The sacking of the head of Kazakhstan’s powerful National Security Committee, Nurtay Abykayev, a loyal supporter of ageing President Nursultan Nazarbayev, marks the departure of the Soviet old guard from the country’s political scene as their influence wanes amid a new political and economic reality, local observers believe. In a country run by a 75-year-old autocrat, the dismissal inevitably sparked a debate as to whether it also marks the beginning of the succession process.
On December 25 President Nazarbayev explained that he had relieved Abykayev, 68, of his post due to “his reaching retirement age” (which is 63 for Kazakh men). He has been appointed a senator, a job often offered to retired officials, to boost support for the president in the rubberstamp parliament. “He has long worked with me and amply fulfilled tasks set,” Nazarbayev said of his loyal lieutenant.
The respublika-kz.info news site, which is critical of the regime, hailed Abykayev’s departure as a “remarkable event because he is not just a ‘grey cardinal’, but a man of Nazarbayev’s generation, although seven years his junior”. The dismissal is “quite symbolic” because “the Kazakh ‘leader of the nation’ now towers over his entourage not only thanks to his post and personal authority but age too”, the newspaper said in reference to the age of the president. That official title of “leader of the nation”, conferred in 2010, gives Nazarbayev, among other things, immunity for his actions as president and guarantees security for him and his family following his eventual departure.
The removal of one of the last representatives of the old guard from the political scene, like any major appointment in Kazakhstan, has stoked succession talk in a country where Nazarbayev has ruled with an iron fist for over a quarter of a century with seemingly no intention of giving up power. At the same time, Abykayev’s retirement doesn’t mean the president has betrayed his “perhaps most trusted man in his entourage”, Amirzhan Kosanov, a Kazakh opposition politician, believes.
“For this reason I think this reshuffle is a tactical step in the run-up to ‘Operation Succession’,” Kosanov tells bne IntelliNews. “At the same time, times change and the ‘old guard’ should realise that, firstly, they and their influence are not eternal and they should take into account a new reality... and, secondly, politically and morally they bear enormous responsibility before people not only for their undoubted successes in the development of the country, but also for all omissions and shortcomings.”
The opposition politician says that any reshuffle in the upper echelons of the government is now linked to succession, but the latest development is about the president strengthening a “future system of checks and balances in his surroundings in the medium term”, given Abykayev's political weight and the level of trust Nazarbayev has in him. “Should the president decide to transfer power to some of his current favourites, Abykayev will be able to fulfil his orders in whatever job he does,” Kosanov says.
In September the president appointed his eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, to the post of deputy prime minister. The move reignited succession talk as Dariga, 52, a former deputy speaker of the Kazakh parliament’s lower chamber, has often been tipped to succeed her ageing father and the appointment would help solve the problem of her lacking executive experience. However, “in the situation when the fate of a ‘second president’ depends on not free and fair elections but Nazarbayev’s subjective wilful decision, anyone, not only his daughter Dariga, could become his successor,” Kosanov suggests.
Almaty-based independent political analyst Rasul Zhumaly points out that the president did not explain his move, which is why it is hard to judge the underlying reasons for the dismissal of his trusted man. “I have no idea why Abykayev was dismissed, but I think that the president reshuffles the government in order to create the impression of change,” he explains to bne IntelliNews. “I don’t believe Abykayev’s departure, or his arrival at the time, has had or will have any tangible impact on the work of the committee, as personalities don’t play a serious role in changing state policy in general and the policies of individual government agencies.”
The analyst does not link the dismissal to the succession process and recalls Nazarbayev’s statement he made in 2011 that he would remain in power for as long as his “health and stamina permit”. “Talk of succession that pops up from time to time is done to carry on intrigue so the authorities can test public opinion and the mood of the establishment,” Zhumaly says. “However, this talk or these appointments have nothing to do with the president’s real plans regarding succession.”
Abykayev’s dismissal due to “his reaching retirement age” is in line with Nazarbayev’s suggestion he made at the end of 2015 that civil servants should retire after they reach retirement age or after 25 years of service. This, however, doesn’t concern Nazarbayev himself; he turned 75 last July and has ruled the country for more than 25 years. This discrepancy is enshrined in the country’s constitution that abolished the two-term limit for the incumbent. “All democratic declarations of the president, unfortunately, don’t concern the president himself, and this can be blamed on the constitution and laws that created the phenomenon of the ‘leader of the nation’,” Kosanov complains.
Zhumaly agrees with the opposition politician, saying it is a manifestation of contradictions in the constitution “which, on the one hand, say that everyone is equal before the law and, on the other, say that the president and members of his family enjoy a special status and immunity – and we are now observing this.”
“In order to eliminate such legal nonsense, we should change both the constitution and laws,” opposition politician Kosanov concludes.