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Kazakhstan's Golden Cradle To Authoritarian Rule

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, "leader of the nation," budding personality cult.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, "leader of the nation," budding personality cult.
Early on in life, the man who would be Kazakhstan's "leader of the nation" was forced to face his own mortality.

Young Nursultan Nazarbaev, suffering from the measles, was taken by his parents to the nearest clinic. It was too late -- the doctor could do nothing but suggest that the young patient be buried near his family's farm nestled in the pastures of the Ushkonyr Mountains.

Under the light of the moon, as he was being driven in an ox-drawn cart to his designated resting place, a feverish Nazarbaev determined that his survival was the only diagnosis he was willing to accept.

Nazabaev's childhood friend, Saduaqas Yesimbai, recounts the story:

"Nursultan said: 'I wonder if the moon is higher than God? The doctor is not God. The moon is smiling and the doctor says I will die. How can I die?' And at this moment he obtained great strength and power, and he said, 'Now I am healed from measles, and all other diseases.'"

This anecdote, featured in Yesimbai's recently published book about Nazarbaev's childhood, is a telling one. The book, titled "My Golden Cradle," was penned at the suggestion of the president's own party, Nur-Otan (Shining Fatherland), and is the latest example of the cult of personality being built around the 70-year-old president. Coming as Nazarbaev's government has tightened its grip on the opposition, freedom of expression, and human rights, such efforts put a rosy glow on a regime that has become increasingly authoritarian.

Roza Akylbekova, acting director of Kazakhstan's nongovernmental International Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law, says Nazarbaev's cult of personality is driven by government officials who have a "Soviet mentality" of keeping their leader happy. "It's a sickness of pleasing him, taking care of problems for him ahead of time, and making themselves look good," she says.

Focusing on human rights, Akylbekova says that in theory Kazakhstan has taken steps toward improving its record. But in practice, violations continue -- in part, she says, because the government doesn't work on the basis of national or international principles, but from internal instructions.

Unlimited Terms

Considering the longevity Nazarbaev has enjoyed in his seat -- he has been head of state since early 1990, when he became chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and has served as president since the waning days of communism and the first days of independence in 1991 -- his influence on such internal instructions is clear.

Having already enjoyed a lengthy extension to his first tem, and elections to a second (in 1999) and a third term (in 2005), lawmakers in 2007 cleared the way for Nazarbaev to run for an unlimited number of terms as president. Even more troubling to human rights activists, in June he became "Leader of the Nation," and was granted permanent immunity from prosecution by parliament. Under this new title, even if he were to relinquish his presidency, he would remain Kazakhstan's de-facto leader.

This positions him to continue to play a leading role in the future of what is widely considered a Central Asian success story. Kazakhstan has a population of more than 15 million people and can boast having the largest economy in the region, driven by abundant oil and uranium resources. This year, Kazakhstan served as chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the first ex-Soviet state to be chosen for the prestigious role.

Human Rights Watch condemned Kazakhstan's OSCE appointment when it was announced in November 2007, and later expressed hope that the government would fulfill its promised reforms of media and election laws and pledges to liberalize registration requirements for political parties.

But Rachel Denber, acting executive director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, says Kazakhstan's promises of reform have yet to be realized.

"This [appointment to chair the OSCE] was the opportunity for Kazakhstan to show its best side, to show that it was going to lead by example on OSCE human rights principles, and unfortunately that didn't really happen," Denber explains.

In fact, Denber says, they have seen evidence of regression in terms of human rights, specifically regarding of freedom of expression.

Worsening State

Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 162 out of 178 in terms of media freedom this year, down from 125 of 173 in 2008.

Incidents of pressure and violence against human rights activists, politicians, and journalists in Kazakhstan are well-documented. But while Denber says the Kazakh authorities "can be pretty obvious when they want to be" when it comes to stifling of dissent and human rights, what strikes her is that state oppression is the norm.

"I think what you can say about Kazakhstan is that it's one of these countries where there's an atmosphere of kind of quiet repression," Denber says.

Scott Horton, a legal expert on Kazakhstan and a professor at Columbia University in New York, says the government often uses or invents actual legal charges, such as traffic accidents or tax fraud, to make crackdowns on dissent look legal. He adds that the country's economic successes, coupled with Nazarbaev's skillful masking of human rights issues, have put an artificial sheen on his administration.

He contrasts Nazarbaev's sophisticated approach to that of Central Asian strongmen, like Uzbek President Islam Karimov or the late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, who famously erected a giant golden statue of himself in the capital city and renamed days and months after himself and his family.

"It's clear, I think, that Nazarbaev looked very, very closely at these other regimes. He's tracked very closely both what's happened in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan," Horton explains,"and he is very, very careful to ensure that his government and the way he rules is always several steps shy of theirs. It's never as brutal, never as authoritarian; it consistently gives more rights to the people than they do."

But Horton says that since the mid-90s, Nazarbaev has become progressively more authoritarian and has been particularly intent on preventing his opposition from gaining too much influence.

Blood On Their Hands

Yerzhan Dosmukhamedov, chairman of the opposition party Atameken, provides an example. He says he left Kazakhstan for the U.S. in 2007 after government officials threatened to beat and kill him for refusing to sign an oath of loyalty to Nazarbaev. But even after his departure, Dosmukhamedov says, the authorities found a way to get to him. He alleges that later that year -- just a week before an OSCE meeting he had been invited to attend in Madrid -- his 82-year-old mother was attacked and her hip was broken.

Dosmukhamedov blames Nazarbaev's regime, which he says is full of officials "bloodstained up to their elbows."

"The KGB and the regime's forces, they were not squeamish to use any method to silence -- by any possible way -- all its opponents who were trying to convince the member states of the OSCE to refrain from giving this position of the president (sic) of the OSCE to the regime," Dosmukhamedov says.

In the end, of course, Kazakhstan was named chairman of the OSCE, despite the expression of reservations by some. Early on in the country's one-year stint at the helm, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Secretary General Spencer Oliver praised the decision, while also speaking out against the "unjust" treatment of prominent human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis, who was sentenced in 2009 to four years in jail after he struck and killed a man with his car. "This issue needs to be resolved," Oliver said in May. "Mr. Zhovtis was unfairly treated and unjustly sentenced."

Upcoming Summit

As Kazakhstan enters the last weeks of its chairmanship, the case of Zhovtis has gone unresolved. The expectations of human- and media-rights observers have not been met. Yet, Kazakhstan is nevertheless preparing to put the cherry on top of its OSCE chairmanship by hosting the OSCE Summit. Scheduled for the first week of December (December 1-2) in Astana, the summit represents the realization of a highly prized foreign-policy goal that no OSCE chairman has had the honor to stage since 1999.

Visiting dignitaries should not lack for things to do. Perhaps some will find enjoyment in watching a checkers tournament in which only boys named "Nursultan" are allowed to participate, as happened last month.

They could even stop by his native village, where a movie about Nazarbaev's childhood is currently being filmed. Or they could take in museums, monuments, and a university dedicated to Nazarbaev. And maybe, if the authorities act on the suggestion Yesimbai made at his book launch that secondary schools in Kazakhstan teach "Nursultanology," they too can study up on the qualities which led to Nazarbaev becoming a world statesman.

RFE/RL's Merkhat Sharipzhan and Ashley Cleek and RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Yerzhan Karabekov contributed to this report.