Kazakhstan's new prime minister turned 11 just two weeks before the Soviet Union collapsed.
And only the most avid followers of the local political scene had even heard of Olzhas Bektenov, 43, before he was appointed to head a new Cabinet on February 6.
His installation to the office occurred after an unexpected flurry of developments. One day earlier, Alikhan Smailov, who had served as prime minister since January 2022, resigned along with the rest of the government.
Top officials, including Smailov himself, have been circumspect about what precipitated the move. The outgoing prime minister described his tenure as a time in which the government has been pursuing crucial political and economic reforms “aimed at creating a new Just Kazakhstan.”
Loyal political commentators who would until the government resigned have refrained from harsh criticism were less generous.
“The Cabinet was operating in a crisis situation. It was able to do a lot, but there was a lot it could not do. It didn’t develop any long-term development strategy,” Daniyar Ashimbayev, a political analyst, told TASS news agency. “Many initiatives were met with hostility, there were many mistakes, there were scandals, there was a general decline in the standing of the authorities and, above all, the government.”
Smailov’s most vehement critics charge that there was an inability to contain the impact of inflation on Kazakhstan’s population.
“Prices are rising, rising horrendously. And this all has a bearing on people’s quality of life. The dividends are mainly being reaped by microcredit organisations,” journalist Mikhail Kozachkov wrote in a snap commentary on the government’s resignation.
Although Smailov is ostensibly leaving of his own initiative, it appears evident that his departure was a coordinated affair. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev defied the forecasts of many commentators by quickly selecting a relative unknown as his candidate to head the Cabinet.
Most of the fully pliable parliament voted to ratify that choice. Seven members of the Majilis, as the lower house of parliament is known, abstained.
Tokayev wants Bektenov, who was born in Almaty in December 1980 and has a degree in law, to hit the ground running.
“The government needs to take bold, firm decisions to stimulate and diversify the economy for the benefit of the people. This task is of exceptional importance and is of a strategic nature,” he told lawmakers.
Tokayev listed the need “to develop new mechanisms in the social sphere and the agro-industrial complex” as top priorities.
Bektenov has over the years worked across many areas of the state apparatus, including in the office of the prime minister and, most recently, as head of the presidential administration, a job he has performed since April.
His most recent brush with prominence was when he headed the Anti-Corruption Agency, or Antikor, from February 2022 to April 2023. When he took up that mantle, he criticised the body’s earlier work, accusing its leadership of being interested in the “pursuit of impressive statistical indicators” as expressed in the number and rank of detained government officials.
Antikor under Bektenov extended its activities beyond what the name of the body suggests, however. The agency was tasked among other things with taking the lead in investigating allegations that police officers tortured detainees swept up amid the political unrest that roiled Kazakhstan in January 2022.
And it was under Bektenov that Antikor began in earnest to investigate the business dealings of close relatives of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev. It was deep-seated frustration at the perceived misrule of Nazarbayev that fuelled some of the rage seen on the streets during the events that have come to be called “Bloody January”, or Qandy Qantar in Kazakh.
One notable casualty of the post-Bloody January shakeup was a company called Operator ROP, which had a monopoly on collecting lucrative automobile recycling fees and was tied to the former president's youngest daughter, Aliya Nazarbayeva. Amid much public grumbling, Tokayev ordered a state takeover of the company’s operations.
Another object of Antikor’s attentions was Kairat Satybaldy, a nephew of Nazarbayev who was arrested in March 2022 and later charged with defrauding the national telecommunications giant Kazakhtelecom and a railway services company to the tune of 12bn tenge ($25mn) and 28bn tenge, respectively. He was later sentenced to six years in prison.
Writing on his Telegram account, businessman Beibit Alibekov suggested this aspect of Bektenov’s background would come in useful when running his team.
“Antikor experience in managing ministers is of course [a plus],” he wrote.
The government reset is mostly surface deep. Many figures are retaining their jobs. Deputy Prime Minister Serik Zhumangarin, Deputy Prime Minister Tamara Duysenova, First Deputy Prime Minister Roman Sklyar, Justice Minister Azamat Eskarayev and Energy Minister Almasadam Satkaliyev are staying put. Meanwhile, the MP Madi Takiyev, a one-time deputy national economy minister, will take over as Finance Minister and Akmaral Alnazarova has been appointed the new Health Minister.
Urazgali Selteyev, another typically loyal political analyst, offered an intriguing hypothesis for this government reshuffle.
“Bektenov has turned out to be a dark horse,” Selteyev wrote on his Telegram channel, adding that he believes Tokayev landed on this appointment alone.
Selteyev argued that while Smailov’s job was to perform a holding transition role, gradually removing leftover personnel from the Nazarbayev era, Bektenov’s job will be to reform the economy to Tokayev’s own specifications.
The most hardened critics of the authorities are unconvinced any significant improvements can be expected.
Dimash Alzhanov, an opposition activist and commentator, said in remarks to RFE/RL’s Kazakh service that he believes that whoever heads the government is not ultimately capable of taking important decisions and implementing reforms independently. The prime minister remains accountable to the president, Alzhanov said.
“The [authorities do] not pay enough attention to the serious needs of the population. The regime lives its own life, one that is divorced from the interests and problems of society,” Alzhanov said.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.
This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.