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Kazakhstan: Prime Minister's Fate Still A Mystery

Prague, 3 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Speculation continues to swirl over the fate of Kazakhstan's Prime Minister Akejan Kajegeldin, who is now in Switzerland being treated for a serious illness.

Kajegeldin's illness, which he describes as a blood clot in the lungs, seems genuine enough. He has long been known to suffer poor health, and this has apparently been aggravated by a fall from his horse this summer.

But analysts say his sudden departure from Kazakhstan for foreign treatment must be considered along with a number of other happenings. They see a political significance to the pattern of events -- possibly related to the presidential elections in 2000, which are expected to be contested by incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Kajegeldin, 45 and is a businessman by background, has been premier for some three years. He's been the key player in attracting thousands of millions of dollars of foreign investment to his country in that time, and his departure overseas has sent ripples of nervousness through investors.

Until a month ago, Kajegeldin was the most popular politician in Kazakhstan. Now his reputation, as well as his health, is in tatters. What happened?

On September 5, Kajegeldin made a sensational statement to the Kazakh newspaper Karavan in which he admitted that he worked for the Soviet KGB in the late 1980s. He said he was a secret envoy of the KGB in Balkan countries and the Mideast, controlling arms sales deals and being a key person laundering money in those deals for the Communist Party.

The interview struck the public like a bombshell, and set off a chain of rumours, as well as media criticism. Kajegeldin himself disappeared from public view, and his motives for disclosing the damaging information are unclear. Some say he may have preferred to make the disclosure himself rather than have someone else reveal the same facts in a less favourable light.

Around the same time, the Premier came in for an unusual level of criticism in the parliament about his business dealings while in office. Then came the brief announcement that he was overseas, and had been temporarily relieved of his duties as premier because of his health.

That coincided with other, and politically more significant, revelations. The Russian newspaper "Komsomolskaya Pravda" published an interview with Kajegeldin in which he went into extra detail about KGB operations. But more importantly, he predicted that soon the Kazakh government could face a drastic political crisis, adding that all the younger staff of the Kazakh government would refuse to continue in their positions and would resign. He did not give a clue as to what form the crisis would take.

The same day the interview appeared, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev issued a decree appointing Vice Premier Ahmetjan Yesimov Acting PM of Kazakhstan, on the grounds of Kajegeldin's illness.

In the absence of further official information, the rumour mill changed into an even higher gear, and it was said that Kajegeldin was in Italy. Only after Kajegeldin himself began talking to journalists in Switzerland did his whereabouts become clear. He sent out a strong plea to foreign investors not to abandon Kazakhstan, saying that whether he stayed or went as prime minister, the country was too deeply committed to reforms to relapse.

A Russian journalist who spoke to Kajegeldin by phone said Kajegeldin told him that he would return to Kazakhstan no matter if he lost his position of premier or not.

Kajegeldin is now awaiting a decision by his doctors by the end of this week about whether he should undergo surgery or not. That's the purely medical side of the equation. The political side of the affair is by no means so clear cut, and may not become clear for some time.