Kazakhstan's long-serving strongman Nursultan Nazarbaev announced today he was ready to continue to serve as president of the oil-rich Central Asian nation for as long as his people and his health allow.
Nazarbaev's remarks come as the country's Constitutional Council is set to decide on a proposed referendum -- criticized by the United States and other western governments -- to extend his rule unopposed until 2020. It would effectively pave the way for Nazarbaev to skip elections planned for 2012 -- and any others over the next decade.
Parliament voted to back the referendum following a signature drive that supporters said delivered nearly five million signatures -- more than half the country's nine million eligible voters.
During his annual address to the nation, Nazarbaev said he was "touched" by the people's trust.
"I value this. The main thing is that I have understood the signal from the people: don't leave the post, continue working."
"I had issued a decree to reject the parliament's proposal regarding the referendum since I was going to take part in the presidential elections in 2012," Nazarbaev said. "However, parliament -- using its constitutional power -- adopted a law on changes to the constitution."
Not Yet Signed The Bill
Nazarbaev has not yet signed the bill and instead sent it to the Constitutional Council, a step seen by critics as a gesture to distance himself from efforts to extend his term in office.
The president said it was up to the council to review the bill to decide whether it is in line with the constitution.
"Regardless of what decision we will make after the verdict by the Constitutional Council, I promise that I will work as long as required if my health allows me and if there will continue to be unanimous support from people."
It is widely expected that the Constitutional Council will back the proposal.
A former communist party boss, Nazarbaev has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989. The 70-year-old president has been given the title of "Elbashy," or leader of the nation, and enjoys an exclusive right to run for presidency an unlimited number of times.
One Advantage: Stability?
His supporters see the prolongation of his rule as a guarantee of stability both for the nation and foreign investors, who have poured over $150 billion into Kazakhstan's vast energy sector.
The U.S. has expressed concern over efforts to extend Nazarbaev's presidency, calling the proposed referendum a setback to democracy.
Kazakhstan has repeatedly come under criticism from the West for a lack of democratic reforms.
Some Kazakh citizens have joined an online appeal to Nazarbaev asking him to reject the referendum and stand for free and fair elections.
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report