Nursultan Nazarbayev: the shepherd’s son who became Kazakhstan's Emperor

nazarbaev_obamaA profile of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan.

"There will be no festivities on my birthday," Kazakhstan's president told administrators in March. "That's an order."

Perhaps it was – but on a summer night in June, hundreds of dignitaries from around the gathered in the Norman Foster-designed Khan Shatyry entertainment centre in Astana to celebrate Nursultan Nazarbayev's 70th birthday – his 19th in office as Kazakhstan's unquestioned ruler.

Folk performers, dancers and opera singers entertained the president's guests.

Later this week, world rulers will be gathering again, this time for a summit of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – under Mr Nazarbayev's chairmanship.

Mr Nazarabayev, the son of a shepherd who started life as a steelworker, has come a long way.

Inside the museum that commemorates his life, there are soup bowls and wooden spoons from his parents' modest home, his first typewriter, six telephones from his first office – and two entire rooms devoted to the gowns he wore when receiving honorary doctorates from universities abroad.

Like many other modern Central Asian leaders, Mr Nazarbayev's started out as a Soviet apparatchik.
In 1984, he became chairman of Kazakhstan's Council of Ministers, and went on to serve as the first secretary of the Kazakh Republic's Communist Party's first secretary from 1989 to 1991.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union, made him Kazakhstan's head of state in April 1990, after three days of rioting which followed the appointment of Gennady Kolbin, an ethnic Russian, to that position.

In December 1991, Mr Nazarbayev became independent Kazakhstan's first – and so far only – president, winning 91.5 % of the vote in an uncontested election.

There's little doubt Mr Nazarbayev has some real successes to his credit.

In a single decade, per capital GDP has risen from $700 to over $8,000.

Kazakhstan avoided the wars and chaos which scarred other post-Soviet Republics, and gave up its nuclear arsenal – once the fourth-largest in the world.

Though the country is located next to regions profoundly troubled by jihadist violence, Islamism has been kept under control.

Mr Nazarbayev has been helped by his country's enormous resources.

The ninth-largest country in the world, Kazakhstan holds enormous reserves of oil and gas, as well as gold, manganese and coal. It is also the world's ninth-largest producer of uranium.

Perched on the Europe-Asia divide, it borders both Russia and China, as well as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – and is a key element in the long-term energy and trade plans of the entire region.

China is making multi-billion dollar investments in roads and pipelines to tap those resources, and wants to lease millions of acres of farmland.

India signed a major uranium deal with the country last month.

Even Iran hopes to build a trade-boosting rail corridor – though its relationship with Mr Nazarbayev, whose government recently ordered six naval ships to protect its interests in the Caspian, have been troubled.

Some believe Mr Nazarbayev is preparing to step down from office before elections due to be held in 2012.

This summer, Kazakhstan's parliament, in which every elected seat is held by the ruling Nur Otan party, passed legislation proclaiming Mr Nazarbayev "first president and leader of the nation."

The laws grant him the right to intervene in policy after he retires – a little like Lee Kuan Yew, who served as "minister mentor" after he retired as Singapore's prime minister, having served from 1959 to 1990.

Kazakhstan's parliament also enhanced Mr Nazarbayev's immunity from prosecution, and protected his family's properties.

Rozakul Khalmudarov, a senior Kazakh politician, also said the laws make it an offence to damage statues of Mr Nazarbayev, or to "distort facts in the biography of the leader of the nation."

The regime's critics claim oil revenues are being frittered away.

More than $10 billion has been spent on transforming what was once a rural backwater in the steppes into a modern city – the second-coldest capital, it is sad, after Ulan Bator in Mongolia.

Much of the money, opposition leaders allege, has been pocketed by Mr Nazarbayev and his political cronies.

Some of the most shocking allegations came from his former son-in-law, and Kazakhstan's former ambassador to Austria, Rakhat Aliyev.

In his book The Godfather-in-Law, Mr Aliyev claimed that his former father-in-law has had children with a fight attendant and a model; that he has a collection of over 5,000 designer watches; that he pocketed bribes for oil concessions granted to US companies.

There has been no independent corroboration of these claims, though Transparency International recently reported Kazakhstan was among the most corrupt countries in the world.

Mr Nazarbayev announced a "holy war" against corruption.
Poll data, however, suggests most Kazakh citizens support the status-quo.

In April, a Gallup survey showed that 91% had a favourable opinion of Mr Nazarbayev, up seven per cent from a poll conducted in May 2009 and 4 per cent from one in October 2009.

There is little doubt, though, that Mr Nazarbayev's family has done well in the Kazakhstan he built.

His oldest daughter, Dariga – Mr Aliyev's ex-wife – owns substantial banking stocks, and once held control of the Khabar TV network.
Her younger sister, Dinara, is also a businesswoman, with a fortune Forbes magazine estimates at $1.1 billion.

The youngest daughter, Aliya, a lawyer by training, chairs the advisory board of a Kazakh real-estate firm, and owns a wellness centre and a nightclub in Almaty.

Put together, Russia's New Times magazine estimates, the family's assets are work around $7 billion.

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