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Kazakhstan: Drastic Government Reorganization Masks Power Play

Prague, 20 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev has started on the most radical reorganization of government structures since the country became independent of the USSR five years ago.

At the same time, the restructuring throws a light on the relationship between the autocratic president and the country's second most powerful man, namely Prime Minister Akejan Kajegeldin.

By a decree signed on March 4, Nazarbayev cut the number of people employed by the government by a full 50 per cent, slashed the number of ministries by one third, and significantly increased his own day-to-day hold over key governemnt sectors.

An RFE/RL correspondent in Almaty says that out of a population of 16.5 million, an estimated one million people were in government service of one kind or another. The cut in jobs will therefore have an impact right through Kazakh society. Rumors of coming big cuts in government staffing levels had long been circulating in the capital Almaty, but the reality exceeded the rumor.

The number of ministries was cut from 21 to 14, state committees from 13 to six, and other governmental boards from 13 to five.

At a press conference the same day, Nazarbayev said the measures were a blow against corruption, and provided an opportunity to increase salaries of remaining government workers, as well as add finances to the state treasury -- which our correspondent says currently faces huge problems over the payment of overdue salaries and pensions.

The ministries of economy and finance were both assigned many extra duties.

Nazarabayev promised further changes yet to come. And he announced that from now on he would directly control the activities of the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry. He said his decree was just the first step towards demonstrating to both Kazakhs and the world that constitutionally the country is ruled by presidential power.

As for the other ministries and boards -- mostly less powerful ones -- they would directly answer to Prime Minister Kajegeldin.

One striking feature of the president's monumental reorganization is that they took place when Kajegeldin was out of the country -- again. The prime minister was making a visit to Turkey when the news broke. Obviously taken by surprise, he quickly organised his own press conference to tell journalists that he had long ago recommended Nazarbayev to cut government personnel levels, adding rather lamely that Nazarbayev's decision was timely and corresponded to his own opinions.

The same thing happened last December, while Kajegeldin was on a trip to Japan. He was very surprised to find on his return that three of his deputies had been replaced.

Some Kazakh political observers consider that the timing of Nazarbayev's moves represent a strategy to ensure that Kajegeldin does not become too powerful. There is talk in Almaty of disagreements and misundertandings between the two men. And last month an article appeared in the Russian newspaper "Argumenty i Fakty," in which a Turkish source was cited as saying that some "political circles in Turkey were supporting Akejan Kajegeldin's candidacy as the next president in Kazakhstan." Nazarbayev in 1995 pushed though a referendum which, contrary to the terms of the original post-independence constitution, extended his term to at least the year 2000, and gave him almost limitless powers.

Kajegeldin is a Nazarbayev protege. He first came to prominence in the early 1990's as a businessman in Semipalatinsk, where he made profits in agribusiness and trade. On the strength of his economic successes, he was invited to Almaty by Nazarbayev in 1994 to become a first deputy prime minister, and has not looked back since then.

Just last Tuesday the president was not slow to further underscore his tightening grip on power. He held a session with representatives of the administration, in which he gave details of the restructuring. He reportedly explained the duties of the new Security and Economy Councils, the State Committee on Foreign Investments Control, and the Agencies of Strategic Planning and Strategic Resources Control -- all of which will be directly controlled by the president himself.

Nazarbayev said the direct subordination to himself of these boards follows naturally from the country's form of government, and were not to be taken as an attempt by him to increase his influence on governmental activities.

However, our correspondent reports that some opposition movements immediately dismissed that explanation, saying the president's aim was clearly related to consolidating his own position.