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Kazakhstan: Trial Of Former Premier Begins

The trial of former Kazakh Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin on corruption charges began today in the capital Astana. The trial has attracted international attention, but Kazhegeldin himself won't be taking part. He hasn't lived in the country for more than two years. Our RFE/RL correspondent looks at Kazhegeldin's political career and how he came to be in his present situation.

Prague, 15 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's Supreme Court today started hearing the case against former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. Kazhegeldin is not in court or even in Kazakhstan. The man who now heads one of the country's leading opposition parties has not been in Kazakhstan for more than two years and probably will not return any time soon.

Supreme Court Justice Bektas Beknazarov, hearing the case, barred cameras and recorders from the courtroom.

RFE/RL correspondent Sagat Batyrkhan reports from the scene:

"For the first time in Kazakhstan's history there is a trial being held in absentia. It is the case against former high-ranking official Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who [though living outside the country] is still a Kazakh citizen. State prosecutors noted that except for two instances, which qualify as state secrets, they have agreed to hold an open trial. As we understand from the court, the reason for starting an investigation are the complaints from several heads of enterprises who said Kazhegeldin forced them to pay him bribes."

Kazhegeldin faces several charges, including embezzling money, taking bribes, evading taxes, and possessing arms, allegedly committed from 1994 to 1997 when he was prime minister. His court date was set after Kazhegeldin was finally served papers last month while attending a Congressional hearing in the U.S.

Kazhegeldin first became prime minister of a caretaker government in 1994 when Prime Minister Sergei Tereshchenko resigned after being accused of financial mismanagement. Kazhegeldin, already a successful businessman, remained head of the government through parliamentary elections held a year later and on until 1997.

Kazhegeldin's time as prime minister was notable for its heavy emphasis on privatization. Many major industries were auctioned off. Power plants, steel works, oil fields, coal mines, and more were sold off to investors who were usually asked to pay back wages and upgrade the assets, but who were also often granted generous tax deals.

Many of these deals are now being reviewed as possibly disadvantageous to Kazakhstan. Most of the embezzlement and bribe-taking charges against Kazhegeldin stem from these privatization deals. Even at the time there were rumors of millions of dollars being paid out in bribes to improve an individual company's chances of signing the big deal and Kazhegeldin, as prime minister, was uniquely placed to increase his personal fortunes.

Kazhegeldin's policy of selling controlling shares in Kazakh companies to foreign investors was unpopular with domestic businessmen who thought the deals improperly favored foreign buyers.

The prime minister's downfall began in 1997 when he refused to pay the increased energy rates demanded by a Belgian company which took control of Almaty Energo. That company was charged with supplying heat and electricity to the city of Almaty, which was then the capital of the country. When officials later announced that they were moving the capital from Almaty to Astana far to the north, Kazhegeldin refused to move.

By the fall of 1997, the press began attacking not only Kazhegeldin's policy's but also his character. He resigned in October that year citing "health reasons" and retreated from political life.

Kazhegeldin returned to the public eye in 1998, when he declared himself as a presidential candidate to oppose President Nursultan Nazarbayev. He was later barred from running when a court decided his attendance at an unsanctioned campaign rally qualified as a misdemeanor offense.

A few months after the election, Kazhegeldin formed the Peoples Republican Party and announced his intention to run for a seat in parliament in October 1999. He left Kazakhstan in the spring of that year, allegedly to introduce the new party to foreign governments. He has not been back since.

The strange circumstances surrounding Kazhegeldin's departure and the allegations against him, have led many in and outside the country to conclude the charges are politically motivated.

Kazhegeldin has been detained twice -- in September 1999 in Moscow and June 2000 in Rome -- because of an international warrant issued by Kazakhstan, but Kazakhstan's Prosecutor-General has never pressed hard for his extradition.

Kazakhstan's Supreme Court will finish hearing testimony in the case by 24 August.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)