Kazakhstan: President Stamps Personality on the Nation

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev attends a ceremony recognizing his country's nuclear past at a memorial to the victims of nuclear testing in the town of Semey, formerly Semipalatinsk. (Photo: David Trilling)

Visitors to Astana, Kazakhstan's glittery capital, love to zoom up to the top of the Bayterek Tower in an elevator for a panoramic view over the new city that has sprung up on the steppe over the last decade or so.

On July 6, Astana is celebrating its 11th birthday, and -- with a national holiday declared for the occasion -- many of its inhabitants will join visitors to mark the event at the slender white tower crowned by a golden egg that lies at the heart of the new city.

At the top, as well as enjoying the view over the futuristic skyline, visitors will be lining up to place their hands in a handprint made by the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and make a wish.

They may get more than they bargained for. As they place their hands in the outline, music rings out through the top of the tower -- and not just any music, either, but a song penned personally by the president called "My Country."

This is not to be confused with "My Kazakhstan," a popular folk song whose words Nazarbayev altered before it was adopted as Kazakhstan's national anthem.

It just so happens that the president celebrates his birthday on the same day as his new capital city, and -- as he turns 69 -- the man who is becoming known as "the first president" is stamping his presence ever more strongly on the nation.

It's not just in Astana. His handprint also graces a monument in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, as well as the national currency. It's not only his handprint, either: wandering through Kazakhstan's towns, it is hard to escape the president's gaze as he peers down from giant billboards. His slogans adorn bridges and roadsides, exhorting his people to come through the financial crisis "to renewal and development" and to live in ethnic harmony.

Last year, as Astana celebrated its 10th anniversary, Nazarbayev politely declined suggestions that his new capital should bear his name. That has not put an end to suggestions that streets which have so far escaped post-Soviet renaming will one day carry his name. Rumor has it that just such an honor is being reserved for one of Almaty's main thoroughfares, Furmanov.

The president's legacy is also being enshrined in museums. Astana is home to a Museum of the First President inside his old residence, which houses memorabilia of Nazarbayev's past and of the founding of independent Kazakhstan, ranging from documents and photographs to gifts from visiting dignitaries and books by and about Nazarbayev. Visitors can admire the imposing office from which the president used to conduct affairs of state, before moving into a new residence across the river.

As every schoolchild in Kazakhstan knows, the president was born in the village of Shamalgan not far from Almaty, and his old school there houses another museum which meticulously traces his early days and rise to power. A picture illustrates a dream Nazarbayev's grandmother once reputedly had of him riding a white horse in the sky, but perhaps the most flattering exhibit is a portrait of the president made of rice, which must have been a painstaking endeavor.

Nazarbayev has not only been immortalized in museums, music and art but also in theater. This summer, the western oil city of Atyrau premiered a play about a little village boy called Nurzhaugan who dreams of growing up and creating something great. At the end of the play, the boy sweeps a white cloth off a model of Astana, while photos of the capital as it is today flash up on the stage. The symbolism was unlikely to be lost on the audience.

As Nazarbayev's presence looms larger than life in Kazakhstan, his critics say he is in danger of if not fostering a cult of personality, then allowing one to thrive. However, his supporters, many of them ordinary people, say he is simply taking his place as the father of the nation.

Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan: President Stamps Personality on the Nation

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