Nazarbayev Reshuffles Law Enforcement Posts

On 11 December, President Nursultan Nazarbayev significantly reshuffled senior law enforcement and judicial positions. His decision to let 67-year-old Igor Rogov retire as chairman of the Constitutional Council triggered a chain of replacements. Kairat Mami, previously the head of the Supreme Court, will now lead the Constitutional Council. Zhakip Asanov, until recently the general prosecutor, replaced Mami, and his newly vacant position was filled by Kairat Kozhamzharov, previously the head of the Anti-Corruption Service. Kozhamzharov’s former deputy, Alik Shpekbayev, is now the new head of the Service. Personnel changes were also made at the high-ranking levels in the Ministry of Interior and the army.

The reshuffle was clearly not due to Rogov’s age, as the president allows many high-level officials to remain in their positions beyond pension age. Nazarbayev also cited changes to the constitution carried out earlier this year as another justification for the reshuffle. However, we believe that his control over the judiciary and law enforcement agencies has not diminished at all – despite his attempts to present it that way, as a form of liberalization and democratic maturity.

In our view, the main trigger was Nazarbayev’s wish for his loyalist Kairat Mami, a Kazakh national with no external links or background, to head the Constitutional Council at the time of a possible presidential succession. While Nazarbayev and his advisors have largely determined the Council’s membership, it is still nominally capable of acting as a check on the presidential transition under any succession scenarios.

Mami spent most of his life working in the Kazakh legal system. From 1995-1998 and 2000-2009, he presided over the Kazakh Supreme Court. From 2009-2011, he served as general prosecutor, where he made lasting connections in the security sector. In 2011, Mami was appointed chairman of the Senate, a sensitive position in terms of the succession issue, because – according to the Kazakh constitution at the time – he would become the acting president in case of Nazarbayev’s death. Mami’s influence is comparable only to one other strong insider and loyalist: Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the current head of the Senate. Thus, the main outcome of this week’s reshuffle is that two key legal positions involved in all potential succession scenarios are now in the hands of Nazarbayev’s most trusted confidants.

Meanwhile, all of the other replacements have considerable experience in law enforcement, so Nazarbayev’s claim that this is a new, modernizing team is merely rhetoric. As we reported in early 2017, Zhakip Asanov had been appointed general prosecutor to balance competing law enforcement agencies. However, he had since been aspiring for an even higher and more stable position, which he now received as head of the Supreme Court.

As Horizon wrote earlier this year (please see our 16 February Latest Analysis), the National Security Committee (KNB) and Agency on State Services Affairs and Anti-Corruption continue competing with each other in the political and security realms. Both have clashed with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and other law enforcement agencies in the financial sector seeking to gain control over corruption investigations.

This places the General Prosecutor’s Office in a potentially very influential mediation or even power-brokerage position. Nominally, the general prosecutor supervises all law enforcement agencies, although the Akorda and president de facto settle any disputes that arise. However, this official role could become much more powerful in the event of a succession crisis involving rival factions in law enforcement bodies. Asanov’s replacement by Kozhamzharov means that the Anti-Corruption Service will now have more leverage in the highly politicized efforts against corruption as well as in other oversight activity, with the KNB losing relative influence.

Nevertheless, this power shift between agencies will be somewhat limited, given that both the General Prosecutor’s Office and KNB have personnel of varied backgrounds and effectiveness: former Soviet KGB officers, more modern financial crime specialists and bureaucratic nominees with little law enforcement experience. We expect the Akorda to continue reshuffling deputy positions in the General Prosecutor’s Office, KNB and Ministry of Internal Affairs after the new figures settle in.