Kazakhstan's new defence minister - big position, big ambitions?

By bne IntelliNews November 12, 2014

Naubet Bisenov in Almaty -


Imangali Tasmagambetov, mayor of Astana and tipped as a potential presidential successor, has been appointed defence minister – regarded as a crucial post following Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine and a series of corruption scandals in the military.

The appointments were first announced on Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's Twitter account on October 22 and later confirmed by the presidential office. Tasmagambetov has previously held the posts of prime minister and mayor of Almaty, and he replaces Serik Akhmetov, who was appointed defence minister only in April after an 18-month-long stint as prime minister. Adilbek Dzhaksybekov is going to become the new Akim of the capital, returning to the position he used to occupy from 1997 to 2003. 

Given the importance of the defence minister's job in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support to rebels in eastern Ukraine, Tasmagambetov's appointment as defence minister will be seen as a promotion and a sign of Nazarbayev's trust. As a competent manager, Tasmagambetov will be expected to increase the efficiency and fighting ability of Kazakhstan's armed forces, as the government became concerned over the state of the army after the Ukrainian military showed it was woefully ill-equipped to fight the rebels.

Former senator Gani Kasymov links Tasmagambetov's appointment to a desire by the government to deal with corruption scandals that have rattled the Kazakh army and led to some high-profile dismissals. "Our army has been involved in selling and buying, and has been mired in corruption. There have been so many scandals and generals have been sacked in droves," Kasymov told Nur.kz new portal. "We need to draw a lesson... [Tasmagambetov] is capable of cleaning up the act."

Russian threat

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has given rise to fears in Kazakhstan that Moscow could use the rights of ethnic Russians as a pretext to take over parts of Kazakh territory. In a televised interview on August 24, Nazarbayev tried to quell these fears. "Some fear that Russia will again invade us, but this is not true," he said.

Yet he warned that Kazakhstan should be careful in promoting the Kazakh language at the expense of Russian. More than 90% of Kazakhstan's 17.3m citizens speak Russian, but only around two-thirds claim to speak Kazakh. Kazakhstan's constitution designates Kazakh as a state language, while Russian serves as a lingua franca and is allowed in official use. "If we adopt laws to ban all languages but Kazakh, we will turn into a Ukraine," Nazarbayev said in reference to the Ukrainian parliament's revocation of the official status of Russian in eastern and southern regions following the ousting of former president Viktor Yanukovych.

On August 29, Russian President Vladimir Putin, when asked by a student at a youth forum whether Kazakhstan could see a repeat of the "Ukrainian scenario" should it diverge from its current pro-Russian policy, Putin said Nazarbayev was a "very wise" leader who knew perfectly well that a "vast majority of Kazakh citizens favour the development of relations with Russia."

At the same time, Putin made what appeared to be a veiled threat about the fragility of Kazakh nationhood. "He [Nazarbayev] made a unique thing. He has created a state on a territory where there had never been a state," Putin said. "Kazakhs didn't have statehood."

The Kazakh people need the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, due to come into being in January 2015, Putin continued, "because this is beneficial for them to develop the economy and to remain in the space of a great Russian [speaking] world.”

Ethnic Russians made up 21.5% of Kazakhstan's 17.3m population at the beginning of 2014, according to the Kazakh Statistics Committee. The northern and eastern Kazakh regions on the border with Russia have sizeable ethnic Russian populations where their share ranges between 35% and 50%.


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