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Journey To 'Judas': How Lethal Unrest Left Nazarbaev's Trusted Enforcer Dancing Alone

Powerbroker and former Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov (file photo)
Powerbroker and former Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov (file photo)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Among the more left-field revelations to emerge from the massive leak of U.S. diplomatic cables known as WikiLeaks was an account of how the now-jailed powerbroker Karim Masimov was spotted dancing "alone and animatedly" at a trendy nightclub in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana.

During that apparently alcohol-fueled night in 2008, then-Prime Minister Masimov had taken to the dance floor with an entourage that included the country's chief of staff and Astana's mayor, as well as "three middle-aged women (presumably their wives)," according to the cable.

But while the others danced on the main dance floor of the Chocolat nightclub, Masimov went to a stage above them and, when his fellow revelers retired, he kept busting his moves for some 20 minutes.

The account that was lapped up by foreign media outlets and confirmed by an unabashed Masimov now seems an apt metaphor for a man that rose to the top but found himself isolated and under the spotlight as the biggest protests in Kazakhstan's independence left a divided regime on the brink.

Masimov meets with then-President Nursultan Nazarbaev in 2015.
Masimov meets with then-President Nursultan Nazarbaev in 2015.

The 57-year-old, who was serving as Kazakhstan's national security chief when the unrest broke out in January 2022, remains the only prominent politician to be convicted in connection with an uprising that caused at least 238 deaths.

He received a sentence of 18 years imprisonment for high treason in a closed-door trial in Astana on April 24, with three of his former deputies receiving sentences between three and 16 years.

Perhaps most painfully, he has been publicly abandoned and disparaged by his long-time patron, former President Nursultan Nazarbaev -- widely viewed as Kazakhstan's ultimate decision-maker before Bloody January saw the octogenarian strongman's put-upon successor, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, emerge as a president in more than just name.

Commenting on Masimov's case while casting a vote at presidential elections that handed Toqaev a fresh seven-year term in November, Nazarbaev likened the man viewed as perhaps his most trusted lieutenant to Judas Escariot, the disciple that betrayed Jesus in the Christian Bible.

"Masimov worked for many years with me, but how would you know [he would do something wrong]? Did Jesus Christ know about Judas, who sat close to him?"

In a post on Telegram marking Masimov's April 24 sentencing, political analyst Gaziz Abishev called Masimov a seasoned "survivor" in Kazakh politics, while suggesting he had erred when the stakes were highest.

"In a power struggle, the most important thing is not to overestimate yourself, not to underestimate others, and not to rely on chance," Abishev wrote on his channel, Abishev Analytics.

"In the end it's every man for himself."

But was Masimov merely a convenient scapegoat for the Bloody January events?

A Powerful Outsider

Masimov's rise in independent Kazakhstan emulated that of his provincial hometown, Tselinograd, whose transformation into Astana would cost the state budget billions of dollars and become one of Nazarbaev's most-treasured achievements.

After completing his studies in Kazakhstan, Masimov studied Chinese at Peking University.

Masimov combined loyalty to Nazarbaev with a strong relationship with Timur Kulibaev, the former president's oligarch son-in-law.
Masimov combined loyalty to Nazarbaev with a strong relationship with Timur Kulibaev, the former president's oligarch son-in-law.

As the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, Masimov was a legal adviser to the Union's Trade Representation in China, later heading a similar body for independent Kazakhstan in Hong Kong in 1994.

But the martial arts enthusiast spent most of the 1990s moving up the ladder to hold leadership positions in Kazakhstan's rapidly growing, high-risk banking sector before gaining his first cabinet post as transport minister aged just 35.

The head of the cabinet at that time was another fluent Mandarin speaker who was 12 years his senior, and perhaps a natural rival to Masimov for Nazarbaev's affections – Toqaev.

Masimov became Kazakhstan's youngest prime minister in 2007, serving through an economic crisis in 2009 and taking up the role again in 2014 following a stint of just over a year as head of Nazarbaev's administration.

A foreign consultant who worked with him during his time as head of government and requested anonymity remembered that his first meeting with Masimov started at 1 a.m.

"He was a workaholic, like many in the bureaucracy. He apologized to us and had his caterers lay out a spread," the consultant said.

Tact -- a quality often ascribed to career diplomat Toqaev -- was one of Masimov's strengths, too.

"He was warm and open to discussion. He could communicate to foreigners what he thought was possible and what wasn't, and he seemed to have a good understanding of the bigger picture of where Kazakhstan was in the world. If you challenged other government officials, you would be worried about them blowing up, but he would give you a polite smile before offering a correction," the consultant recalled.

It was Masimov, the consultant said, who smoothed former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's lucrative entry into Central Asia as an image-maker for Nazarbaev's regime.

Masimov was also the first highly ranked official to go on Twitter, with mixed results.

But for all of Masimov's self-identification as a modernizer, he was also a clear-eyed power player, a skill all the more necessary due to perceptions that he was of mostly Uyghur -- rather than Kazakh -- heritage.

"He was a safe top aide to Nazarbaev, since he could not expect to usurp him," said a Western diplomat, whose one meeting with Masimov several years ago had left him "turned off."

"He was cocky, almost haughty," said the diplomat.

According to multiple sources, Masimov combined loyalty to Nazarbaev with a strong relationship with Timur Kulibaev, the former president's oligarch son-in-law, who has retained joint control of Kazakhstan's largest private bank despite the family as a whole fading from public view in the last year.

