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Kyrgyzstan: Prime Minister's Death Surprises Nation

Prague, 5 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The funeral for Jumabek Ibraimov, who had held the post of Kyrgyzstan's prime minister since last December, will be held in Bishkek tomorrow (April 6). Ibraimov died on Sunday of stomach cancer at the age of 55.

His death came as a surprise as he had just been released from a Moscow hospital last week with a clean bill of health after receiving treatment for his condition since March 13.

Ibraimov's sudden death complicates an already deteriorating situation in Kyrgyzstan, where the national currency, the som, has been falling since last August and to date has lost half its value. Relations with neighboring states are at one of their lowest points since Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991. And now, Kyrgyzstan must find its fourth prime minister since April of last year.

Ibraimov was never seen as more than a transitional figure. A member of the Central Committee of the Kirghiz Soviet Republic's Communist Party from 1988-1991, Ibraimov became the mayor of the capital, Bishkek, in 1993, but retired in 1995 when his health became a concern. He continued to act as a state secretary and an advisor to President Askar Akayev until December 1997 when he was unexpectedly appointed chairman of the State Property Fund. One year later he was a surprise choice to replace Kubanychbek JumAliyev as prime minister when the latter was sacked by Akayev after less than one year in the post. JumAliyev was dismissed for his government's failure in dealing with the growing fallout from the Russian financial crisis.

During Ibraimov's short period in office, Kyrgyzstan's economy continued to suffer from the effects of the Russian financial crisis. The national currency, which had rebounded from a low of 35 som to one dollar in November to just under 30 to one dollar at year's end began to fall again in late February. It currently stands at its previous low of some 35 to the dollar.

Other complications were caused by Kyrgyzstan's neighbors, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan's decision in February to raise by 200 percent tariff rates on some goods from Kyrgyzstan had a heavy impact on the Kyrgyz economy. Equally distressing for Kyrgyzstan were interruptions in supplies of natural gas from Uzbekistan which occurred in February and March. Additionally, a dispute over borders has arisen between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan since mid-February. Some deputies in the Kyrgyz parliament claim Uzbekistan has moved its border into Kyrgyz territory and established new fortified border posts is these areas.

Ibraimov did not have the time to address these issues and really spent his short time in office working on damage assessment, rather than problem alleviation. Ibraimov may have helped to stem some corruption in the government as he publicly reported not long after his appointment that in previous administrations, it was possible to buy positions in government. He said that he and some of his relatives had been approached with offers in the short time he had been prime minister.

The anti-corruption drive initiated immediately after Ibraimov's appointment to office also remains a task for his successor. Besides the problems already listed, that successor will have to contend with preparing the country for parliamentary elections due early next year. This could mean the next prime minister will, like Ibraimov, be merely a transitional figure.

While Kyrgyzstan's political course is largely controlled by President Akayev, the continued changes in the office of prime minister, combined with complicating factors from outside the country, lend to an image of a country with no clear policies, domestic or foreign.

Though the country was accepted into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October 1998, President Akayev has claimed on several occasions that Kazakhstan's tariff increase and problems with gas from Uzbekistan are punishment for Kyrgyzstan's WTO membership. Prices for Kyrgyzstan's major export, gold, continue dropping.

Presidential elections are also scheduled to be held at the end of 2000 and though Akayev has not yet declared he will run, he has the right to do so. If Akayev is planning, as yet privately, to run in those elections it is unlikely he will choose anyone with strong political aspirations to replace Ibraimov.