September 26, 2012 / 3:41 PM / 5 years ago

Ex-head of Kazakh riot-hit region returns to government

* Appointment shows importance of loyalty to president

* "Forced sacrifice" last year, ex-governor shines again

By Dmitry Solovyov

ALMATY, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on Wednesday gave a top government job to the former governor of a region where a workers' strike erupted into bloodshed in December, a sign that loyalty to the leader comes first in the oil-producing nation.

Nazarbayev, 72, who has ruled the Central Asian state for more than two decades, appointed Krymbek Kusherbayev as deputy prime minister, the presidential press service said. It was not immediately clear what his duties would be.

Kusherbayev, 57, has worked as presidential spokesman, health minister and ambassador to Russia. He was fired as head of the western Mangistau region after police used firearms to disperse protesters in the oil town of Zhanaozen and a nearby village, killing at least 15 people last December.

The bloodshed, which followed a months-long strike by oil workers, was the worst in Kazakhstan's post-Soviet history.

The shooting shattered Kazakhstan's image of stability and drew fierce criticism from the country's small but vocal opposition, amid repeated international calls on the authorities to hold a transparent investigation.

Analysts said Kusherbayev's appointment was a signal that personal loyalty remains decisive for Nazarbayev, the only person permitted by the constitution to run for president an unlimited number of times.

"Krymbek Kusherbayev had long been a true member of the president's team. For far too long he had been inside this system, which he faithfully served, and the president generously appreciated this," said Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpayev.

As strong criticism of the December violence started to subside at home and abroad, Kusherbayev first emerged from the shadows in July, when Nazarbayev appointed him as his adviser.

"His sacking after what happened in Zhanaozen was a forced sacrifice made by Nazarbayev to defuse tension," Satpayev said. "But by choosing Kusherbayev as his adviser, Nazarbayev showed he was part of his team and he would keep him by his side."

Arkady Dubnov, a Moscow-based Central Asia expert, said: "I believe that deputy prime minister will not be his last job."

Kusherbayev's appointment followed the resignation of Prime Minister Karim Masimov on Monday, who was reappointed to the powerful post of chief of Nazarbayev's staff.

Masimov was replaced by his first deputy, Serik Akhmetov. The economy and labour ministers are the only other changes in the cabinet to date, with most ministers having retained their posts. The position of foreign minister remains vacant.

Analysts have said the latest government reshuffle merely affirmed Nazarbayev's grip on power.

"Governments in Kazakhstan are not formed after parliamentary elections ... but according to their personal devotion to 'The Leader of the Nation'," Dubnov said. (Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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