Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev Cult Hijacks Winter Fun
Kazakhstan’s famous alpine skating rink outside Almaty turned into a love-fest for President Nursultan Nazarbayev this weekend, as skaters were bombarded with pearls of wisdom from his recent state-of-the-nation address.Hundreds of students from Almaty universities were bussed up to the Medeu complex on January 18 amid an attempt to break the world record for mass alpine skating, with at least 500 people gathering on the ice in the presence of an official from Guinness World Records, the body which will assess the record-breaking bid.But the event was soon hijacked to remind the young people whom they have to thank for all their fun – Nazarbayev, who goes by the title of Leader of the Nation. The giant screen that usually plays pop videos as skaters circle the ice was given over to excerpts from his state-of-the-nation address, which was delivered on January 17 and contained the usual dry statements about improving the economy and boosting social well-being. Critics have long claimed that 73-year-old Nazarbayev – who, in power for over two decades, is one of the world’s longest serving rulers – is the subject of a thriving cult of personality in Kazakhstan, where he brooks no opposition to his autocratic rule but also enjoys genuine public popularity for bringing stability and relative economic prosperity.Thoughts of personality cults seemed far from the minds of the young people on the ice at Medeu this weekend. “If you’re a patriot of your country, raise your hand!” yelled the master of ceremonies. The cheering young people responded eagerly, waving Kazakh flags and banners proclaiming “We are for the Leader of the Nation!” and “Young people support N. A. Nazarbayev!”In the public mind, patriotism and support for the Leader of the Nation have become one and the same thing.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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