Kazakhstan has made its president "Leader of the nation", granting him immunity from any prosecution, just weeks before it is due to chair a major international conference on democracy and human rights.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been made 'Leader of the nation', granting him immunity from any prosecution Photo: AFP/GETTY
The bill, adopted by deputies in Kazakhstan's lower house, grants Nursultan Nazarbayev the title for life, and protects him, his family, and their property, from civic or criminal prosecution.
Mr Nazarbayev, who turns 70 later this year, has ruled the vast, mineral-rich Central Asian nation since 1990, guiding it into independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and turning it into the most economically successful of the neighbouring republics.
But long-standing criticism of the country's record on democracy and human rights has come to a head this year, as it takes the Chair of the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – a 56-nation grouping which cites promoting democracy as one of its key aims.
"We have expressed our concerns about the chairmanship from the very beginning," said Andrea Berg, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"Kazakhstan not a country that adheres to human rights standards: the country has huge problems in freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and many other things." On June 10, the OSCE is holding a conference in Copenhagen to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the agreement that committed its member states to free elections and the rule of law.
The bill, approved on Wednesday, has also fuelled speculation that Mr Nazarbayev may be preparing to step down when his present term ends in 2012.
Annette Bohr at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs said: "Central Asian presidents with their authoritarian systems are in a bit of a bind as they age, as they're not able to stand down without risking their position, and the businesses of their family members. This is a mechanism which will enable him to have immunity after he leaves office."
The three deputies who proposed the bill, all from the ruling Nur Otan party, compared Mr Nazarbayev with other nation-founders, such as George Washington, Turkey's Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and Mahatma Gandhi.
The bill, which will amend the constitution, still needs the approval of the upper house before it becomes statute.
Mr Nazarbayev has yet to anoint a successor, although speculation has focused on Dariga Nazarbayeva, the eldest and most political of his three daughters, and Timur Askarovich Kulibayev, husband of his middle daughter Dinara.
Mr Nazaybayev's new title, Elbasy in Kazakh, invites comparison with Turkmenbashi, or "leader of all Turkmen" – the title taken by Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled neighbouring Turkmenistan from 1990 until his death four years ago.
Turkmenbashi, a former policeman, ran one of the world's most bizarre, closed and authoritarian regimes.
He built a giant golden statue of himself, which revolved to track the sun, and renamed April after his mother and January after himself.
But Mrs Bohr said that the situation in Kazakhstan was different, as Mr Nazarbayev was looking to protect himself and his family, and not necessarily seeking to hold the presidency for life.
"This is something quite different from what Turkmenbashi did," she said.
"Turkmenbashi would have liked to have thought up such a mechanism, but probably wouldn't have trusted it."