“One Fatherland, one Fate, one Leader of the Nation” – so says the slogan beside the smiling face of President Nursultan Nazarbayev on giant billboards looming over the streets in Kazakhstan. They are promoting a new holiday on December 1: First President’s Day, when Kazakhstan will fete its longtime leader.
Astana – the glitzy capital, and Nazarbayev’s brainchild – will be the focal point of celebrations. There, Nazarbayev University will host Nazarbayev readings that will ponder the president’s “strategic vision and outstanding leadership.” Hearts and minds will be won with $830,000-worth of largesse distributed in cash to socially-vulnerable groups in Astana. Babies born there on the auspicious day will be awarded romper suits emblazoned with a holiday logo.
Nationwide, there will be concerts, exhibitions, and competitions (one schoolboy has already won a quiz on the life and times of Nazarbayev). As Yerlan Aryn, governor of northern Kazakhstan’s Pavlodar Region, explained in a broadcast to over 150 local schools: “Great history… is made by great people,” and Nazarbayev is “a born leader [who] showed resoluteness and assumed responsibility for the Kazakhstanis’ fate.”
For critics, the holiday serves as evidence that a cult of personality is burgeoning around Nazarbayev, who already has been immortalized on the silver screen, on stage, as a children’s fairytale hero, and in statues.
In his third decade in power, 72-year-old Nazarbayev is one of the world’s longest serving leaders. Despite unconfirmed rumors about health concerns, he shows no sign of preparing to step down. Last year he won a 95.5-percent share of the vote in a presidential election deemed unfair by international observers (like every other vote in post-independence Kazakhstan). If Nazarbayev – who assumed power in 1989 during the Soviet era, and became president of the independent state in 1991 – serves his term to 2016, he will have run his country for over a quarter-century.
Some observers in Kazakhstan see dangerous parallels with the Arab Spring, but Nazarbayev’s aides reject similarities. They point to Nazarbayev’s genuine popularity among ordinary people, which critics counter is the result of a steady drip-feed of pro-Nazarbayev propaganda.
Nazarbayev’s supporters see him as a strong leader who steered Kazakhstan out of post-Soviet economic meltdown and possible political disintegration during the 1990s, making possible the oil-fuelled prosperity and political stability of the 2000s. As presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev put it last year: “There will be no second Nazarbayev.”
His critics see him as an increasingly out-of-touch autocrat. He is the only citizen exempt from presidential term limits, a privilege granted under the 2010 Leader of the Nation law which gave him and his family lifelong immunity and awarded Nazarbayev the right to intervene in policy-making following his potential retirement as chief executive.
Granting Nazarbayev a permanent political role was an apparent move to smooth the transition to a post-Nazarbayev future – which analysts see as fraught with uncertainty. “All of our political system, our constitution, is very closely connected with only one person,” Dr. Dosym Satpayev, director of the Kazakhstan Risks Assessment Group, told EurasiaNet.org, pointing to the weakness of other political institutions like parliament (where all deputies are Nazarbayev loyalists) and political parties.
His one-man system may become a headache for his eventual successor, says Satpayev: “It’s very difficult to organize decentralization in a very centralized system.” There is a risk that “this super-centralized system will collapse.”
Cracks have already started to appear in Kazakhstan’s socio-political framework. Stability is Nazarbayev’s watchword, but 2011 witnessed Kazakhstan’s first terrorist attacks and – more damagingly for Nazarbayev’s personal legacy – fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen last December.
This indicated a degree of social disaffection that officials in Astana have yet to publicly acknowledge. Ultimately, it was Kazakhstan’s opposition that took the political rap for the unrest. Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party was jailed (to international opprobrium) for allegedly inciting it. Moves are afoot to close his party – one of the few genuine opposition voices left in Kazakhstan, though deemed “extremist” by prosecutors – and around 40 independent media outlets, including the well-known Respublika and Vzglyad newspapers.
Nazarbayev administration officials like to point to political stability and economic prosperity as his legacy, but opponents say stability is a veneer brought about at the cost of silencing dissenting voices.
Vzglyad editor Igor Vinyavskiy sees the clampdown on the Alga! Party and media outlets as linked to the post-Nazarbayev future. “The main goal is to purge the field [of dissent] for a handover of power,” he remarked in a commentary posted on his Facebook page.
There has been much speculation about who will become Kazakhstan’s second president, and – with Nazarbayev showing no signs of grooming a successor – the field is open, lacking a front-runner.
For some analysts, more important than the successor’s identity is the weakness of the political system that Nazarbayev will leave behind. This weakness could give rise to a destabilizing struggle over political power and economic assets among rival elites, Satpayev suggested. “He [Nazarbayev] has time to present some successor,” Satpayev said. “But he hasn’t time to organize some modernization of the political system of Kazakhstan – to realize some reform for increasing the stability of this political system after him.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.