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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kazakh Chief Frees Prices, Risks Outcry

Akezhan Kazhegeldin, Kazakhstan's new pro-reform prime minister, took the bold step of freeing bread prices as of Saturday, at the risk of popular outcry, a government press spokesman in Almaty confirmed Friday.

It was a personal victory for Kazhegeldin on his first day in office, pushing the vote through parliament which had thrown it out numerous times before. Cutting subsidies on staples is a sensitive issue and the government will be looking anxiously at the shootings in bread lines last week in Tajikistan.

A loaf of bread, currently one tenge ($0.02) is expected to double or treble, causing hardship among people living below the poverty line.

The prime minister told parliament Thursday the measure would be "unpopular" but that it was "essential," Alexander Kimasov, a government spokesman said Friday.

"It is already difficult to buy bread, producers wait to make deliveries ... soon nobody will be selling it," the prime minister told deputies.

Shirin Akiner, Central Asian expert at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies in London, expressed surprise that the government was starting with a move that will hit the most vulnerable.

"The situation is very serious. Presumably the government knows what it is doing, but people will be extremely badly affected, people simply do not have the money," she said.

"It means the new government wants to speed up economic reform," said Mikhail Cherkov, head of the prime minister's press service, adding that further reforms and faster privatisation were on the way.

Kazhegeldin, 42, was confirmed as prime minister Thursday, along with a new cabinet. The previous government resigned Tuesday on the demand of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who said he was dissatisfied with the slow pace of reform.

The price of bread would probably rise by two or three times, Cherkov said. But Sergei Tereshchenko, the previous prime minister, forecast that bread would go up some 15 times, Reuters reported.

Oil-rich Kazakhstan, regarded as having the brightest future of the former Soviet republics, is still dogged by the legacy of communism. "The economy is stagnant," a Western diplomat in Almaty said.

In Tajikistan the bread problem is critical. Two women were killed when shooting broke out in bread queues last week, Interfax reported. Armed guards are on duty at bread factories and people are breaking the curfew to queue all night for the next delivery.