Days after being confirmed in his post as Minister of Defence, Murat Bektanov was dismissed by President Tokayev. He did so with strong words against the former minister, even though it was Tokayev himself who had appointed him last year. What’s the reason behind the president’s decision? And, more importantly, what does this mean for the country’s armed forces?
The protests and violence that shook Kazakhstan earlier this month have also led to changes in the government. Less than a week after the resignation of the the full Cabinet of Ministers, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev named a new government. Although adjustments were made in its composition, namely regarding the Prime Minister, it did not represent an overhaul of the previous administration. Out of the 18 ministers appointed, 11 had served in the previous government. One of them was Murat Bektanov, the Minister of Defence.
If there are ministries that could be singled out for their inability to deal with the protestors, those would be the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Defence. However, Tokayev did not hold them accountable for the role of the police and the armed forces respectively. At least that was the case with the Ministry of Defence until January 19.
Only eight days after being confirmed as in the post, Tokayev swiftly dismissed Bektanov. The president had strong words for Kazakhstan’s former Chief of the General Staff (2019-2021): “During the January events, the Armed Forces, due to their extremely insecure and lack of initiative leadership, could not fulfil the tasks assigned to them with dignity. Minister Bektanov did not show commanding qualities.”
It was Bektanov’s poor performance, according to Tokayev, what had prompted him to ask the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) for assistance. “Having at our disposal an army that showed good results during command-staff and military exercises, we were unable to use its potential in a critical situation and were forced to resort to outside help.”
Leaving aside the possible reasons for the army’s indecisive role in the first days of the protests, which can include the power struggle among the elites, it was clear that Bektanov’s job could be on the wire. However, Tokayev kept him on the January 11 cabinet reshuffle. Why?
By the time the new government was announced, the situation had calmed down. The CSTO were on the ground, and it seemed that Tokayev was finally in control. Nevertheless, he might not have wanted to create unnecessary trouble and, while he had in mind Bektanov would go, he preferred to wait. Or perhaps he had not made up his mind yet and the idea of his dismissal came later. In the following week he might have received information that cleared the picture of the army’s and, more importantly, the minister’s role. Or simply he wanted to use a scapegoat for the security forces failures during the protests.
Regardless of the reasons behind Bektanov being fired, it cannot be said he was a man imposed by Nazarbayev. Contrary to some of the ministers, who had been in their posts before Tokayev became president, Bektanov was appointed directly by him in the summer of 2021. A decision he has now apparently come to regret. What prompted Bektanov’s promotion was the explosion of an army warehouse that killed over a dozen people, which led to his predecessor’s dismissal. Prior to being appointed minister, Bektanov had been the Chief of the General Staff since April 2019, days after Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation.
The new Minister of Defence
The person that has taken over from Bektanov is also an army man. Ruslan Zhaksylykov had been serving since 2014 as Commander-in-Chief of the National Guard, a contingent that sits under the Ministry of Interior Affairs, of which he was Deputy Minister. It does not seem a coincidence that Tokayev has publicly declared that he wants to reinforce the National Guard, a movement we also saw in Uzbekistan after Shavkat Mirziyoyev rose to power.
The president’s words regarding Zhaksylykov mentioned his experience and justified his appointment based on his merits. “He [Zhaksylykov] has a lot of experience. He worked in the internal troops for more than 30 years. He started his career from the very bottom, [and] worked in various leadership positions,” said the president.
The appointment of Zhaksylykov continues the trend of having people from the armed forces serve as Kazakhstan’s Minister of Defence. Besides the four ministers that occupied the post between 2007-2016, the rest had an army, or in one case intelligence, background.
Following on the steps of the KNB?
The last weeks have seen significant changes in the Kazakhstan’s Committee for National Security (KNB), the country’s main intelligence agency. As explained by RFE/RL’s Bruce Pannier, its chairman, one of its first deputy chairmen, and three deputy chairmen have been dismissed from their posts. Three of them, included the agency’s former head, Nazarbayev-loyalist Karim Masimov, have also been arrested. The first deputy chairman mentioned turns out to be one of Nazarbayev’s nephews.
These changes seem to be part of the wider power struggle between Tokayev and Nazarbayev’s circle. Is Bektanov’s dismissal the prelude to a deeper restructuring in the armed forces? This will depend on the level of trust and control President Tokayev has over the army and its leadership. So far, it would seem his problems have arisen mostly from the KNB. However, developments regarding the armed forces will still be an area worth keeping an eye on during the coming months.