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Kazakh 'Leader Of The Nation' Nazarbaev Turns 70

  • RFE/RL

Nursultan Nazarbaev

Nursultan Nazarbaev

Kazakhstan is marking the 70th birthday of its longtime leader, Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Nazarbaev, who has spent more than 20 years in power, has built the largest economy in Central Asia, and today's celebrations are fittingly grandiose.

The festivities -- attended by foreign guests like Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Turkish President Abdullah Gul -- include the opening of a massive, British-designed shopping center, traditional dancing, and a performance by the Italian pop tenor Andrea Bocceli.

In addition to Nazarbaev's septuagenarian fete, today also marks a second anniversary of sorts, as the city of Astana marks its 12th year as the Kazakh capital.

Nazarbaev personally pushed for the capital to be moved from Almaty to Astana, and the city he anointed now shares his birthday.

Astana resident Bayan Musaeva tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service she has been pleased with the cultural offerings the dual celebrations have brought to the city.

"We're very impressed. There are Turkic-speaking people here, from the Syr Darya valleys, people who in the past were scattered everywhere," she says.

"Thanks to the Astana city administration, today there are representatives of Turkic groups from many places, we've seen them here for the last four-five days. You can say that the culture of the entire Turkic world is presented here. Not only Kazakh culture but the culture of all the Turkic peoples."

Meteoric Rise

The son of a shepherd, Nazarbaev was born on July 6, 1940, in the village of Chemolgan. After spending his early years working in a steel mill, he began a quick rise through the ranks of the country's communist elite.

In 1989, he became first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, and was elected president the following year, thus presiding over the country's transition to post-Soviet independence.

Since then, he has zealously developed his resource-rich country into a regional energy giant, drawing millions in foreign investment and skillfully juggling relations with Russia, China, and the West. This year, Nazarbaev made history by leading his country to the first-ever chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) by a post-Soviet state.

He is seen as a strong supporter of education and study-abroad programs for the country's youth; Nazarbaev University, which opened last week to considerable fanfare in Astana, will eventually host an estimated 20,000 students.

'Leader For Life'

But observers say Kazakhstan's economic gains have come at a stiff political price. In his years as leader, Nazarbaev has cemented his hold on power, stealthily extending his presidential terms, chipping away at parliamentary dissent, and muzzling media critics.

Nazarbaev's current term expires in 2012, but parliament has cleared the way for him to seek an unlimited number of terms. This spring, lawmakers went a step further, granting him "leader of the nation" status and permanent immunity from prosecution for him and his family.

That move prompted activists in Kazakhstan to make a spoof video clip depicting a human sacrifice appealing to "forces of darkness" to go one step further and simply grant Nazarbaev eternal life. (LINK: #)

Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship has also been seen as a largely cosmetic exercise. Nazarbaev responded to last month's unrest in neighboring Kyrgyzstan by closing the border, a gesture that was seen as putting his personal concerns about spillover violence above his country's responsibilities as chair of the region's top security body.

The occasion of Nazarbaev's 70th birthday has prompted speculation on when, if ever, he may step down. His "leader of the nation" status allows him the right to shape policy after retirement, something that would allow him to groom a successor.

Astana Mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov and Timur Kulibaev, chairman of the state energy firm KazMunaiGaz -- and also Nazarbaev's son-in-law -- have been named as possible political heirs.