As Kazakhstan faces its biggest security crisis since independence, with dozens – at least – of deaths and foreign troops patrolling the streets to help restore order, the government has fallen and heads have rolled in the security establishment. Here Eurasianet looks at who’s in and who’s out, and what that might tell us about what’s unfolding in the corridors of power in Nur-Sultan.
Karim Masimov and Nursultan Nazarbayev
The dismissal of the government headed by Askar Mamin attracted a lot of attention this week, but President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s sacking of the powerful security chief on January 5 has far greater significance for the longer term.
Governments in Kazakhstan tend to be technocratic and transitory, but Karim Masimov has been a heavyweight on the political scene for years. His departure thus marks a major shift in elite politics.
Tellingly, Tokayev dismissed Masimov as head of the National Security Committee – the domestic intelligence agency, or KNB – at the same time he assumed the chairmanship of the Security Council. Tokayev took over that role from Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former president who anointed Tokayev as his successor when he stepped down in 2019 but held onto the right to chair that body for life as part of the package of privileges he assumed during his three decades in power. Whether Nazarbayev, who is formally known as the Leader of the Nation, relinquished that job willingly or unwillingly is unclear.
Masimov has not publicly commented on his departure, but is unlikely to be overjoyed at taking the fall for the security debacle, even if he bears no small measure of responsibility. Any resentments could make him a threat to Tokayev.
Tokayev is clearly seeking to ensure the security sector’s loyalty to him, rather than to Nazarbayev and his hawkish allies, at this critical time. Masimov is a staunch Nazarbayev loyalist who was his longest serving prime minister, completing two stints in that job: from 2007 to 2012 and from 2014 to 2016. He served as Nazarbayev’s chief of staff in the interim, and had headed the intelligence service since 2016. That put him in charge of tackling dissent, always one of Nazarbayev’s priorities. Tokayev’s suggestions that the current protests involve terrorists also imply he believes the KNB has failed, however hazily he expressed his ideas and however well-substantiated or ill-founded they turn out to be.
The removal of Nazarbayev and Masimov from the security bloc simultaneously suggests Tokayev may harbor doubts about their loyalty to him, against a backdrop of constant gossip in Nur-Sultan about tensions between the teams of the ex-president and his handpicked successor. Tokayev could be maneuvering to prevent a palace coup amid the chaos unfolding around him, in which the shifting sands of elite relations and tensions are bound to be playing a role. And Tokayev may even be welcoming the arrival of troops from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which he requested on January 5, as another tool to shore up his own position against domestic rivals.
Naturally, Tokayev replaced Masimov at the KNB with one of his own loyalists. He picked Yermek Sagimbayev, the man hitherto entrusted with ensuring the president’s security as head of the State Protection Service. Tokayev did not inherit Sagimbayev from Nazarbayev but appointed him last year, so clearly he has confidence in his man. Sagimbayev is no novice in the security apparatus: he has worked for decades in the KNB and the State Protection Service, which oversees the security of the president and other officials and carries out other functions such as counteracting terrorism. But still he faces enormous challenges in his new role as Kazakhstan picks up the pieces from a fiasco to which major security failures have clearly contributed. Sagimbayev needs to make sure the security forces remain onside, while learning to interact with foreign troops from the CSTO who are now on the ground.
The dismissal of the prime minister was in large part an attempt to appease protesters calling for political change, even though it was clearly far too little far too late: Demonstrators were demanding a complete overhaul of the political system to democratize it, not the replacement of one PM with another. But Tokayev is now working with a prime minister he appointed himself, rather than inherited from Nazarbayev. Mamin was first appointed just before Nazarbayev resigned, then reappointed by Tokayev, but was generally regarded as Nazarbayev’s man. His removal could, therefore, be another step in the process of “de-Nazarbayevification” on which Tokayev seems to have embarked.
Kazakhstan’s new acting prime minister is no political heavyweight, although he has occupied senior official positions for years. Most recently, Alikhan Smailov was deputy prime minister in the government Tokayev has just dismissed, so he comes to his new role carrying the baggage of being part of that now tainted cabinet. During his career he has also served as minister of finance and as an aide to Nazarbayev when he was president. Like most members of the cabinet, Smailov is a technocrat and his role is to follow Tokayev’s orders. In any case, he is only acting as prime minister and may well be a stopgap until Tokayev appoints a new government, which is unlikely to happen in the immediate future, since he clearly has far more pressing matters on his mind. But when he does, his choice of PM will give a few more clues about what is happening in Nur-Sultan as Tokayev makes the government his own.