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Kazakhstan’s General Shuffle: Tracing Tokayev’s Military Personnel Changes

Kazakhstan’s armed forces have undergone important personnel changes in the aftermath of the bloody January 2022 protests. Some officers have been promoted, others have simply have changed jobs. But some among the country’s armed forces have even been arrested and jailed as President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev asserted his authority in the country. 

On March 9, state media in Kazakhstan announced that former Minister of Defense Murat Bektanov had been sentenced on February 24 to 12 years in prison after being found guilty of abuse of office during last year’s protests. The prosecutor general had previously accused Bektanov of “giving clearly illegal orders and leaving strategic military facilities unprotected” during the unrest. 

Bektanov had, until January 2022, enjoyed a successful career in the Kazakh army, rising through the ranks of the institution. By 2013 he was the commander of the East Military District. Three years later he became commander-in-chief of Kazakhstan’s Ground Forces and in 2019, shortly after Tokayev started his presidency, he was named chief of the general staff. In 2020 he was promoted to Lieutenant General and the following year he changed jobs once again to head the Ministry of Defense.

Bektanov survived the first cabinet reshuffle undertaken by Tokayev amid the protests, in which Alikhan Smailov took over the post of prime minister from Askar Mamin. However, only eight days later he was dismissed, with Tokayev accusing Bektanov of “not show[ing] commanding qualities.” He was then replaced by Ruslan Zhaksylykov, who had been the commander-in-chief of the National Guard since 2014. Two months after being sacked, the former minister of defense was arrested. 

The disgraced minister was charged under article 451 (Part 3) of Kazakhstan’s criminal code, which relates to abuse of office during a fighting situation and carries a prison sentence of between 7 to 15 years. It is hard to know what Bektanov’s role during the protests really was and what evidence was brought up in court against him. The trial was held behind closed doors and materials connected to it have not been made public.

What is certain is that Bektanov was not the only high-ranking military officer who lost his job in the last year.. 

In March 2022, the commander of the Southern Military District, Kaydar Karakulov, was also dismissed. A month later his counterpart at the Eastern Military District, Asan Zhusupov, shared the same fate. The same happened in June with the commander of the Western Military District, Nurlan Aldiyarov. 

Karakulov was arrested, and later released, in connection with the explosion of an arms depot in the southern region of Zhambyl that killed 12 back in 2021. Zhusupov and Aldiyarov fared better. The former became deputy chief of the general staff and the latter deputy commander-in-chief of the Ground Forces with responsibility over training. 

The pace of change was significant. In a matter of just a few months, the heads of three of Kazakhstan’s four Military Districts were replaced by Tokayev. Other less senior officers, such as the commander of the missile and artillery forces, also lost their posts shortly after the protests.

While the Kazakh Ground Forces saw important personnel changes, the Air Defense Forces (ADF) also went through a restructuring. It was not until late December 2022 that Tokayev moved against the commander-in-chief of the air force, Nurlan Ormanbetov.

A lieutenant general, he saw his second stint in the post — the first one was from 2013 to 2017 — cut short after having been named by Tokayev in 2020. In the same presidential decree, the commander of the Air Defense Forces, Kairat Sadykov, was also dismissed and was later put in charge of the ADF’s headquarters. In September 2022 the commander of the air force, Nurbolat Topayev, had also been replaced

The stance of some of the commanders during the protests and the way the army handled the situation must have taken its toll on Tokayev’s trust on the armed forces. This is probably the reason why, besides personnel changes, he created a new body that he could presumably rely on in the future if similar challenges are to emerge again. To this effect, as early as January 11 he instructed the establishment of the Special Operations Command. 

The responsibilities of this new unit included “countering hybrid threats to military security, combating illegal armed groups and assisting in anti-terrorist operations,” according to the deputy head of the Department of Strategic Development. This appears to be a rapid deployment force, loyal to Tokayev, that could be used in the future to promptly address violent outbursts as those that took place in 2022. Coincidentally, the appointment of Bolat Zhurabayev as commander of the Special Operations Command took place the same day as Bektanov’s dismissal. 

It is not unusual for governments, and especially those of an authoritarian nature, to continuously reshuffle ministerial cabinets or the military. To some extent that is what has happened with Kazakhstan’s armed forces. However, the scale and timing of the dismissals and reappointments indicate many of these were not part of the usual restructuring and were a consequence of last year’s protests. 

More than a year has now passed since Qandy Qantar (Bloody January) and it would seem like the situation in the armed forces has stabilized after a period of uncertainty. No major personnel changes have been announced in the last few weeks and it would seem the immediate effects of last year’s unrest in the army have come to an end. By reshuffling generals in the different branches of the armed forces, establishing a new unit, probably with personal loyalty in mind, and putting the former defense minister behind bars, Tokayev has ensured that the military is now better placed to deal with violent internal challenges to his authority — or so he hopes.

Francisco Olmos is a London-based researcher specialized in Central Asia. He is GEOPOL 21’s Main Researcher covering the post-Soviet space and a Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Centre.

Source: The Diplomat

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