In an inevitable development, the government of Kazakhstan has decided to name the airport in the capital city in honor of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
As soon as Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev signed a decree to that effect on June 20, the state machine kicked into high gear hailing the decision.
The speaker of the lower house of parliament, Nurlan Nigmatulin, congratulated the people of Kazakhstan, suggesting this was an event that constituted nothing short of a cause for national celebration. Barely an hour had passed since the announcement was made official, before Nigmatulin was able to assert confidently that the renaming of Astana international airport had received massive support from the people.
Views were slightly more mixed on Facebook, the last outpost remaining to the more critical segment of the population in view of the state’s crushing of independent media.
Writing on her Facebook page, the editor for business newspaper Kursiv, Dinara Shumayeva, called the renaming of the airport a sign of the undying servility of Kazakhstan’s people. That observation seems to have since been deleted, however.
There has been chatter about this happening since the late 2000s, but the speculation had mounted against the backdrop of recent expansion works at the airport. A new terminal was completed in time for the opening of the EXPO-2017, taking the airport’s annual handling capacity up to 5 million people.
An airport fit for a king, one could say.
Still, as Jonathan Aitken indicates in his astoundingly fawning 2009 biography “Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan,” the president may well have earned the dedication for his personal role in bring about the airport’s creation.
“[The airport] was built ahead of schedule when, with Nazarbayev’s encouragement, competition was introduced with the result that the number of asphalt plants in Akmola expanded from 3 to 18, within three months. These plants produced between 4,000 and 5,000 tons of asphalt per day in 1996-1997, which had been Akmola’s rate of asphalt output per month in the early 1990s. With airport contractors working 18 hours a day, the runways, built to accommodate the largest of the long-range Boeing Jumbos and stretched Airbuses, were completed at record speed,” Aitken gushed.
Kazakhstan’s state-owned and state-tolerated media — the only kinds of media allowed to operate freely — quickly sought to legitimize the airport-naming by citing international precedent.
Still, their point was slightly undermined by the fact that such dedications tend, as a rule, to be posthumous. There is John F. Kennedy International Airport (named one month after the US president’s assassination), Istanbul Atatürk Airport (named half a century after the Turkish leader’s passing), Charles de Gaulle Airport (four years), and then there is Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar, so dubbed in 2005 to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of Mongolian State.
The question that inescapably arises is what function it is such exercises in flattery actually serve. In finding an answer, it is perhaps most useful to turn to the Soviet precedent, upon which the Nazarbayev cult of personality is most clearly modeled. A persuasive argument is advanced in Anita Pisch’s 2016 book “The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet posters, 1929–1953.”
“One of the major reasons that propaganda was needed to create the image of a powerful, infallible leader who could work miracles, was because neither Lenin nor Stalin (nor, in fact, the Bolshevik Party itself) could lay claim to power based on either traditional (i.e. monarchic succession) or rational–legal grounds,” Pisch writes in the opening chapter of the book.
As Pisch argues, the exercise of dedicating a cult to Lenin, after his death, was not so much about the individual personality as the collective, although this logic was distorted by the Stalinist interlude.
“Once Stalin consolidated his personal power, the propaganda mechanism of the [Communist] Party set about manufacturing a charismatic personality for Stalin that, over the three decades of his rule, gradually saw the transfer of all legitimacy to reside only in his persona. When Stalin died in 1953 … charisma was again transferred to the Party, and Stalin’s cult of personality was denounced,” Pisch wrote.
In this reading, the function of Nazarbayev’s cult of personality is intended not so much to elevate his status, which seems barely possible, so much as to preventatively consecrate the system that he will in time bequeath to a yet-unknown successor. If this interpretation is correct, then the hope among Astana’s elite may be to ensure a smooth political transition by providing symbolic assurances of continuity in the system.
It’s worth a try.