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Kazakhstan: Government Survives Confidence Vote

Prague, 24 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier today, a joint session of Kazakhstan's parliament voted confidence in the country's government, or at least that is how it is being reported.

Prime Minister Nurlan Balghimbaev's government has been under attack from the parliament for most of June, and it sometimes appeared that Balghimbaev would not last the month.

The government survived today's vote, but rather than an endorsement of its performance, the vote should been seen more as a case of insufficient agreement between the two houses of parliament to oust Balghimbaev and his cabinet.

The main issue was new budget cuts. Kazakhstan entered 1999 without an approved budget. Falling world market prices for Kazakhstan's major exports -- oil and ferrous and non-ferrous metals -- coupled with the effects of Russia's financial crisis created a good deal of uncertainty when planning the national budget.

When a revised budget was approved at the end of March, it was almost immediately made invalid by a government decision to float the rate of the national currency the tenge. The tenge's value dropped by more than one-third in the course of one week, making the March budget obsolete.

The government proposed a new budget at the end of May. While that budget provided for keeping the deficit at 3.7 percent of gross domestic product, it did so by slashing social programs. With parliamentary elections scheduled this autumn, few deputies were willing to support the new budget, which was bound to be unpopular with ordinary Kazakhs.

The lower house of Kazakhstan's parliament (Mazhlis) tried to head off the budget vote at the start of June by raising the issue of confidence in Balghimbaev and his government. Deputies of the Mazhlis who are members of the Otan political party blamed the country's problems on Balghimbaevs government. The Otan party is loyal to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, so the attack on Balghimbaev from this quarter seemed a prelude to the sacking of the government.

Despite Otan's connections with the president, Balghimbaev was able to turn the tables by offering to name the person whom he believes is responsible for Kazakhstan's present troubles. At an early June session of parliament, Balghimbaev addressed the deputies:

"How can anyone say that the government does nothing? We get 300 billion tenge profit annually, of which 140 billion is supposed to be paid to our pensioners as arrears. Who created this problem? Balghimbaev's cabinet? We have to start paying back our foreign debts, namely $500 million this year. Who has created this problem? Balghimbaev's cabinet? We have 67 billion tenge of local deficit. Who is responsible for that? What else have we to sell in order to get rid of the problems? Nothing. Everything has been sold before us. You want me to say [by whom]?"

From the reaction of deputies, it was obvious they understood that the person Balghimbaev was threatening to name is Sergei Tereshchenko. Tereshchenko was Kazakhstan's prime minister from 1991 to 1995 but more recently served as chairman of Otan. Balghimbaevs counterattack worked, and Nazarbaev said publicly that the government would not be dismissed.

That left Balghimbaev free for a showdown with parliament. The Kazakh prime minister raised the issue of confidence at Monday's session of parliament. If the deputies voted no-confidence in the government, either the president would sack the government -- which Nazarbaev already said he would not do -- or the parliament would be dismissed, which happened previously in March 1995.

With that as a background, the deputies from the Mazhlis and Senate met today to vote on the confidence issue.

The speakers of both houses indicated while the votes were being tallied that they were not intimidated by the threat that parliament could be dissolved. Marat Ospanov is the speaker of the Mazhlis. Prior to presidential elections in January, Ospanov said he would be named prime minister following Nazarbaev's expected victory. That did not happen and may account for Ospanov leading the campaign to oust Balghimbaev's government.

In an interview today with RFE/RL, Ospanov explained the votes required for a no-confidence motion and his own views on the matter:

"The issue about two-thirds [majority] of voices is the international standard. This is not created by Kazakhstan. The figure two-thirds is also fixed in our constitution. It is not easy to get two-thirds of the votes. But everything depends on every deputy and their conscience, his or her understanding of their responsibilities and obligations. That is how the matter is supposed to be solved. That is how Kazakhstan might become a part of the real democratic world. I personally think that if yesterday parliament demanded the dismissal of the government, the parliament has to confirm that demand."

Omirbek Baigeldy is the speaker of the Kazakh Senate. In an interview with RFE/RL today, he criticized the government while the confidence votes were being tabulated.

"The current government failed to prove it could do anything for the country. They have failed to create special programs to stabilize the country. In my opinion, if they had ever made such a program, it could be possible to express confidence in [the government] easily. But who knows? Everything will be decided today in the two houses."

As Ospanov mentioned, a two-thirds' majority of both the upper and lower houses of parliament was needed to pass the motion of no-confidence. Of the 67 deputies in the Mazhlis, 18 voted confidence in the government, 34 voted no-confidence and 15 abstained. Of the 35 deputies in the Senate, 11 voted confidence in the government and 23 voted no-confidence, with one abstention. Not counting the abstentions, the deputies were one vote short of forcing Nazarbaev to decide who would go and who would stay.

Seconds after the vote was announced, Prime Minister Balghimbaev hurried from the chamber to talk to journalists.

"I do not think anything will happen to the current government. As you have seen, there are not enough voices. I wish the parliament would do its work and make legislation because life is still going on. I believed in our victory beforehand and, needless to say, today the parliament hurt its image itself by failing to accomplish what it started." It may be too early to say that Balghimbaev's government is secure. Though Nazarbaev has said he would not sack the government, this is not a firm guarantee, as two recent examples show.

Nazarbaev said he supported the parliament in its dispute with the Supreme Court in March 1995. But after the court ruled that the deputies were elected in an unfair vote, Nazarbaev was among the first to say he was glad to be rid of them.

Last September, Nazarbaev also said there would be no early presidential elections. But one week later, he went along with a decision by parliament to hold such elections in January 1999, nearly two years ahead of schedule.

Even if the government remains in power, comments made today by the speakers of the two houses of parliament and the prime minister indicate there will be little cooperation between them in the coming months.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service also contributed to this report.)