ASTANA, Kazakhstan — The tempests that have whirled through other authoritarian states dissipated well before reaching this Muslim country, where last week citizens effusively thanked their president for his 20 years in power by awarding him five more.
In January, when Tunisians forced their president of 23 years to flee, Kazakhs considered extending President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s term to 2020. Instead, they settled on having the presidential election more than a year early and last week gave the 70-year-old leader 95.5 percent of their vote.
“I think the president is going to run the country for 10 years more,” said Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, the president’s pugnacious political adviser, “and if someone in the West doesn’t like it, they’ll have to get used to it.”
Although the West criticizes human rights violations — international observers found fault with the election, and last week an annual State Department human rights report noted a long list of problems — Kazakhstan’s relative serenity in strategic Central Asia is appreciated. U.S. oil companies have invested billions here, and the U.S. government desires friendship, unwilling to cede influence to Russia and China, which loom large and near.
“Nazarbayev won’t leave until he dies,” said Serikbai Alibaev, a leader of a democratic opposition group that is not permitted to operate legally.
Nazarbayev has ruled since 1989, when Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union and he was its party secretary. He is the country’s only directly elected official. His domination has been so complete that no serious political competition has emerged and so adroit that much of the population reveres him.
“He’s more than the leader of our country,” said Erlan Karin, secretary of Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party. “People see him as a symbol of Kazakhstan’s development, independence and success.”
Local officials, all appointed by Nazarbayev, compete to get out the vote and get it right. “Here, 99 percent voted for the president,” said a triumphant Turkbenuli Musabayev, mayor of the small, depressed southwestern town of Aralsk. “He has visited us, and people know he cares.”
Kazakhstan’s 16 million people live on a landscape the size of Western Europe. Corruption is high, but oil and gas reserves have helped Nazarbayev bring the per-capita gross domestic product from $700 in 1994 to $9,000 now. The country has five billionaires, according to Forbes, including a Nazarbayev daughter and son-in-law.
Reminiscent of Peter the Great in Russia, Nazarbayev built his own capital in Astana and ordered the government to move here from Almaty at the end of 1997. He presides from a marble, blue-domed presidential palace over a city of glass towers rising from the wind-swept steppe, where horses and camels graze. A large shopping mall, designed to evoke a nomad’s tent, has tier upon tier of stores and restaurants, with a swimming pool on top set off by sandy beaches, thatched umbrellas and tropical-shirt-clad servers. Visitors ascend the 340-foot Bayterek Tower in the center of the city to place their right hand on a gilded impression of Nazarbayev’s own hand.
“The regime is unchallenged,” said Grigory Golosov, a St. Petersburg political scientist. “Almost everything is closely controlled, so controlled that most people can’t even think of an alternative to Nazarbayev.”
In the days before the election, Nazarbayev’s presence hovered over city avenues and small-town lanes, his billboards emblazoned with the message “We vote for the leader,” his face rising out of a gently curving blue horizon.
“This is the image of a person who solves the problems of the universe,” said Alexei Vlasov, a Moscow political scientist. “And that’s how people treat Nazarbayev.”
Vlasov, who is director of the Information and Analytical Center for Post-Soviet Studies, calls Nazarbayev a powerful, pragmatic and tactical politician. “He knows when to make decisions,” he said, and he has benefited from the Kazakh desire for stability.
Rather than envy the revolutions of the Arab world, people are grateful that they have avoided the turmoil besetting neighboring countries. Tajikistan endured a costly civil war, and Uzbekistan, where the president is as long-serving but far more ruthless, has suffered civil strife.
“Russia, the U.S. and China are interested in a stable Kazakhstan,” Vlasov said. “That is why during the last 10 to 15 years they have never played against Nazarbayev, and they have always recognized him as a legitimate leader despite the lack of freedom of the press and speech and suppression of the opposition.”
This does not sit so well with the opposition, which is largely excluded from the political process.
“Kazakhstan keeps promising to hold free and fair elections,” said Alibaev, head of the Astana branch of the unregistered National Social Democratic Party, “but it doesn’t happen. Why do the United States and Europe believe this propaganda? It seems Kazakhstan’s wealth makes the world ignore what they don’t want to see.”
Nazarbayev and his Nur Otan party deftly change the constitution to suit their needs. One amendment last year made him “Leader of the Nation,” giving him and his relatives lifelong immunity from prosecution and allowing him to make government decisions even after retirement.
“The constitution has been changed seven times,” Alibaev said, “the last time Feb. 2, when they changed it in a few minutes so they could move up the elections.”
Printers can’t keep up — an exasperated Alibaev has taken to updating his copy of the constitution by pasting in newspaper notices of the changes.
Golosov, project director at the Center for Democracy and Human Rights Helix in St. Petersburg, said Kazakhstan has adopted the Russian system of what he calls electoral authoritarianism.
Elections give the impression of democracy, he said, even as the authorities make it difficult for candidates to run and parties to organize. Parties must win at least 7 percent of the vote to enter parliament, and Nur Otan holds every single seat. Western leaders and investors, however, find the trappings of democracy comforting, he said.
“Nobody wants to have any dealings with a dictator,” Golosov wrote recently, “but an imperfect democrat is quite a different matter.”
Yertysbayev, the political adviser, is contemptuous of the opposition that the president has made so weak, saying its members are forever calling, asking for ministry or embassy jobs. “Politics is a fight for power,” he said. “In Georgia, they brought people to the square and grabbed it. Here, they ask for favors.”
Squabble they may, but Nazarbayev holds steady, balancing the political forces around him.
“During these 20 years they have recognized Nazarbayev as the moderator of political dialogue,” Vlasov said, “and those who did not want to accept that now live in London.”