“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.