Nursultan Nazarbaev has been the dominant political figure of post-independence Kazakhstan. Born in 1940 near Shamalgan, in the foothills of the Tian Shan to the west of Almaty, he started his career in the blast furnace of the then new steel plant at Temirtau, in Karaganda Region. He joined the Communist Party and rose within it to increasingly senior positions, becoming appointed Chairman of the Council of Ministers in Kazakhstan (roughly equivalent to the Prime Ministership) in 1984, when Kunaev was First Secretary, and then to the First Secretaryship himself five years later.
The newly independent state of Kazakhstan was confronted immediately with major challenges. The break-up of the interdependent structures of the USSR deprived many enterprises of raw materials and markets, and industrial output slumped. Kazakhstan remained dependent on financial decisions made in Moscow until the introduction, amid considerable secrecy, of its own currency, the tenge, in November 1993. Nazarbaev embarked on a course of economic liberalisation, accompanied by privatisation, measures to attract foreign investment, and efforts to control the money supply in order to reduce inflationary risks. He has focused much attention on training and development, including through the provision of government-funded scholarships for the brightest young students, and has been bold in 'talent spotting' able administrators, who have often secured senior jobs at a young age. The pensions and banking systems became among the best in the region.
The pace of economic reform has not been marked by equivalent progress towards democratisation, and indeed President Nazarbaev has himself in a number of speeches emphasised that, while he sees democratisation as a goal, economic growth should come first, since without a strong economy democratic development risks in his view being destabilising. This prioritisation is seen clearly in Nazarbaev s relations with parliament in the early 1990s. Nazarbaev became concerned that the parliament elected in 1994 under the first, 1993, Constitution of independent Kazakhstan was acting as an obstacle to the implementation of his economic reform agenda, in taking an overly cautious attitude to such issues as the promotion of foreign investment and land privatisation. A ruling of the Constitutional Court upholding a complaint from an unsuccessful candidate about the conduct of the election gave Nazarbaev the justification he needed to dissolve parliament, and temporarily rule by decree. The new Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan, a body intended to represent the interests of the diverse ethnic groups making up the population of the country, proposed the extension of the presidential term of office from 1996 to 2000, in the interests of stability, a proposal which was endorsed by a large margin in a referendum in April 1995.
Nazarbaev also moved to change the Constitution, putting forward a new draft which was again endorsed by a national referendum, in August 1995. The new Constitution was avowedly presidential in style. The president is commander- in-chief of the armed forces, and was given control of many key appointments, including the prime minister, the heads of regional administrations and the chairman of the new Constitutional Council. A bicameral parliament was established. The lower chamber, the Majilis, was elected under a mostly constituency-based system. The upper chamber, the Senate, consisted of representatives from each of the regions of Kazakhstan, plus some presidential appointees. Parliamentary elections under the new rules in December 1995 produced a parliament which was much less fractious, and more supportive of the reform programme. Nazarbaev was reconfirmed as president by large margins in presidential elections in 1999 and 2005, and the snap election in April 2011 awarded him 95.5% of votes.
In 1997 Nazarbaev moved Kazakhstan’s capital from Almaty to Astana, then a mediumsized provincial city in the central north, citing Astana’s more central and less earthquake-prone location, and greater proximity to Russia. Despite incredulity at first, Astana has been transformed at great cost into a capital for the 21st century with some spectacular new buildings. The new capital is just part of Nazarbaev’s vision of Kazakhstan as ‘a Central Asian snow leopard’, which will use its huge natural-resource wealth to build a diversified, hi-tech economy, with a trilingual (Kazakh, Russian and English) populace, by the year 2030. He has forged friendly relationships with the main Western powers and Russia, and developed a working relationship with China (one of the major investors in Kazakhstan), while also rubbing along OK with Kazakhstan’s Central Asian neighbours.
With Kazakhstan having enjoyed GDP growth rates of more than 10% a year between 2000 and 2005, Nazarbaev increasingly talked of Kazakhstan's readiness for democratisation. The conclusions of a State Commission on Democratisation formed the basis for Constitutional amendments passed in May 2007, which were billed by Nazarbaev as moving Kazakhstan from a presidential system of governance to a presidential/parliamentary one. Both chambers of parliament were increased in size, with a move to a proportional representation system for elections to the Majilis in order to encourage political party development. The prime minister would henceforth be taken from the largest party in parliament. The presidential term of office was reduced from seven years to five. Some judicial and local government reforms were also introduced. The previous bar on the president from also holding membership of a political party was lifted, a change which led to a much closer personal identification between Nazarbaev and the pro-presidential party Nur Otan, which he now headed. Amid some international controversy, the amendments also lifted the two-term limit on holding the presidency in respect of the first president of Kazakhstan (ie: Nazarbaev). In parliamentary elections in August 2007, Nur Otan emerged as the only party represented in the Majilis, since none of the opposition groups was able to reach the 7% threshold.
The main current opposition groupings in Kazakhstan have their origins in the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, an organisation founded in 2001 by a number of politicians previously associated with the regime, including Galymzhan Zhakiyanov (a former Governor of Pavlodar), Oraz Zhandosov (a former Central Bank Chairman) and Mukhtar Ablyazov (a former Energy Minister). Their platform was based around calls for further economic and political reform and a countering of corruption among the political elite. The organisation split after a year, with a moderate faction setting up a new party, Ak Zhol (White Path), which secured just one seat in the 2004 parliamentary elections, which they did not take up, complaining of widespread electoral malpractice. In 2005, this group split in turn, the new group taking the name True Ak Zhol. A banner coalition of some of these opposition groups, For a Just Kazakhstan, proved the main opposition to President Nazarbaev in the 2005 presidential elections. Their candidate, a one-time Prosecutor General and Majilis chairman named Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, polled 6.6% of the vote. Other opposition forces have weakened since the early independence years: these include the communists and a number of Kazakh nationalist groups (which included a new Alash party, headed by Sabet-Kazy Akatay).
In foreign policy, Nazarbaev has attempted to retain a balanced approach, maintaining friendly relations with his two large neighbours, Russia and China, while avoiding being drawn too heavily into the sphere of influence of any one power, and courting investment and technical advice from the US and EU. The official renouncement of the nuclear weapons with which Kazakhstan found itself at independence earned him much praise internationally, though there is some discussion as to whether Kazakhstan has actually decommissioned all the devices.
Nazarbayev has not cultivated an obvious successor and, after more than 20 years at the helm, any transition of power will be a difficult one. Foreign investors rate the lack of a clear succession plan as the single greatest threat to Kazakhstan's stability and, by extension, to the stability of the whole central Asian region.