75th birthday of Kazakhstan’s strongman raises questions about country’s future
ASTANA/ALMATY - Reuters
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev (C) watches the Victory Day parade at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2015. Reuters PhotoKazakhstan’s veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev celebrates his 75th birthday today, in good shape and vastly popular, but the expected fireworks and fanfare mask uncomfortable questions about the future of the second-largest post-Soviet economy.
Nicknamed “Papa” and officially titled “Leader of the Nation,” he extended his 26-year reign in April by another five years, “apologizing” to his critics for cornering 97.7 percent of the vote in an early election which Western observers said offered no real alternative.
With sweeping powers that enable him to keep a tight lid on dissent, the former steelworker prides himself on maintaining discipline and stability in his mainly Muslim country of 17.5 million while overseeing market reforms.
He justifies his iron grip on power by saying it safeguards his Central Asian nation, with a population including Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians, ethnic Germans and Tatars, from the shocks that have led to turmoil in other ex-Soviet nations.
“Tell me, does anyone here in Kazakhstan want a repeat of what happened in Ukraine, or in Georgia, or in Moldova? Does anyone want to see this here?” he said to a question about ceding some of his presidential powers to parliament.
“These countries all have parliamentary republics,” Nazarbayev said in a documentary made specially for his birthday and aired on July 1.
Most of his opponents have been jailed or have fled abroad but Nazarbayev pays little heed to human rights groups that criticize him for crackdowns on freedom of speech and assembly.
Allowed by the law to run for president as many times as he wants, he has said that he will groom a successor for himself.
But, unnerving the vast business community which has invested more than $200 billion in the oil-rich nation since independence, he has not dropped the slightest hint about who this might be.
However, even if he officially leaves the stage one day, his status of “Leader of the Nation” will still allow him to play a key role in ruling the nation.
“Many, including investors, say: ‘May this system just not get worse’,” said Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpayev. “They see that the system is not ideal, but at least it’s stable.”