On Friday, September 21, in a brief decree, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev relieved Aslan Musin, his long-serving chief of staff, of his duties and appointed him head of Kazakhstan’s Accounts Committee. What followed on Monday morning has been dubbed a “horizontal reshuffle” with several senior government officials assuming new posts within the upper echelons of the Kazakh political bureaucracy.

After accepting then prime minister Karim Massimov’s resignation on September 24, President Nazarbayev participated in a joint session of parliament, where he presented First Deputy Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov as his choice for Massimov’s replacement. Akhmetov was confirmed as the new premier later that day in a unanimous vote.

Nazarbayev named Massimov his new chief of staff, widely perceived to be the second-most-important political position in Kazakhstan, after the presidency itself. Massimov had served as prime minister since 2007 and is the only person in the country’s history to have held the post for more than five years. Speculation that he would be Nazarbayev’s pick to replace Musin had already surfaced by the end of the day on the 28th, when an adviser to the president announced to reporters that the prime minister had “for the past five years proven himself to be one of the country’s strongest government officials.”

Akhmetov had assumed the post of first deputy prime minister in January 2012, previously having served as governor (akim) of Karaganda Oblast. His history of involvement in local, regional, and national politics dates back to the 1980s. Azat Peruashev, leader of the political party Ak Zhol claimed that Akhmetov was the “ideal candidate” for the position of prime minister, noting that he had “served at nearly all levels of governance” and had experience as a businessman as well.

While the government reshuffle has been the subject of much speculation in the press, it remains unclear what, if any, changes in policy may result from the personnel shifts. Statements from members of the Kazakh government have largely focused on praising Massimov’s and Akhmetov’s governing abilities. In reaction to Akhmetov’s selection as prime minister, for example, President Nazarbayev remarked, “I think this will enable us to continue our work at the same pace and get ready for the possible second wave of the [global economic] crisis that everyone is talking about.”

But while Nazarbayev expressed his confidence in his new government’s ability to tackle the evolving challenges facing Kazakhstan, many experts believe that the changes in staff are unlikely to translate into changes to the Kazakh political system as a whole. According to Evgeny Minchenko, director of the Moscow-based International Institute for Political Expertise, “Nazarbayev’s actions are tied to the balance of groups within the ruling elite. [Massimov’s] resignation does not, in principle, affect the situation in Kazakhstan.” Opposition leaders have also stressed that, in their opinion, the changes do not reflect anything other than a closed shuffling of the country’s elites; according to Bulat Abilov, a leader of the unrepresented Azat (Freedom) Party, “the situation in [Kazakhstan] is dependent on the price of oil, so the prime minister in our country does not decide much.”

Though many do not view Massimov’s or Akhmetov’s new post as a significant change, the reassignment of Aslan Musin has garnered considerable attention. Musin served for four years as President Nazarbayev’s chief of staff and in that time became one of Kazakhstan’s most influential political figures. Despite statements made by an adviser to President Nazarbayev that the Accounts Committee is a “key branch” of government, Musin’s reappointment is seen as a significant demotion. As the Kazakh magazine Vlast (Power) noted, though the committee is nominally in charge of the state budget, it is nevertheless “a small supervisory agency, composed of 40 people and lacking great authority or political weight.”   
Speculation as to the reasons behind Musin’s removal as chief of staff largely revolves around a series of perceived domestic failures from the past year. Notable among these, according to Vlast, were the recent rise of Islamic terrorism and the December riots in Zhanaozen, which killed fourteen people and damaged Kazakhstan’s image as a bastion of stability in the region. Many have also noted that Musin’s reassignment came just weeks after Bergei Ryskaliev, the former governor of Atyrau Oblast who is considered to be “one of Musin’s people,” was removed from office following allegations of corruption.

Though Musin’s reassignment has most widely been interpreted as a major demotion, some believe that the former chief of staff has not truly lost his position as a political power player. Aleksei Vlasov, general director of the Center for Post-Soviet Studies in Moscow, told RIA Novosti that “Musin, having assumed the post of head of the Accounts Committee, has in actuality maintained control over sufficiently powerful levers of political influence.” Vlasov clarified that with the developing war against corruption, the Accounts Committee may take on new functions and become a more powerful organ of the government.

Aside from the reappointments of Musin, Massimov, and Akhmetov, several other high-level officials have received new posts in the reshuffle. Notable among them are former ambassador to the United States, Erlan Idrisov, who recently assumed the role of minister of foreign affairs, and Krymbek Kusherbaev, the former governor of Mangystau Oblast who was dismissed in the aftermath of the violence in Zhanaozen and has now been named a deputy prime minister.