ALMATY Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev sacked influential deputy prime minister Imangali Tasmagambetov on Friday and appointed him as ambassador to Russia, diminishing his chances of one day taking over the top job.
Nazarbayev, 76, has run the former Soviet republic since 1989, first as a Communist boss and then as president, and has never nominated a successor, making the eventual political transition a source of uncertainty for investors.
Tasmagambetov, 60, has long been seen as one of a few potential succession candidates and is popular among the broader public, especially in the country's oil-rich western regions.
The weakening of his position plays into the hands of other candidates such as Nazarbayev's daughter Dariga, a member of the upper chamber of parliament and her cousin Samat Abish, deputy head of the state security service.
Another potential successor, Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, speaker of the upper chamber, would automatically assume the presidency under the Kazakh constitution in the event of Nazarbayev's death, pending fresh elections.
Some observers have interpreted Nazarbayev's move last month to devolve some presidential powers to the cabinet and parliament as a step towards engineering a succession.
Speaking on state television on Friday, Nazarbayev said Tasmagambetov had himself asked to be sent to Moscow. However, appointments of senior Kazakh officials to diplomatic postings have traditionally signalled their falling out of favour with the president, although some have managed to regain it.
"Being an ambassador is more of an exile than promotion in Kazakh politics," said Amirzhan Kosanov, an opposition politician.
Tasmagambetov, once the leader of the Communist youth organisaton in the central Asian country, has served as a regional governor, mayor of two major cities, defence minister, prime minister, and president's chief of staff.
(Reporting by Mariya Gordeyeva; Additional reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Andrew Heavens)