Prague, 11 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's former chief spymaster Nurtay Abikaev began yesterday as the head of the presidential administration and ended the day the number-two man in the state, second only to President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Abikaev was elected speaker of the Senate, the upper house of parliament, which was somewhat surprising given that he was not even a senator earlier in the day.
"Abikaev's election to Senate speaker was seen by some as part of a greater strategy to pack the parliament with the president's most ardent loyalists."
It was a surprise twist in political events in Kazakhstan that some called a simple reshuffle, and others said marked the start of the campaign for this year's parliamentary elections.
Batyrkhan Darimbet, a member of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan political party, said Nazarbaev simply appointed a long-time friend to a high-level post and was likely to make more such appointments ahead of the scheduled October parliamentary elections this year.
"Nurtay Abikaev has been working together with Nursultan Nazarbaev since 1984. He's one of the closest associates of the president. That's why this move, made on the eve of the parliamentary elections' campaign, should be viewed as the most important sign that the race for seats in the parliament has already started. I'm sure there will be more new appointments in the very near future," Darimbet said.
President Nazarbaev has the right to appoint seven senators to the 39-seat body. The remaining seats are filled by those elected by local council from each of the 14 provinces and two major cities.
The six-year senate terms run on a staggered schedule, so every three years half of them depart to be replaced by new senators. Abikaev's appointment yesterday was to replace one of Nazarbaev's previous appointments, who was resigning.
The man Abikaev replaced, 60-year-old Oralbay Abdykarimov, officially asked to resign from the post of Senate speaker. Constitutionally, the speaker of the Senate becomes head of state should the president be unable to fulfill his duties.
Abdykarimov's resignation comes as the parliament debates two key draft laws -- one on elections, the other on media. Some see Abikaev's sudden promotion as an indication the laws, seen by some as more restrictive, are likely to be passed easily.
Former Kazakh Information Minister Altynbek Sarsenbaev said the news of Abikaev's new post was hardly surprising and further discredited the parliament in the eyes of the people. Sarsenbaev was appointed Kazakhstan's ambassador to Russia in January 2002, but suddenly resigned late last year, a sign many took to mean he could run for the presidency in 2006.
"According to the constitution, the president can recommend a speaker of the Senate, but in both cases where this has happened, with Oralbay Abdykarimov and [now with] Nurtay Abikaev, the president's nominee was elected as speaker. This diminishes the authority and respect of the whole Senate in front of ordinary citizens. That is the image society sees of the Senate itself and the parliament as a whole," Sarsenbaev said.
Abikaev's image is itself less than perfect. He was dismissed as the chairman of the National Security Committee, the KNB, in August 1999. He and Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev were fired for failing to properly investigate the illegal sale of some of Kazakhstan's Soviet-era MiG-21s to North Korea.
In March 2000, Altynbaev became commander of Kazakhstan's air defense force before returning to the post of defense minister in December 2001.
Abikaev became first deputy foreign minister in 2000, then head of the presidential administration -- a post he held until yesterday.
Abikaev's election to Senate speaker was seen by some as part of a greater strategy to pack the parliament with the president's most ardent loyalists.
Ghalym Abilseitov was the co-chairman of Kazakhstan's opposition party, Azamat, until he moved to Russia not long ago. He has been following events back home and connected Abikaev's rise to the similarly meteoric political ascent of President Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbaeva.
Nazarbaeva has effectively controlled Kazakhstan's state media for several years and last year suddenly transformed her Asar social movement into a political party.
Asar's founding congress was held in late October 2003. By January, the party was already registered and boasting 166,000 members -- second only to the pro-presidential Otan party. Asar had also attracted defectors from members of both houses of parliament.
Abilseitov said Abikaev's appointment could herald good things for Dariga Nazarbaeva.
"Well, it looks like a good decision for [the Nazarbaev family and their supporters]. After elections to the Mazhlis [lower house of parliament], Dariga might become speaker of the lower house. It looks like it is going in that direction. Nurtay [Abikaev] might hold the position of number two for the required amount of time. This was not a short-term decision; this is a decision for several years. It looks like preparations for 2006 [when the presidential elections are scheduled]," Abilseitov said.
There was one other notable appointment yesterday. Imangali Tasmagambetov, Kazakhstan's prime minister from January 2002 to June 2003, took over Abikaev's former position as head of the presidential administration and left his previous position as state secretary.
(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)