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Kazakhstan: Is The Prime Minister On His Way Out?

Prague, 23 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- By his own admission, Kazakhstan's Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin has been the focus of rumors since he took over the top government post in 1994. The latest of the rumors is that yesterday's announcement -- namely that he is being temporarily replaced as prime Minister for "health reasons" -- spells the end of his career.

Kazhegeldin has often been criticized for the government's economic performance, especially during the last two years when prices of consumer goods and services have risen noticeably and wage and pension payments were delayed by months.

But in a change of tone, attacks appeared this month in the press on the Kazakh Prime Minister's character, not his performance in office. And topping these was the announcement about his health, which said he would lay down his duties immediately, but did not specify for how long. He is said to be suffering from phlebitis.

Kazhegeldin, 45, came to office in October 1994 after his predecessor, Sergei Tereshchenko, was removed following a critical report by Tereshchenko on the country's economic "crisis."

Kazhegeldin survived the dissolving of parliament six months later and appeared to have strengthened his position. By summer 1995, there were already rumors on the streets of Almaty that Kazhegeldin's health would not allow him to continue as Prime Minister for long. However, many representatives of western companies doing business in Kazakhstan supported Kazhegeldin and his policies, and rumors of ill health soon faded.

Early in 1997 Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev placed responsibility for dealing with unpaid wages and pensions on Kazhegeldin's shoulders -- telling him he had until April 1 to show progress or he would be out of office. Though this problem was not totally solved Kazhegeldin seemed to have done enough to keep his office.

On September 5, the Kazakh independent newspaper Karavan printed an interview with Kazhegeldin in which the Kazakh Prime Minister admitted he had worked for the KGB in Soviet times. Kazhegeldin claimed he was involved in the "commercial" aspects of KGB work mainly in dealings with Muslim countries of the Balkans and Asia, but had never broken any laws in this work.

While the Kazakh population pondered this, a deputy from the Kazakh parliament, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, told the lower house of the Kazakh parliament on September 11 that Kazhegeldin had used his influence to acquire shares in the Shymkent oil refinery and was "in effect, the owner."

Nurkadilov questioned the sale of the refinery for the price of only $60 million when its reported profits for 1996 were $40 million. The buyer was described as "an unknown company" registered in Gibraltar.

Kazhegeldin's press secretary finally denied the accusation on September 17, producing the ownership deed and pointing out that Kazhegeldin's name was not on it. On September 19 at news conference, Kazhegeldin dismissed the allegations against him, saying it was the work of those "not satisfied with the formation of the stock market and the privatization mechanism."

However, Kazhegeldin took time to comment on rumors of his possible resignation. He said "anything can happen, including at my own initiative."

That Akezhan Kazhegeldin's health is shaky, despite his relatively young age, is no secret. It has just been disclosed that he resigned from the KGB in 1989 due to a "sharp deterioration in health." This time, whether the illness is genuine or "diplomatic", it may mean that his days as prime minister are over.

The Kazakh government has moved quickly to dispel notions of any instability in ruling circles.

Kazhegeldin's replacement, First Deputy Prime Minister Akhmetzhan Yesimov, in remarks aimed at foreign investors, said that "government policy and the reform course will not change."

Yesimov also said there would be no cabinet reshuffle, and that Kazhegeldin would not be resigning.