Masimov was chairman of the bank, Halyk, before becoming transport minister.

"It was a kind of tandem," said a Kazakh national who works as a government relations specialist at a major international company and had direct contact with Masimov in a prior role.

Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, interim Kazakh president at the time, and Nazarbaev in 2019
Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, interim Kazakh president at the time, and Nazarbaev in 2019

"After Nazarbaev's other son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev, fell into disgrace in the early 2000s, Kulibaev became the main son-in-law and his interests just kept growing. Masimov and he shared businesses together. Kulibaev still had battles to fight in the bureaucracy and Masimov was his political cover. At the same time Masimov was advising Nazarbaev on financial matters public and personal," said the specialist, who also requested anonymity.

Nazarbaev said in May that Masimov should be answerable for the "investment activities" of a university in Astana bearing Nazarbaev's name, after the university came under scrutiny in a media investigation alleging that Nazarbaev controlled billions of dollars in assets via charitable foundations.

In March, the Committee for National Security said that it had unearthed evidence pointing to bribe-taking from both local and foreign businesses as part of its investigation into its former boss.

The press release, which included photos of a luxury property and suitcases full of cash, claimed investigators had found over $17 million in cash at a villa that Masimov had been gifted by a company.

Masimov's PR campaign, run by former State Department official David Merkel, has described the release as an attempt to smear Masimov.

Transition Role

The foreign consultant who worked with Masimov when he was prime minister told RFE/RL that he was somewhat surprised to learn of Masimov's appointment to the position of national security chief in 2016.

"Obviously, Nazarbaev trusted him as somebody who was not enmeshed in Kazakhstan's clan networks to fulfill various roles. But at the time I worked in Kazakhstan you had security guys who were blocking a lot of the modernization, and you had the modernizers. He was one of the modernizers."

And yet, he was there for a reason.

According to Merkel's website,, Masimov "had a major role to play in the peaceful transfer of power to the current President" as Nazarbaev made plans to step down as head of state.

Those less inclined to defend Masimov might say that he was there as a check on the authority of Nazarbaev's successor, who, upon becoming head of state in 2019, found himself surrounded by allies and relatives of the man that remained constitutionally enshrined as "Elbasy," or "Leader of the Nation," until last year.

To make matters even more limiting, Nazarbaev had created for himself a "lifelong" post as chairman of Kazakhstan's security council, a position that put in question Toqaev's role as commander in chief and essentially made figures like Masimov untouchable.

It did not take long for talk of a schism between the camps surrounding Toqaev and Nazarbaev to emerge.

The Nazarbaev clique, with which Masimov was associated, was referred to by analysts as "the library," due to its habit of holding meetings in the president's library.

In 2021, a leak of data related to the Israeli spyware program Pegasus suggested Toqaev had been a target of surveillance in the buildup to the handover of power, with evidence suggesting Kazakhstan's government was the client who had ordered the snooping.

Another Kazakh official targeted was Askar Mamin, Kazakhstan's future prime minister, a school classmate of Masimov's and one of the officials spotted with him by the embassy official during that evening of drinking and dancing in 2008.

Dimash Alzhanov, whose phone was also hacked with the software, has no doubts it was Masimov in charge of the surveillance operations.

"It fell under his mandate, which was to control the regime from within and society from above. I believe that Masimov was heading this operation for Nazarbaev," said Alzhanov, a political analyst and activist.

With the case against Masimov falling under the "classified" category, almost no details of the accusations against him are known.

What is known is that Masimov was detained sometime after participating in a meeting of the security council on January 5, 2022, by which time the unrest that began with peaceful protests against a fuel price increase in the west of the country had already gone nationwide.

Official statements say he was detained on January 6, a day that saw residents of the business capital Almaty and other cities wake up to scenes of devastation and looting as key administrative buildings were burnt down.

Other sources claim Masimov was jailed as early as January 5.

Whatever the truth, the announcement was only made on January 8.

By then, Toqaev's position had been visibly strengthened by the intervention of a "peacekeeping" force of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led body that he said had no role in the fighting.

Over the course of the crisis, Nazarbaev made no statements at all, and was not believed to have been present at the security council meeting.

An Internet shutdown, meanwhile, handed Toqaev complete control over all remaining channels of information.

Toqaev would later say he had had a conversation with Nazarbaev, during which he insisted on replacing him as security council chair -- a result he announced on January 5.

Tellingly, Toqaev would also comment that a few "comrades" had suggested he flee the capital, Astana, which had not been touched by the violence.

"The aim of all coups is, let's say, the arrival in power of different people," said Toqaev, who had initially blamed 20,000 terrorists for the worst of the violence.

But if Masimov was part of a coup attempt could he have done it without other powerful politicians behind him?

After the events, Toqaev implied that the Committee for National Security played a decisive role in allowing the unrest to reach critical levels.

But what became of Masimov's first deputy, Samat Abish, a nephew of Nazarbaev's who some observers had regarded as a successor-in-waiting -- even after Toqaev took the presidency on an initially interim basis in 2019?

Unlike the other three, Abish was questioned as a witness, not a suspect, and is not believed to be under investigation.

For some time after the events, there was confusion as to whether the career security man had even been dismissed.

"Of course, the idea of Masimov as the mastermind of a coup is not realistic," the analyst Alzhanov told RFE/RL.

"Masimov was a smart guy -- and certainly smart enough to realize that he was never the main actor that Toqaev now wants to portray him as."

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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