WEEKS of celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan's independence come to a head in Astana, the new capital full of surreal bombast, on December 16th. The 16m-odd citizens of the oil-rich country have plenty to be proud of.
Growth has averaged 8% a year for the past decade, a far better performance than any of the other ex-Soviet Central Asian economies. Average income per person is now over $11,000 a year, twice as much as Turkmenistan and six times more than Uzbekistan, which, with 28m people, is the region's most populous country. It puts Kazakhstan nicely among the ranks of middle-income nations.
In 1991 it was not obvious that things would turn out this way. The betting was on Uzbekistan, with a settled agricultural hinterland and some manufacturing. Kazakhstan seemed a vast and fractious place that had suffered greatly from forced population-movements and the collectivisation of its pastoralists. Under its strongman, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan clung to the Soviet Union till the bitter end and was the last of all the Soviet republics to declare independence.
Yet Mr Nazarbayev stayed on and oversaw the country's transformation. Whereas President Islam Karimov, a control freak, opened Uzbekistan only very cautiously to the outside world, Mr Nazarbayev was more gung-ho, calling for foreign investment and embarking on free-market initiatives. Bright young people were encouraged to seek good educations abroad. The results speak for themselves. Mr Nazarbayev also kept ethnic groups rubbing along together, held Islamist extremism at bay, closed a nuclear-testing site and renounced the world's fourth-biggest nuclear arsenal.
Kazakhstan is already the world's biggest producer of uranium. It will join the world's top ten oil-producing countries, when the giant Kashagan oilfield in the Caspian Sea comes on stream soon. Yet while the country's achievements are many, so are its shortcomings.
Kazakhstan has a poor human-rights record. Although Mr Nazarbayev appears to be popular, elections are rigged and a vast media and public-relations machine is given over to his personality cult. Economic power is held closely by the president's immensely rich family and a small gang of oligarchs. With Mr Nazarbayev's son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, in charge of the sovereign-wealth fund, Samruk-Kazyna, the line between ruling family and state is blurred. There are problems with corruption and the rule of law. The authorities frequently behave especially aggressively towards foreign investors. Though an improving Kazakhstan has surged up the rankings of global corruption, Transparency International still has it below Tunisia and Egypt.
The state has muscled into the biggest energy projects, arguing that foreign companies got too good a deal in the 1990s. On December 14th one bitter dispute appeared resolved when Kazakhstan secured a 10% stake in the vast oil and gas-condensate field at Karachaganak. At least it is paying for the stake, though the cash is being advanced by the field's consortium, led by Eni from Italy and Britain's BG Group.
Mr Nazarbayev has an almost pathological obsession with his country hosting conferences, expositions and conventions. Election-rigging Kazakhstan's triumph last year was to chair the Organisation for Security and Economic Co-operation, which is dedicated to free votes and democracy; and guess who has just hosted the 33rd world arm-wrestling championship?
All this—and a fabulous budget for Western lobbyists and former statesmen—has helped burnish Kazakhstan's image in the world. The country balances cleverly between its giant neighbours, Russia and China, and the West. But the ambition to be Central Asia's acknowledged regional leader still eludes Mr Nazarbayev. It does not help that Kazakhstan looks down on its neighbours: almost as a boast, one of the president's chief advisers says he has seen Chelsea football team play in London half-a-dozen times in recent years, but has been to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, just once. Meanwhile, neighbours think of Kazakhstan as having too much bling. Mr Karimov loathes his Kazakhstani counterpart.
Mr Nazarbayev himself cannot have enough plaudits. He is routinely proposed by friendly types for the Nobel peace prize, in recognition of his renunciation of nuclear weapons. His recent recruitment of Tony Blair, a former British prime minister, will presumably further the cause.
The president likes to present himself and his country as a pillar of stability in a volatile region. But hanging over everything is the matter of succession, a subject that may not be raised in public. The 71-year-old is thought to have undergone treatment in Germany for prostate cancer in July. Uncertainty about who and what comes after him is already affecting the political mood.
Recently, a decision was made to bring forward parliamentary elections by several months, perhaps to allow the president to seek medical treatment afterwards. They will now take place on January 15th. This momentous day is set to see a formal opposition instated—currently the whole parliament is made up of the president's party. The new opposition party will supposedly represent the country's businessmen, and its patron is none other than Mr Kulibayev, the son-in-law. He is sometimes touted as the next prime minister, and indeed as Mr Nazarbayev's successor. He shows little open inclination for politics, though he may be pushed forward in order to defend the family's fortunes.
Either way, the parliamentary elections will take place against an edgier backdrop than usual. In recent months a number of armed attacks and bombings have killed several people in different parts of the country. The authorities blame Islamic extremists and other "terrorists". Others reject such claims and say common criminals are to blame. The truth is unclear. Possibly, various clans have begun jockeying for local influence in advance of the president exiting the political stage. The attacks were directed primarily at police and security forces, but they have generated unprecedented unease among ordinary Kazakhstanis. The authorities appear to believe that this will cause voters to back the regime in the parliamentary polls. Though it is not as if they have much choice over the result.