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Who is Nursultan Nazarbeyev?

Kazakhstan

Nothing of any political significance happens in Kazakhstan, the largest of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, without the say-so of President Nursultan Nazarbeyev. The established local boss of the Communist Party, he inherited the presidency in an uncontested election when Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991. Since then he has conferred his blessing on a bewildering variety of political 'parties' - most of which he created himself. Only parties 'registered' with the government can function at all, which gives the President a good deal of clout. No-one knows at any particular time which party the big boss favours - which is a pretty nifty way of keeping your enemies off balance.

In 1991 Nazarbeyev endorsed the People's Congress of Kazakhstan (PCK). In 1993 he preferred the People's Unity Party. In the 1995 parliamentary elections he favoured the Party of National Unity, the Democratic Party and the Popular Co-operative Party. Only the Co-operative Party won any representation. The others were duly replaced by Otan (Fatherland), the Civic Party and the Agrarian Party. Confused yet?

No matter. Because in any case Nazarbeyev then declared the election a fraud and engineered a sham referendum that extended his presidential term. In 2000, after more elections from which his chief rival was banned, parliament passed 'First President' legislation granting Nazarbeyev 'lifetime powers', including direct access to any future president and immunity from criminal prosecution. Can the status of President-for-Life be far away?

Born in 1940 to a suitably 'peasant' family in the village of Chemolgan, Nazarbeyev started his working life as a labourer in the Karagandy steel works, eventually graduating in economics from the factory's associated 'academy'. By 1973 he was secretary of the Karagandy plant's Communist Party Committee and by 1979 Secretary of the republic's Central Committee.

According to his own website, Nazarbeyev has subsequently lived a life of almost Herculean achievement. Apart from his favourite hobby - 'big tennis' - he has since 1991 been an honorary citizen of the US city of Duluth, Minnesota. Together with George Soros and Margaret Thatcher he became an Honorary Doctor of the Kazakh Institute of Management, Economy and Forecasting in 1995. Among his many literary works are the seminal Terra Incognita of Post-Totalitarian Democracy and The Epicenter of Peace. His wife, Sara Alpysovna, enjoys 'skiing, swimming and cold-water shower-baths'.

Nazarbeyev is a strong supporter of his family. His eldest daughter, Dariga, is said to control the media in Kazakhstan. His 30-year-old nephew, Kairat Satybaldy-uly, was made vice-president of the state-run Kazakoil in 2001 without, apparently, any detailed knowledge of the oil industry at all. Two sons-in-law control major elements of the country's vast oil reserves around the Caspian Sea.

In 1999, according to The Economist, 'Nazarbeyev was embarrassed, but few were surprised, when it was revealed he had a Swiss bank account'. One secret account contained upwards of a billion dollars paid by the US oil giant, Chevron. In July 2000 James Giffen, a New York banker and official adviser to Nazarbeyev, came under investigation in the US for laundering money in Switzerland. In November 2001 the entrepreneur Choi Soon-Young told a court in South Korea that he had given Nazarbeyev $10 million in bribes.

Kazakhstan features regularly among Transparency International's list of the most corrupt states in the world. Idiosyncratic forms of repression have followed. In March 2000 three opposition activists were physically walled in to their apartments to prevent their attendance at a protest meeting. In the same year the Committee to Protect Journalists named Nazarbeyev among their top-ten 'worst enemies of the press'. Even the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (of which Kazakhstan is a proud member) has refused to endorse the country's election results and has called repeatedly for reform.

All this is a little sad. Nazarbeyev began his presidency with the dramatic declaration of a 'nuclear-free' Kazakhstan - the first state in the world to renounce entirely the weapons it already possessed. They were duly dismantled or returned to Russia. But the nuclear legacy is a menacing popular concern. Russia still leases the ramshackle Baykonur Cosmodrome for its space programme - a potential source of lethal pollution. Environmental catastrophe from oil threatens the Caspian Sea. The Aral Sea is almost dead. Under the circumstances Nazarbeyev's decision to spend upwards of a billion dollars moving his nation's capital from Almaty to Astana looks Quixotic, to say the least.

He must, nonetheless, feel that his political future is now more secure than ever. In December 2001 he was warmly welcomed in Washington as a key partner in the 'war on terror'.

Sources: Harvard Asia Quarterly, Winter 2001; The Washington Post, 22 July 2002; The Economist, 23 July 2002; Central Asia Caucasus Analyst, 19 July 2000; National Integrity Systems Country Study Report, Kazakhstan 2001, Transparency International; www.eurasianet.org, www.president.kz/articles/state

New Internationalist issue 350 magazine cover This article is from the October 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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