Kazakhstan: Coup Rumor a Sign of Factional Infighting in Astana

Nazarbayev said he will stand for re-election in 2012. (Photo: OSCE/Velimir Alic)

After two decades at the helm of Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev appears entrenched in power and shows no signs of wanting to relinquish it. Just below the president, however, factional infighting appears to be roiling the country’s political waters. The clearest indicator of intrigue is recent allegations of a coup conspiracy.

The late August appointment of a new state security chief offered the first hint of behind-the-scenes mischief. Nazarbayev removed career security officer Adil Shayakhmetov as chief of the National Security Committee (KNB) and installed a political heavyweight, Nurtay Abykayev, in his place. Speculation the switch was motivated by a desire to ensure the KNB’s loyalty to the presidential administration increased when unconfirmed reports surfaced that an official named Musabekov in the Prosecutor-General’s Office had been arrested on charges of illegal wiretapping.

Kazakh media outlets then began reporting about a mysterious letter circulating on the Internet, supposedly written by anonymous KNB officers. It spoke of a Murat Musabekov, a Prosecutor-General’s Office department head, who had purportedly not only bugged the telephones of top political figures, but also “through threats and blackmail, tried to recruit the personal physician of the head of state” with a view to incapacitating Nazarbayev with medicines in a plan to seize power.

On September 2, the Prosecutor-General's Office finally confirmed the arrest of Musabekov, but categorically denied the move had anything to do with a coup conspiracy. Instead, officials said Musabekov was facing charges of revealing classified information.

Adding to the intrigue, despite being widely cited by the Kazakh media, the original of the purported KNB letter is untraceable. Press reports quoted it as saying that Musabekov was acting at the instigation of Kayrat Mami, prosecutor-general, and Sarybay Kalmurzayev, head of the presidential assets office, in a conspiracy to seize power.

Contacted by telephone by EurasiaNet.org, the offices of both categorically denied any plot. “I cannot comment on this in any way, since this information does not exist,” Prosecutor-General’s Office spokeswoman Gulnara Bekturova said. “This did not happen, and could not happen. I have seen that information, but it has nothing in common with reality.”

“I deny it,” Bolat Sultanbayev, an aide to Kalmurzayev, said flatly. A KNB spokesman declined to comment “on rumors.”

Kazakh political analysts – who say that Kalmurzayev and Mami are members of a powerful elite group loosely known as the Southerners, a group also said to include First Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeyev and Kozy-Korpesh Karbuzov, head of the Customs Control Committee – have expressed doubt that these men would plot Nazarbayev’s overthrow.

It would appear that Nazarbayev and his inner circle are not overly worried about the coup speculation. Presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev heaped scorn on the idea. “No one in the upper echelons of power who is of a sober mind and sane memory has ever, or will ever take part in any plot against the country’s president,” he said in remarks quoted by the KazTAG news agency on September 27.

He attributed the rumors to “contradictions between the oligarchs and groups of influence” – in other words, infighting among elites groups. Offering proof that the president is not feeling threatened, Mami and Kalmurzayev remain in their posts.

The appointment of Abykayev – who is associated with another group loosely known as the Old Guard, made up of conservative presidential loyalists – is widely interpreted as a sign that Nazarbayev is seeking a counterweight to the Southerners as part of his constant efforts to balance the influence of various elite groups.

A state of constant turmoil among them has become the norm in recent years, said Aitolkyn Kourmanova, executive director of the Almaty-based Institute for Economic Strategies - Central Asia, pointing to other controversies that have generated headlines, such as the downfall of Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev and high-profile corruption case.

“Although the intra-elite struggle is said to be gaining some dynamics – there are rumors about the unsuccessful attempts of the Southern clan to seize power – to my mind, this is a regular up-and-down cycle of political activity. Some changes in the government and possibly new anti-corruption cases are expected, but for the Kazakh elite this state of high tension is becoming normal,” Kourmanova explained.

Additional evidence of infighting came to light in late September. As the dust started to settle after the coup plot rumors, a scandal hit Prime Minister Karim Masimov’s cabinet, with the detention of Health Minister Zhaksylyk Doskaliyev on corruption charges. Investigators believe Doskaliyev took bribes in the form of six apartments meant for teachers at a medical institute. Some observers have suggested the Doskaliyev case is a counterattack by the Southerners on a rival group.

Squabbling among Kazakhstan’s political and economic clans is nothing new, and analysts put much of it down to uncertainty over a presidential succession process. Nazarbayev may have hoped to calm the strife with his announcement in September that he will stand for re-election. The president appears to be in robust health and looks ready to lead Kazakhstan for the foreseeable future. But the question remains about who will one day succeed him.

“People still think there are grounds for the discussion of the succession issue and they can not be completely wiped out with [Nazarbayev’s] re-election as eventually there should be a successor, and there are still no hints who it could be,” Kourmanova said.

Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan: Coup Rumor a Sign of Factional Infighting in Astana

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