro-Russia Akhmetov, he favors the Chinese economic model. Some analysts argue that improving peoples’ lives takes considerable patriotic zeal, and Masimov is the wrong man for the task (Aikyn, January 9).
No one can genuinely claim that Masimov was the best replacement for Akhmetov. Most observers had expected the main contenders for the prime minister’s office to be Adilbek Zhaksybekov, chief of the presidential administration; Alexander Pavlov, deputy chairman of Nur Otan; and Almaty mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov. Nazarbayev’s choice of Masimov surprised even his closest entourage. Presumably he kept the name of the new prime minister secret until the last moment to avoid power struggles within the cabinet and parliament. He may even have feared spontaneous public protests for appointing a Uighur to head the government in the wake of recent fierce clashes between Kazakh nationalists and ethnic Uighurs in the Shelek district of Almaty region. Whatever the reason for his promotion, Masimov is no longer a shadow figure in the cabinet. He now is President Nazarbayev’s right-hand-man, a position that brings enormous responsibility.