Kazakhstan gets surprise new premier – all set for real economic reforms?
The resignation of Alikhan Smailov’s government was expected. But President Tokayev’s choice of new prime minister comes as a surprise — in a good way.
Parliament on Tuesday approved Olzhas Bektenov, until then head of Tokayev’s administration, as Kazakhstan’s new head of government.
Tokayev described Bektenov as having “extensive” knowledge of the economy, and being “disciplined, honest and hardworking”.
The president said he wanted Bektenov’s government to take “bold and firm decisions to stimulate and diversify the economy for the good of the people”.
The outgoing prime minister Alikhan Smailov was appointed to the job after the January 2022 unrest – a failed attempt by figures close to former president Nazarbayev to remove Tokayev, and the point from which a real transfer of power began from Nazarbayev to Tokayev.
Smailov was seen as a ‘safe’ transition figure – still a representative of the old, Nazarbayev pool of bureaucrats, but without personal political ambitions.
In his two years on the job, Smailov acted carefully and kept an unassuming profile.
Nonetheless, it was under Smailov’s government that the process of ‘freeing’ the Kazakh economy from the clutches of the Nazarbayev power clan began.
As part of the process the government recovered some of the assets amassed by old regime associates. The process has, however, been criticised as selective, slow, and not transparent enough.
Smailov’s government also had to deal with the challenge of dealing with the impact on the Kazakh economy of Russia being placed under Western sanctions over its war on Ukraine.
Tokayev kept his cards close to his chest when choosing a new prime minister, which indicates he sees it as a high-stakes move.
The president said on Tuesday it was time for “decisive steps to carry out deep reforms in the country’s social and economic life”.
Tokayev called for “a new economic policy” based on reviewing development priorities in every economic sector, moving from “endless support measures to real quality development”, and changing the relationship between the state and business.
Before becoming head of the presidential administration in April 2023, the newly-appointed premier Bektenov, a 43-year-old trained lawyer, led the Agency for Fighting Corruption.
Bektenov’s background in the anti-corruption agency suggests knowledge of all the ways the national economy gets ‘robbed’ by officials and those close to them, which is crucial if Bektenov intends real reforms aimed at building an efficient and transparent economy.
In one of his past remarks as head of the anti-corruption agency, Bektenov said that the government should not work “only for the sake of producing nice statistics”.
“What people need is good housing and roads … quality education and medical care, justice and a safe environment for living”.
Tokayev’s administration choreographed the change of government in a new, ‘more democratic’ way – two parliamentary factions abstained from backing Bektenov’s candidacy.
Askhat Rakhimzhanov, the head of the National Social Democratic Party faction, one of those that abstained, said his party wanted a premier who “would know and understand the economy better”, or “someone with a firmer management style”.
Political observer Urazgali Selteyev said Bektenov was “absolutely loyal” to Tokayev.
He described Bektenov as “a decisive reformer and firm manager” – “the qualities that are needed for deepening economic de-monopolisation and recovering [stolen] assets”.
Selteyev also said Bektenov needed to act “energetically and persistently to set new rules of economic development”.
President Tokayev has shown thus far that he likes doing everything gradually and in a well-calculated way.
In the two years since obtaining full political power, Tokayev has been slowly dismantling Nazarbayev’s oligopolistic system.
His choice of Bektenov gives ground for cautious optimism that he is now prepared to launch fundamental reforms aimed at creating a fairer economic system.
And if Bektenov’s premiership achieves some success in that direction, it would give grounds for hope that President Tokayev will eventually get down to political reforms too.