The 74-year-old president is set to be reinstated by his loyal followers on Sunday, but the failure to consider a successor is making the outside world nervous. From nervous students to frail war veterans, state television anchors to professional sportspeople, one by one they climbed on to the stage to unleash breathless eulogies in honour of their leader.
The president of Kazakhstan since its independence in 1991, and officially known by the title Elbasy, "Leader of the Nation", Nursultan Nazarbayev was informed in quivering tones that he was the teacher of all the Kazakhs, a historical giant, a philosopher-ruler, and the man whose heart was big enough to find space for all 8 million of the Kazakh women who loved him.
At Thursday's pomp-filled "Assembly of the Peoples" in Astana – a surreal, sparkling capital city Nazarbayev himself decreed should emerge from the wastelands of the Kazakh steppe over the past two decades – the 74-year-old smiled coyly with acknowledgement as the praise gushed forth. Sometimes he engaged in repartee with his admirers. At one point he joined in a duet with a young man who wanted to sing him a song, and he even offered a peck on the cheek to a young history teacher who told him he was an inspiration to every child in the country.
Elbasy can afford to relax as he goes into an election on Sunday in which the only question is just how overwhelming his majority will be. His popularity among large sections of the population of the resource-rich nation is compounded by strong authoritarian control and a ruthless clearing of the playing field of anyone with even mildly oppositionist inclinations.
But as Nazarbayev prepares to win yet another five-year term, the most pertinent question is the one that few in Kazakhstan dare to ask out loud: what comes after him?
"Some years ago, foreign investors would mainly ask about tax issues and rule of law," said Dosym Satpayev, who runs a risk advisory consultancy in the country. "Now, they have only one main question: who is next?"
Nobody has an answer. Kazakh officials admit privately that the main reason for holding the election a year early was to give Nazarbayev a new mandate ahead of what could be more testing economic conditions. Kazakhstan's economy is extremely vulnerable to falling oil prices and the weakened Russian rouble, and the recent economic downturn has come as a shock to a country where the windfall of the oil boom years has lined the pockets of the elite and led to modest but noticeable economic growth.
What officials are not willing to talk about is what comes next: nobody knows, and speculation could be dangerous. Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since before it even existed, transitioning from his post as local Communist party boss to become first president of the newly independent nation when the Soviet Union collapsed. It is hard to imagine what the country would look like without him.
Perhaps with the question in mind, in 2010 Nazarbayev ordered scientists to investigate the creation of an "elixir" that would prolong human life, presumably first and foremost his own. However, the researchers at Nazarbayev University who were given the task have come up with little, leaving Elbasy facing mortality like the rest of us. He appears in good health, but will be on the cusp of his ninth decade when this next term expires, and the vertically integrated system around him is postponing the question of what comes next rather than addressing it.
When Nazarbayev was named Elbasy in 2010, many thought it would be the moment for him to nominate a successor. By law, as Elbasy, he would still have had a veto over all decisions until his death, and would still hold the real power.
"That was the logical time for him to name a successor; then whoever the new person was would have had time to build up some kind of legitimacy with the public," Satpayev said. Instead, it was business as usual. And there has been no indication during the current election "campaign" that Nazarbayev is preparing a successor.
Prospects of a dynastic succession involving one of Nazarbayev's three daughters have faded. Rakhat Aliyev, who was married to Nazarbayev's eldest daughter, Dariga, was once one of the most powerful people in the country but fell from grace when their marriage fell apart. He was sent away to be Kazakh ambassador to Austria, before having his diplomatic immunity lifted and an arrest warrant put out for him. He took his own life in an Austrian prison earlier this year, though his Austrian lawyer is convinced he was murdered.
There are no charismatic politicians with a public profile; all top officials are meant to fade into the background to allow Elbasy to shine.
In Times and Thoughts, one of 15 books supposedly authored by Nazarbayev, the president writes: "Any leader, especially a successful one, needs criticism". But he is remarkably insulated from such. The two candidates opposing him on Sunday are unknowns and have made no campaign promises, the smattering of opposition media outlets that existed a few years ago have been shut down, and it is illegal to insult the president or his family.
