Weeks before celebrating the 10th anniversary of its independence, the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan is in the midst of unprecedented political turmoil. The crisis culminated yesterday when President Nursultan Nazarbaev removed three high-ranking officials whom the country's prime minister had earlier accused of threatening democracy. Some analysts see the dismissals as the first blows in a possible war for succession in the oil-rich Central Asian state, while others believe they are just the most visible signs of a rampant struggle between oligarchs.
Prague, 22 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The political climate in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan deteriorated further yesterday when President Nursultan Nazarbaev agreed to the resignation of two senior cabinet members and one regional governor.
The three -- Deputy Prime Minister Uraz Dzhandosov, Deputy Defense Minister Zhannat Yertilesova and Pavlodar Governor Galimzhan Zhakiyanov -- all belong to Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, a newly created group that is calling for deeper political reforms and greater independence for the country's legislature and the judiciary.
In a statement read on the state-controlled "Khabar" television channel the night before the resignations on 20 November, Prime Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev called on Nazarbaev to dismiss the three officials for their alleged links to foreign oil interests, calling them obstacles to democracy and economic prosperity.
"I am urging the head of state to remove from their duties those non-professionals and intriguers that are working in his entourage."
Toqaev -- who also criticized Labor and Social Protection Minister Alikhan Baymenov as being disloyal to Nazarbaev's reform policy -- warned that, should his demands go unheeded, he would step down himself.
"It is time now to serve the country instead of serving foreign masters. It is time to do real business instead of getting involved in politicking. Should the president disagree with my personnel policy proposals, I would resign myself. The present statement should not be interpreted as an emotional outburst on my part. I have given it much thought."
Hours later, Dzhandosov, Yertilesova, Zhakiyanov, and Baymenov handed in their resignations to the president, arguing they could no longer work under Toqaev.
Nazarbaev's office today announced that Baymenov's resignation was also accepted. Russia's Interfax news agency reported that in his place, the president named Gulzhan Karagusova to head the Labor and Social Protection Ministry.
Also today, Nazarbaev appointed Danial Akhmetov, a former first deputy prime minister, to succeed Zhakiyanov as the head of the Pavlodar region. No replacements for Dzhandosov and Yertlesova have been announced yet.
Another cabinet member, First Deputy Finance Minister Kairat Kelimbetov, also offered to resign, but Nazarbaev apparently chose not to sack him for the moment.
The creation of Kazakhstan's Democratic Choice group -- which borrows the name of the party of reformers in Russia who advocated shock therapy in the first years of former President Boris Yeltsin's era -- was announced last on 18 November in the former capital, Almaty, by Pavlodar Governor Zhakiyanov and parliamentary deputy Tolen Toqtasynov.
Talking to journalists the next day in Astana, Yertlesova, Baymenov, and Kelimbetov said they will support the new group. Besides advocating deeper economic reforms, Democratic Choice members are also fierce opponents of Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev, a former deputy chairman of the National Security Service, or KNB, the successor to the Soviet KGB.
Thirty-eight-year-old Aliyev is married to the president's eldest daughter, Dariga, who formally owns such major media outlets as the Almaty-based KTK television network and the "Karavan" weekly newspaper.
Last month, parliamentary deputy Toqtasynov published an open letter in the "Vremya po..." independent newspaper, in which he accused Aliyev of controlling both the country's security forces and information channels. Toqtasynov also compared Aliyev to former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's secret police chiefs.
Days later, Aliyev suffered an additional blow when a group of deputies asked him to report about his activities before the lower house of parliament. But Aliyev ignored the call, claiming he was the victim of a libel campaign.
A week ago (15 November, Aliyev unexpectedly resigned from his post as KNB deputy chairman. Talking to journalists that same day in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, Aliev's sister Gulshat said she feared for her brother's life. The KTK television channel and the "Karavan" newspaper -- two media outlets allegedly controlled by Aliyev -- announced they had been ordered closed and that press freedom and democracy were under threat.
Yet, two days later (17 November), Aliyev was appointed deputy head of the presidential security services while law enforcement agencies launched an investigation into the activities of companies linked to his opponents. To add to the confusion, both KTK and "Karavan" said Nazarbaev had ordered sanctions against them lifted.
Many analysts consider the latest political developments to be Aliev's personal victory. The Moscow-based "Kommersant" daily wrote yesterday that, by making his son-in-law the number-two man in his personal guard, Nazarbaev delivered a clear message to his opponents. The Russian newspaper believes that recent events show Aliyev is now the most likely successor to Nazarbaev in the 2006 presidential election.
But other experts question this scenario, saying Aliev's position has considerably weakened since he left the KNB. Noting that the president remained silent when his son-in-law was being attacked by Toqtasynov and other future Democratic Choice members, these analysts say that Nazarbaev may have simply decided to let them undermine Aliev's positions before turning against them.
Amirzhan Qosanov is the chairman of the opposition Republican People Party's executive committee. In an interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Qosanov said yesterday that, in his view, Prime Minister Toqaev's indignation with Democratic Choice is just a show. He also suggested that Nazarbaev might be the man pulling the strings behind the scenes.
"Toqaev -- who, up until now, had been a moderate politician -- all of a sudden made a statement which was obviously written by somebody else. It just looks as if [Toqaev] is acting upon orders coming from above. His statements against the founders and rulers of the newly created Democratic Choice political movement, his demands to have them removed, are just part of a political game."
Two days ago, independent parliament deputy Serik Abdrakhmanov issued a public statement in which he accused both sides of being driven by the same thirst for wealth and power while laying claim to reforms and proclaiming their loyalty to Nazarbaev.
Abdrakhmanov, who advocates a complete renewal of the country's leadership, wrote: "In essence the ongoing struggle is about sharing what has not been shared yet and redistributing the already shared property. It is a struggle for influence and control over financial resources, and all these alarming statements about freedom of speech, democracy, or about media taken under control, are first and foremost meant for the crowd."
In a column posted on 20 November by the independent "Navigator" electronic newspaper, journalist Ravil Usmanov said the current political climate in Kazakhstan is the worst since the country gained its independence 10 years ago.
Echoing Abdrakhmanov's comments, Usmanov said: "Before, the balance of powers was based on hidden rivalry among oligarchs, but now it is based on their open mutual hatred."
(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)