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Where Were You?

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev makes his first appearance in Astana on July 21 after his "holiday."
It seems to be business as usual for Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who resumed his official duties on July 21 after his unannounced vacation.

He marked his return by meeting with his prime minister in Astana. Then he held a telephone conversation with his Uzbek counterpart. To cap the day off, state television broadcast images of him chairing a cabinet meeting.

His appearances failed, however, to answer the big question: Where was the president for the past two weeks?

Speculation is rife both in domestic and international media that the 71-year-old president underwent prostate surgery at a hospital in the northern German city of Hamburg on July 14.

It was the German publication "Bild" that first reported that the president's surgery was a success, and that he recuperated at a luxury hotel.

"Bild" didn't mention any official source for its report, and there was no official reaction from either the Kazakh or German authorities.

Kazakhstan's pro-government KazTAG news agency subsequently wrote that Nazarbaev underwent a routine, planned medical check-up abroad, and that he had returned home.

The president's estranged former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev, however, went as far as to claim that the president has been seeking treatment for prostate cancer for several months now.

The rumors have led opposition politicians in Kazakhstan to demand that the state of the president's health must be made public, considering his public position.

The situation mirrors that in Uzbekistan some five years ago, when reports began to emerge that Uzbek leader Islam Karimov was gravely ill and was being treated in a hospital in Germany. Official Tashkent did not react to the rumors, and after a few weeks' absence Karimov was back at work without showing the slightest sign of ill-health.

Turkmenistan's first president, the eccentric Saparmurat Niyazov, underwent heart bypass surgery in a German clinic in 1997. But while Niyazov was well-known for his isolationist policies and suppression of free speech, he made no secret of his medical treatment abroad.

He actually presented his German heart surgeon, Hans Meissner, with a $580,000 Akhal-Teke horse, and eventually moved the cardiologist to Turkmenistan.

-- Farangis Najibullah