Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov resigned on April 2, amidst persistent anger over the February devaluation of the tenge. He has been replaced by Karim Massimov, already Kazakhstan’s longest-standing PM, with some suspecting the move is also connected with the background race to succeed the president.
Technocrat Akhmetov was seen as a temporary figure and his sacking had been expected for months, amid growing discontent within Kazakhstan over the economy and living standards. President Nursultan Nazarbayev nominated Massimov, who served as prime minister between January 2007 and September 2012 to replace Akhmetov, and his appointment was approved by the parliament.
Nazarbayev told the house: "I believe [Massimov] is known to us all. I don't need to talk much about him. He worked [as prime minister] in the … crisis period of 2007-2009. To further develop the economy we need efficient work inside the country and with key foreign partners."
"I believe Massimov's candidacy is the most suitable for ensuring efficient work of the government in the present conditions. He will get down [to the job] immediately and he doesn't need to get acquainted with anyone. He worked with me and he also needed this experience," Nazarbayev added, according to the presidential website, referring to Massimov's stint as the helm of the presidential administration between his terms of premiership.
Heads will roll
Nazarbayev had previously threatened to sack Akhmetov’s government. He told an expanded government meeting on February 14 that heads would roll if progress was not made to speed up economic growth and attract more investors.
That threat came as the government’s popularity nosedived. A devaluation of the tenge days earlier provoked anger across the country as purchasing power dropped. While both civil servants and workers at many major industrial companies have been given a 10% pay rise to compensate, criticism of the regime has grown. In addition to a series of small-scale demonstrations in Almaty, Kazakhs have become increasingly vocal on social media.
In a new development for Kazakhstan, some critics have publicly blamed the president directly, as he is ultimately responsible for government policy. However, for the most part the scapegoats have been Akhmetov’s cabinet and central bank governor Kairat Kelimbetov.
The change of PM also coincides with the crisis in Ukraine. Nazarbayev has firmly sided with Moscow, offering unquestioning support for the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea. Meanwhile, Massimov, a technocrat like Akhmetov, is regarded as a neutral figure who is capable of balancing the interests of Russia, China and the West.
Nazarbayev's optimism about Massimov doesn't resonate with many critics of the government. "It's hard to say how the previous prime minister and his cabinet is different from the new prime minister and his cabinet. There is no fundamental difference. There may be some changes in certain ministries but this is usually a rotation of the same old pack of cadres from one post to another. The backbone of the government will stay put," Almaty-based political analyst Rasul Zhumaly told bne, adding that the previous governments were largely preoccupied with solving short-term tasks and lacked vision. "There have been many government programmes … that were supposed to modernise the economy but none of them has been completed despite billions spent."
Kazakh political analyst Yerlan Karin suggested in an interview with Tengrinews that Massimov will revitalise Kazakhstan's standing with foreign partners, both politically and economically. "He is known to a wide circle - businessmen and representatives of international financial and economic structures, and these contacts and experience he possesses should of course help in implementing a new global strategy, finding new reserves and new sources of foreign investment."
However, in Zhumaly's opinion Massimov's appointment can do little to attract foreign investment to Kazakhstan without significant changes in the investment climate. "Investors and investment do not go somewhere because someone has come to the government or a company, they go to markets where there are comfortable conditions, a favourable regime and stability," Zhumaly said.
The return of Massimov to the political stage will invite speculation about succession. The question of who will replace the 73-year-old Nazarbayev - Kazakhstan’s first and so far only president - is considered to be the main political risk for the country. Standard & Poor’s wrote in December that, “institutional risks remain high given the lack of clarity concerning the eventual presidential succession and the corresponding policy implications.”
The Russian-speaking Massimov is an unlikely, though not impossible, candidate to take over the presidency. His return may also denote Nazarbayev would like a political heavyweight to balance the growing power base of Astana mayor, Imangali Tasmagambetov, who is also popular with the Kazakh intelligentsia.
Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Timur Kulibayev has also been viewed as a potential successor, but has been losing support within Kazakhstan. There are also several other possible contenders, but Nazarbayev has consistently avoided indicating his choice of a successor.
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