A Modest "Leader of the Nation"
In Kazakhstan, it is well known that what the president says goes. So what are observers to make of a rare occasion of the president’s wishes apparently being overridden?On June 15, a new bill making President Nursultan Nazarbayev the "Leader of the Nation" – which he modestly opposed – became law.Without Nazarbayev’s approval, the legislation came into force automatically under an obscure clause in the law governing the work of parliament. The full content of the Leader of the Nation bill rushed through parliament in May was revealed to the public for the first time on June 15. The law brings far-reaching changes to the political landscape, giving Nazarbayev a say in policy-making after his eventual retirement (he is already exempt from term limits and is eligible to stand in the next election, due in 2012). He has been granted the right to intervene in domestic, foreign and security policy and to sit on bodies such as the Constitutional Council and Security Council after retirement. Enhanced immunity provisions mean that Nazarbayev cannot be brought to book for any actions committed while he was president, and the new law also guarantees that he and close family members get to keep property they acquired while he was in office.These new provisions for the “Leader of the Nation” have already sparked an outcry in Kazakhstan – but opponents beware: as of June 15 it is a criminal offense to make remarks insulting Nazarbayev, punishable by up to a year in prison. Journalists should be even more careful: insulting remarks about Nazarbayev made in the media carry a maximum penalty of three years in prison. Expect some test cases in the courts soon, as independent journalists in Kazakhstan are unlikely to bow to this new restriction.For many, the crowning glory of the bill will be the provision ordering statues of Nazarbayev to be erected in Astana and his “homeland,” presumably a reference to his home village of Shamalgan near Almaty.“You all know that I resolutely put a stop to all eulogies addressed to me, all proposals to particularly single out the role of my personality… I have always tried to be above any vanity,” Nazarbayev said earlier this month as he declined to sign the bill into law. We are left to assume that the new statues of him will have a modest countenance.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.