The strongman still going strong

By bne IntelliNews July 22, 2010

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At 70, long-standing Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is five years over the retirement age, but there were no signs at July's lavish birthday celebrations that he is ready to loosen his grip on the country that he has ruled for the last 20 years. However, the adoption of a law designating Nazarbayev as "Leader of the Nation," a status similar to that of Gandhi in India or Ataturk in Turkey, has given rise to speculation that preparations are being made for an eventual handover of power.

Proposed just two weeks after the violent overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's government in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, the law gives immunity from prosecution not just to the president, but also crucially to his family. The new law also protects the image of the president, introducing harsh penalties - including jail sentences - for "distortion of the president's biography" or "damage of the president's image."

Despite the many posters showing Nazarbayev smiling from the middle of a wheat field or cuddling photogenic children, the Kazakh president has never tried to develop a personality cult like that of the late Turkmen leader, Saparmurad Niyazov. Indeed, he has generally been coy about attempts by others to do this for him. He declined to sign the leader of the nation bill, told state officials not to arrange any 70th birthday celebrations and last year turned down an offer to rename the capital after him.

To an extent, these were empty gestures: the bill automatically passed into law, Nazarbayev's birthday coincides with Astana Day which was lavishly celebrated, and while the capital has retained its name for now, Nazarbayev said the decision could be left "for future generations." However, talking to Kazakhstanis, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he is genuinely liked by a large majority of the population, especially away from the main urban centres where corruption allegations hold less weight than rising living standards.

Possible successors

A former Temirtau steelworker, Nazarbayev rose through the ranks of the Kazakh Communist Party, replacing Gennady Kolbin - a deeply unpopular Moscow appointee - as first secretary in the final years of the Soviet Union. Post-independence, he continued to rule the country, being re-elected several times in polls that, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, fell short of democratic standards.

Nazarbayev receives much of the credit for Kazakhstan's steady economic growth for most of this decade, and the generally harmonious relations between the different ethnic and religious groups. He has also been adept in outmanoeuvring any attempts to create an opposition movement that presents a real challenge to the regime. One consequence of the disposal of anyone who rises high enough to become a threat is that there is still no obvious successor.

One former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, was packed off to Austria to be the Kazakh ambassador, before being sacked and sentenced in absentia to two 20-year prison terms on charges of abduction and plotting a coup. Nazarbayev's second son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, the deputy chairman of the Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund, has become increasingly important of late. But his public cuckolding of the president's daughter and fathering of an illegitimate son have reportedly angered Nazarbayev, resulting in a putdown earlier this year, although he remains one of the country's most influential figures.

Astana mayor and former PM, Imangali Tasmagambetov, is also thought of as a potential successor. Tasmagambetov's growing popularity and influence in his previous position as mayor of Almaty raised fears that he was building a power base in the south; he was moved to Astana under the presidential eye in 2008.

It is still two years until Nazarbayev's current term as president expires in 2010. The view from Astana is that the master of planning is putting everything in place for when this happens. However, there is no greater clarity on who is being lined up to replace him.

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