Last Sunday, in another election with no genuine opponents, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan won in a landslide. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe cited "serious irregularities." Like the deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, Nazarbayev has lifted the economy and public expectations but is vulnerable to resentment over corruption, a toxic brew.
In 1989, two years prior to the Soviet collapse, when Nazarbayev was Kazakhstan's leader, a public movement was allowed to emerge to demand closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site where over 450 nuclear tests had left deep scars. This made it easier for Nazarbayev to later close the site, to popular acclaim.
This deft political touch characterizes much of Nazarbayev's two-decade long rule. It is seen in Kazakhstan's status as the prize U.S. partner in the showcase Nunn-Lugar program, which has sponsored the elimination of a vast amount of former Soviet nuclear and biological weapons and their infrastructure.
Nazarbayev has long pressed economic reforms. In 1993 he granted Chevron rights to the massive but challenging Tengiz oil deposit, touching off a Caspian energy boom. Reforms and oil have paid off. According to the International Monetary Fund, Kazakhstan's per capita gross domestic product last year was higher than that of Romania, a member of the European Union, and only slightly below Turkey's.
Nazarbayev emphasizes tolerance. A lightly populated but vast and mineral-rich territory, Kazakhstan needs good relations with its neighbors and among its own ethnic and religious groups. Although Kazakhs are a majority, the country has millions of Russians, Ukrainians and descendants of other nationalities exiled by Stalin. Nazarbayev humors Russian leaders, avoids friction with jealous potentates in Central Asia, and elevates some minorities to senior positions.
Last year Kazakhstan successfully chaired the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the first former Soviet state to do so. This year it heads the Organization for the Islamic Conference. Budding wealth and a cooperative style will help Kazakhstan play an even greater regional and international role.
In domestic politics, however, Nazarbayev has faltered. Several rivals have perished in suspicious circumstances, and others sent to prison. Opposition journalists are sometimes beaten. A rash of self-mutilations by prison inmates is disturbing.
That said, Kazakhstan's rulers rely mostly on intimidation and eschew the pervasive brutality practiced in neighboring Uzbekistan.
In the former Soviet Union, corruption scandals can spark usurpation. In 1991 Boris Yeltsin was elected as Russia's president after lambasting the hidden privileges of Soviet elites, but then earned ridicule as his aides privatized state property via shady schemes. In 2003, after stolen elections in Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili leveraged anti-corruption credentials to lead a peaceful revolution and be elected president. Last year corruption in impoverished Kyrgyzstan fed a rebellion that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Protests in Azerbaijan now confront its president, Ilham Aliyev. In 2009, $44 million in Dubai waterfront mansions were reportedly bought in the name of his 11-year-old son.
Likewise, Nazarbayev's main vulnerability is corruption. For example, according to Forbes magazine his son-in-law and protégé Timur Kulibayev and his wife are worth a combined $2.6 billion. WikiLeaks has revealed that last year the U.S. Embassy in Astana told Washington of Kulibayev's "avarice for large bribes." Other reports say he paid about $25 million to buy a house from Britain's Prince Andrew. Swiss prosecutors are said to be looking into whether Kulibayev pocketed $600 million in bribes from the sale of state energy assets.
The Nazarbayev I knew in the early 1990s as the first U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan was, at first, shocked by the corruption-fueled Russian manhandling of his new republic. Kremlin energy czars sought to deny Kazakhstan fair benefit from its resources.
Not long after, however, sweetheart deals began to replace pressures. They now dominate. Recently, the oil and gas investment climate in Kazakhstan has become shaky, victim to capricious regulation and corrupt dealing. Too much of the nation's G.D.P. is siphoned into a few hands.
At 70, Nazarbayev is eager for a place in history as the father of his country. To deserve it he must usher in political reforms, such as independent media and judges, free and fair elections, and just governance. No sign of this is visible.
Kazakhstan has tens of thousands of talented young people, a number educated abroad in a program Nazarbayev has championed. Their expectations for participation in economic and political life are frustrated by political stasis and debilitating greed. This gap poses risks. Even though opposition protests to date are small and scattered, the authorities seem worried.
The West has a major stake in Kazakhstan. Learning from mistakes in Egypt, it should use tough love to encourage better governance. Nazarbayev ought to be nudged to make good on repeated pledges of democratic change.
William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia and special assistant to the president for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.