When Nursultan Nazarbayev took charge of Soviet Kazakhstan 20 years ago, he could scarcely have imagined that two years later he would be running his own country, and less that two decades later he would still be at the helm of an energy-rich state.
Nazarbayev's rule is far from over, but the 20th anniversary of his ascendancy to power as first secretary of Kazakhstan's Communist Party on June 22 gives pause for thought about his record. To many compatriots he is a national hero, the father of the nation who forged a coherent state out of disparate ethnic groups and an economic success story out of a land that had independence foisted on it as the Soviet Union collapsed. To others he is an autocrat who has overseen the transition to a get-rich-quick kleptocracy.
Nazarbayev had no easy route to the top. Born in the village of Shamalgan outside Almaty in 1940, he grew up amid post-war austerity and Stalinist rule before studying at a technical college in Ukraine. After graduation, Nazarbayev worked as a steelworker in Kazakhstan's industrial center of Karaganda -- a tough job, but the ideal place for an ambitious young man to forge a Communist Party career.
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Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.