"He listens to all the toadying with such happiness in his face," said Kazakh political analyst Tolganay Umbelataliyeva. "His circle knows what he wants and they give it to him. He's isolated from any real information about the country."
Western leaders have preferred to turn a blind eye to the country's democratic shortcomings and reap huge financial proceeds instead, servicing the country's resource industry and its leader's ego. In 2006, Dick Cheney, the then US vice-president, made a famous speech in Lithuania attacking Russia for its lack of democracy, then flew to Kazakhstan and lavished praise upon the country.
Nazarbayev retained Tony Blair on a vague "advisory" contract which has seen little in the way of visible results in governance but was reportedly worth several million pounds to the former British prime minister's foundation. The British architect Norman Foster has built a number of buildings in Astana, including the pyramid where Thursday's assembly took place. More than 1,000 delegates of the body, which was officially responsible for "asking" Nazarbayev to call early elections and stand again, gathered inside the pyramid's congress hall.
Another Foster building in the capital is the Nazarbayev Centre, which resembles a vast eye looking up at the sky. The officials in charge of the centre, which houses a suite of offices for the president, a museum dedicated to him, and his personal library, claim it is just like the libraries devoted to US presidents. But inside, it feels like nothing short of a shrine to a living deity.
The atrium contains a larger-than-life bronze statue of the leader perusing a map of Kazakhstan, while the upper floors display oil paintings, carpets and embroideries featuring his image. A small part of Nazarbayev's 20,000-book library is on display. The guides said it was hard to know if he had read them all, though the complete works of Marcel Proust, among many others, looked distinctly unthumbed. There are also copies of Nazarbayev's own books, and his personal archive, which is currently closed off.
"It's hard to think of him as an ordinary person, but there are some documents which he has actually written on in his own hand," said Marian Abisheva, one of the centre's directors. "Take the plans for Astana for example, there are handwritten corrections, where the architects didn't understand how he wanted it built, and he was explaining it to them. Can you imagine? What a man!"
Even many of the president's critics grudgingly concede he is a canny leader who skilfully negotiated the difficult first years of Kazakh independence, voluntarily renouncing the country's nuclear arsenal and avoiding inter-ethnic strife. He has also played a delicate geopolitical balancing act, maintaining good relations with the two behemoths on Kazakhstan's borders, China and Russia, and also with the west.
But critics say the system may be more vulnerable than it looks. In 2011, Nazarbayev's security forces opened fire on protesters in the town of Zhanaozen, killing at least 14, suggesting the Kazakh model might not be as immune to violent upheaval as Nazarbayev had insisted.
"There are a lot of things in common with Arab countries here: socially, economically and politically," said Rasul Zhumaly, an independent political analyst and former diplomat who headed Kazakhstan's mission to Libya. "Nobody in any of the Arab spring countries would have predicted those systems could collapse. Like here, there was powerful police and security services, and a leader who was respected. But these systems are much more fragile than we think."
At the event on Thursday, Nazarbayev said he had brought "20 years of stability, 20 years of collective work", during which time Kazakhstan had gone from a place where people stood in queues for hours to buy bread and milk, to a land of economic plenty.
People questioned on the streets in Almaty and Astana, the country's business and political capitals, expressed almost unanimous support for Nazarbayev. Most said they were emotionally attached to their leader and could not imagine life without him.
"Of course, you've hit on the most difficult question. If only he could live forever, or at least for another 20 years," said a 52-year-old shopkeeper when asked who might follow Nazarbayev. "Without him we will be a ship without a captain."
Without Nazarbayev's legitimacy, the next president might need to use widespread repression, religious or nationalist ideology to back up his rule.
"Absolutely any scenario is possible, it's impossible to predict," said Aidos Sarym, an analyst who briefly worked in the presidential administration. He said, however, that the longer Nazarbayev goes on without a clear plan of succession in place, the more nervous foreign investors will get and the higher the chance of instability.
Concluding his speech on Thursday, Nazarbayev said Foster's pyramid represented a striving upwards, with good energy from the heavens being pulled into the land around it. Sarym, however, invoked a different kind of pyramid.
"The current system resembles an upside-down pyramid with the president at the bottom and everything else growing upwards on top of him. If you pulled out the president, it could all collapse," he said.
www.theguardian.com, Friday 24 April 2015