Kazakhstan's low-key personality cult

BBC News/August 17, 2007

The launch of the campaign for the 18 August parliamentary election was loud and cheerful.

Dressed in blue and yellow T-shirts, activists from the ruling Nur-Otan party waved flags and screamed out party slogans.

For a second, it almost seemed like they were waging a hard-fought campaign for seats in the legislature.

But there was only one name on their lips. The party's main promise is loyalty to its leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

As Central Asia grapples with the new world order, across the region personality cults are turning into political institutions.

"In this part of the world usually the political system is personified," Yevgeny Zhovtis, a regional analyst, says.

"The person who is in charge of the country... is the key figure in the political process and all political processes are going through them. Their rule is the key element to development and change."

'Our Lenin'

President Nazarbayev is believed to be more modern and more modest than his neighbours. Next door in Turkmenistan, the late President Niyazov used to build golden statues to himself.

In Kazakhstan, so far, there are only portraits on street corners - though there are also two museums dedicated to the president.

At one of the museums, a tour guide leads a group of six people through spacious chambers filled with portraits and memorabilia.

From a desk little Nursultan used at school (he was, we are told, a very good student) to the most recent photographs, this museum traces the life of a village boy who rose fast to the top ranks of the Communist Party. And, proclaimed himself a democrat when it collapsed.

President Nazarbayev is now friends with the West. The US and Europe are investing billions into the country's oil riches and often praise him as a reformer.

But democracy is not what people associate Mr Nazarbayev with - not even his genuine fans.

"Nazarbayev is great, he is like our Lenin," one of the museum visitors says. "He did everything for our country. We have stability here, we have jobs, our economy is good. If I could, I would ask him to be president forever."

There are plenty of people who share the sentiment; and it takes one look at the streets of Almaty, the economic capital, to understand why.

Kazakhstan is the former Soviet Union's success story. Its economy is booming. There are jobs and opportunities that are already attracting millions of labour migrants from across the region.

But, there is also very little freedom. The media are tightly controlled. Dissenting voices are rarely heard. President Nazarbayev is on the pages of most newspapers.


At the opposition headquarters, Oraz Jandosov, one of the leaders, shows me television advertisements his party had prepared for this parliamentary campaign. Not a single station here, he said, agreed to broadcast them.

The TV ads tell the story of a different Kazakhstan - a place where the government is corrupt, the gap between rich and poor is growing wider and support for the president elusive.

"Imagine you came to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Who do you think was popular at the time? Of course it was the Communist Party and the Secretary General," Mr Jandosov said.

Mr Nazarbayev dismisses the comparison. In a rare interview last year, he told me democracy was his goal, and that he was about to make his country more democratic by changing the constitution and giving more power to parliament.

The president delivered on his promise. The constitution was indeed changed, and the parliament did get more power.

But so did Mr Nazarbayev. An additional, last-minute amendment allowed President Nazarbayev to run for the presidency as many times as he likes.

"Everything is done in such a way that, on the one hand, the government is providing more political pluralism and so on, but on the other hand, you are strengthening your control over all branches of power," says Yevgeny Zhovtis.

The campaign is now over. The president has already said he is sure his party will win the race and so there is not much suspense about this weekend's results.

Even if the opposition manages to get into parliament this time around, there is just one man in charge here.

And although most people in Kazakhstan do not seem to mind, it does mean that this country's stability, its enormous oil reserves, and the West's massive investment here, are all in the hands of Nursultan Nazarbayev. More so now than ever before.

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