Star of stage and screen, fairy-tale hero – Kazakhstan’s Leader of the Nation is now getting his place cemented in the history books with the publication of his first official biography.
The tome offers a “historical retrospective” of the life and times of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first (and so far only) president of independent Kazakhstan, under whose astute tutelage the country’s “dramatic” march forward will be viewed.
Being billed by state media as the first attempt at “a historical biographical study of the life and activity” of Nazarbayev, the book, overseen by the president’s office, follows “his path from simple rural guy to national leader.”
If the territory sounds familiar, it is: The early stages of this rise to power and glory were charted in last year’s movie Sky of My Childhood, and Nazarbayev’s life has also featured in a hagiography written by disgraced former British MP Jonathan Aitken (after Aitken served time in a British jail for perjury).
Forbes Kazakhstan has published a list of the petro-state’s 50 wealthiest people. Unsurprisingly, a number of the country's multimillionaires swim close to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
According to the list, published in the magazine's May issue and not available online, Kazakhstan’s richest man is copper magnate Vladimir Kim, who is worth a cool $3.5 billion.
He is followed by mining boss Alidzhan Ibragimov, part owner of the ENRC resource group, with $2.9 billion. (Ibragimov’s partners Aleksandr Mashkevich and Patokh Shodiyev are excluded from the list as they hold foreign passports).
So far, so predictable – Kim and Ibragimov feature as Kazakhstan’s wealthiest people on the international Forbes rich list too – but from here the rankings diverge.
The world rich list features mining and banking entrepreneur Bolat Utemuratov as Kazakhstan’s third wealthiest person – but, according to Forbes Kazakhstan, Utemuratov’s wealth of $1.6 billion is surpassed by oil magnate Rashid Sarsenov’s $1.8 billion. Sarsenov is best known as the one-time business partner of Rakhat Aliyev, the Malta-based disgraced (and wanted) son-in-law of the president.
Sarsenov’s sister Sofya Sarsenova also features (at number 12), with a fortune of $660 million, which she made after acquiring a majority stake in Nurbank from Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva in 2010.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has launched a broadside against the West, warning in a TV interview of the dangers of seeking to export Western values to states with different traditions.
Speaking to Russia’s state-run Rossiya 24, Nazarbayev identified the West’s use of media spin to manipulate public opinion and generate protests as a “threat.” He attacked the West for attempts at “implanting their own ideas with the aim of influencing states’ domestic policy, creating people who are pro-protest.” Though he did not name a Western state, the position jives closely with his allies’ in Moscow.
“What is needed is evolution not revolution,” Nazarbayev added, repeating one of his favorite mantras.
Nazarbayev believes revolutions bring poverty in their wake, adding that “permanent revolution” in neighboring Kyrgyzstan (which has seen two presidents overthrown since 2005) was not making people’s lives better.
Even before Middle Eastern leaders started toppling like dominoes last year, Nazarbayev had made improving the lives of ordinary people in Kazakhstan a stated cornerstone of policy. In his interview he named poverty and unemployment as the chief causes of the Arab Spring – but added that “external forces” also played a role.
This was the second time in a week that Nazarbayev had condemned the Arab Spring: On April 20 he described the events as an “erosion of international law” that had shown that “society is not ready to accept the value reference points of the Western mass media.”
Prime Minister Karim Masimov has topped a new ranking of Kazakhstan’s movers and shakers published by the Vlast online magazine.
Masimov, Kazakhstan’s longest serving premier (he has headed the cabinet since 2007), managed to come top since the study did not include President Nursultan Nazarbayev. As Vlast put it, “it is obvious that in terms of level of influence not a single participant in the ranking could compare [with the president].”
Nazarbayev is by far Kazakhstan’s most influential figure, but Vlast’s take on who else wields power, formed by polling 90 experts, makes interesting reading.
Timur Kulibayev, a son-in-law of Nazarbayev who has been tipped as a possible successor, was in third place: After Masimov came Aslan Musin, head of Nazarbayev’s administration and a gray cardinal on Kazakhstan’s political scene.
Another presidential relative featured on the list: Dariga Nazarbayeva, the president’s eldest daughter, who has recently staged a political comeback by winning a parliamentary seat.
Kulibayev and Nazarbayeva are joined on Vlast’s ranking by other influential people mooted as possible presidential successors: Nurtay Abykayev, the 64-year-old head of the domestic intelligence service, is at number four; Akhmetzhan Yesimov, the 61-year-old mayor of Almaty, is at number 10.
Yesimov’s influence is outranked by two younger contenders tipped as possible future presidents: 43-year-old Deputy Prime Minister Kayrat Kelimbetov at number six; and, on his heels at number seven, Imangali Tasmagambetov, the 55-year-old mayor of Astana.
Given all that’s gone on in the past year in Kazakhstan, some of Astana’s most ardent well-wishers in Washington are hoping that President Nursultan Nazarbayev grapples with the always delicate issue of succession planning.
The subject of a stable leadership transition came up several times during an all-day conference in Washington, DC, on January 31, hosted by the Atlantic Council. The meeting was designed primarily to laud Kazakhstan’s economic achievements over the past 20 years, as well as celebrate a strong US-Kazakhstani partnership.
Nazarbayev, a septuagenarian who has been at the helm of the Kazakhstani government since the Soviet collapse in 1991, has given no indication that he wants to leave the political stage. He seems in robust health, yet it was revealed in 2011 that he spent time at a German hospital.
Kazakhstan likes to portray itself as open to dialogue with the West – but is it open to criticism?
After observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) slammed Kazakhstan’s January 15 parliamentary vote as fraudulent, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has announced that in future certain “experts” voicing critical views will be banned from attending Kazakhstan’s elections.
“We are no longer going to invite to Kazakhstan experts hired by someone who criticize our elections,” Nazarbayev said on January 18.
He did not name the OSCE or any other organization or individual, but his remarks came two days after the OSCE-led observation mission issued a stinging critique of Kazakhstan’s poll, which it said “did not meet fundamental principles of democratic elections.”
Nazarbayev, on the other hand, said the vote was “unprecedented in terms of transparency, openness and honesty.”
He pointed out that most international observers had found the vote to be free and fair, which is true – cooperative regional bodies such as the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Commonwealth of Independent States (a club of former Soviet countries) gave the election a ringing endorsement, right on cue.
Balloons in the state colors, which also happen to be the ruling Nur Otan party's colors, grace a polling station in Almaty.
Kazakhstan is voting in parliamentary elections in which the ruling Nur Otan party, led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, is set to win a landslide, just one month after security forces opened fire on protestors in western Kazakhstan, killing at least 17.
Residents of Zhanaozen, the epicenter of the December 16 violence, were casting their ballots under a state of emergency, with restrictions on freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and access for journalists. Independent international election observers were granted access to the town.
As voters trickled into less-than-bustling polling stations 1,500 kilometers away in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, the Zhanaozen violence – sparked by an industrial dispute in the oil sector – appeared to have had minimal impact. Citing the need for stability, voters overwhelmingly said they would elect Nur Otan.
“I want only peace and quiet,” said pensioner Zukhra Akhatova after casting her vote for the ruling party. Had events in Zhanaozen influenced her choice? No, she said, someone had “stirred up” the strikers and provoked the violence.
“I think the [oil] company management treated them wrongly, but [the management] aren’t people from the [ruling] party,” said retail trader and Nur Otan voter Alibek.
This prevalent mood suggests the administration’s tactic of blaming the unrest on mysterious third forces and oil executives is paying off.
As Nur Otan heads for a landslide, the pro-business Ak Zhol party, led by Azat Peruashev and seen as close to the administration, is tipped to come a distant second.
When Kazakhstan goes to the polls to elect a new parliament on January 15, voters in the restless western oil town of Zhanaozen, where at least 16 people were shot dead when police opened fire on protestors last month, will not be allowed to cast their ballots.
Astana has postponed the election in Zhanaozen, promising that its 50,000 voters can head to the polls at an unspecified later date.
The Central Electoral Commission announced the move on January 6 after consultations with the Constitutional Council, on the grounds that the vote cannot be held in the town while a state of emergency is in place. On January 4, President Nursultan Nazarbayev extended the state of emergency until the end of the month.
The exclusion of Zhanaozen’s voters from the election, even if temporary, raises the question of how legitimate the election will be. Central Electoral Commission head Kuandyk Turgankulov said casually that Zhanaozen’s exclusion would have only “minimal” impact on the nationwide election results.
Kazakhstan has never held an election deemed free and fair by international observers, and Nazarbayev and his ruling Nur Otan party regularly win with eye-popping landslides. Nazarbayev won reelection last April with 95.5 percent of the vote; Nur Otan won the last parliamentary election in 2007 with 88 percent, forming a single-party parliament after other parties failed to clear the 7 percent voter threshold.
Heads are rolling in the aftermath of violence in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich west. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has dismissed oil industry officials after insinuating that their inaction over the labor dispute that had festered since May contributed to the turmoil. But despite concerns that security officials overreacted, top brass remain untouched.
During a December 22 visit to Aktau and Zhanaozen, epicenter of the December 16-17 violence that left 16 dead, Nazarbayev named Deputy Oil and Gas Minister Lyazzat Kiinov to replace Bolat Akchulakov as head of the KazMunayGaz (KMG) state energy company. At London Stock Exchange-listed daughter company KazMunayGaz Exploration Production, Alik Aydarbayev was promoted from board chairman to chief executive, replacing Askar Balzhanov.
The dismissed officials are first to take the rap for the violence, which Nazarbayev distanced himself from, remarking that “my instruction to resolve the labor dispute in a timely manner was not carried out.” He described the dismissals of strikers as “illegal” and their demands as “substantiated,” pledging to find them new jobs at the same salaries. Their vindication begs the question why 16 people had to die before Astana acted.
In Astana-speak, the upcoming parliamentary election in Kazakhstan is meant to usher in a new era of multi-party democracy. Other parties will be allowed to join Nur Otan in the Majlis, or lower house of parliament. But looking around the streets of Almaty, the country’s commercial capital, you wouldn't know that any other parties were running at all.
Casual observers could be forgiven for thinking that it's another presidential vote that's approaching on January 15. President Nursultan Nazarbayev (who won a snap poll earlier this year with 95.5 percent of the vote) seems to be his Nur Otan party’s only face.
All over the city Nazarbayev beams down, right arm raised aloft. The posters carry the simple message “Alga, Kazakhstan!” (“Forward, Kazakhstan!”) and urge the voters to support Nur Otan.
The choice of "Alga" as a slogan is ironic, as it also happens to be the name of a political party that is forbidden from contesting these elections. The unregistered party was formed out of the ashes of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and has been fighting to get on the voting slip for years.
Alga! is rumored to be bankrolled by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive banker holed up in London. Ablyazov is none too popular in Kazakhstan at the moment: Presidential advisor Yermukhamet Yertysbayev pointed the finger at the exiled banker for being behind this week’s unrest in the oil-rich west.
Yes, in Kazakh politics, everything revolves around the man at the top.