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The Nazarbayev Story

Nursultan Nazarbayev has grown into the role of President of Kazakhstan with impressive sureness of touch. He is far from infallible, but he has shown himself swift to learn from experience and to make good his own mistakes or the mistakes of those beholden to him. His is a double role, familiar to the leaders of republics everywhere. He is the chief executive of a political and administrative machine and accountable to the people, and at least theoretically removable at their will; he has to be that same people's figurehead and exemplification of their sovereignty - their inspiration and their face in the outer world. To serve as a constitutional Pharaoh is to operate a contradiction. Such a role is bound to provoke complaint and invite criticism. The President receives both: much of it is less than fair.

Moreover, his is a country which is all but brand new, still rubbing its eyes in the hard light of its own emergence into genuine sovereignty. This new-born Kazakhstan pulses with expectations from a centre which seeks to devolve the fulfilment of expectations upon the people themselves. It is a country ethnically varied, part Euro-centric part Asia-centric, and still uncertain as to its preference for the often meretricious liberties of western polity over the stabilising restrictions of Asian and indeed Islamic obediences. The still- sleeping natural treasures of the place are as much a source of restlessness and vulnerability as they are of prosperity and ease of heart.

The President was born into a family of transhumant herders in the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains (which this book celebrates pictorially) in July 1940. It was a tough existence made triply hard by the grotesque requirements of a Marxist-Leninist ideology as interpreted by Stalin and by State quotas. His mother's greatest fear was of wolves, lest they stole a sheep and she would be condemned to ten years in a labour camp for lack of vigilance. She tended and harvested her hectare of beet with her own hands, only to pass the entire crop to the collective for a reward of one and a half sacks of sugar from the local mill.

Young Sultan, as they knew him, got to school, drove himself hard, setting out through snow (for half the year) before five a.m. for the six-kilometre trudge and returning to feed the cattle before he did his homework. He then got himself to boarding school at Kaskelen, forty miles west of Almaty. Next he seized the chance of a job at Temirtau (near Karagandy) where, in the late 1950s, one of the biggest steel mills in the USSR was being erected. His training took place in the Ukraine, at Dneprodzerzhinsk, where he discovered for himself the extreme privations of the industrial workforce under Soviet rule. When in 1959 the workers of Temirtau rose in mutiny at their conditions, and scores were shot down by troops and hundreds more arrested and jailed, the impressionable nineteen-year old was sharply alerted to the reality of naked State power. He worked at the blast furnace, joined the Party, became a central committee member of the Young Communist League and - biting the bullet of obeisance to the Party - became Party Secretary of the Karaganda metallurgical Kombinat.

He first met his bride-to-be, Sara, at the plant when, covered in soot and grime, he had worked for twenty-lour hours nonstop following an accident at the smelter. It was a providential shaft of love. She was from a family of the Middle Juz, he of the Great Juz. Each could trace their ancestry to seven generations - trace them with old-fashioned Kazakh pride. Bringing him оne step-daughter, she was to bear him two more daughters and to be a life-long strength and source of sound judgement. The eldest was to prove thrusting and influential as a figure of the media; but their father was no Lear. When in 2001 one son in law was to fly too high, father in law famously clipped his wings.

At Karagandy he was on the up, ambitious, disciplined, trustworthy, intelligent and personable. Step by step he was entering public life. In 1967 he graduated from the Karaganda Polytechnic; in 1972, he was Party leader of Kazakhstan Magnitka. Let us note that because of Nikita Khrushchev's Virgin Lands scheme (launched in 1953), the Politburo and the Kremlin took detailed notice of Soviet administration in Kazakhstan, designated as the breadbasket of the Union. Khrushchev's protege Leonid Brezhnev was made Party Secretary - the top role in Kazakhstan - in 1955; and when he, Brezhnev, took over the first Secretaryship of the USSR, he became aware of the capabilities of the young Party worker in Temirtau, as indeed did Mikhail Suslov, the Soviet Union's leading ideologue. 

In 1976, Nazarbayev became a member of Karaganda Oblast's Party Committee; in 1979 member and Secretary of the Kazakh communist Party; in 1980 Secretary of the Central Committee of the Kazakh communist Party; in 1984, Chairman of the Council of Ministers and thus, effectively, Prime Minister at 44, of Kazakhstan under Kunaev's leadership. This next year, Mikhail Gorbachev took over in Moscow. He liked Nazarbayev and backed him. It was widely believed that, while he could still entertain hopes of the survival of the USSR, he envisaged a role for the young Kazakh leader as his deputy. 

It was a remarkable trajectory, Nazarbayev by now had first-hand experience not only of the production and distribution of the products of industry, but also of the flaws and deceptions of the system. He was aware of the dead hand of Moscow's centralising authority and most likely influenced Gorbachev on the imparative of devolution. In 1992, he had submitted a doctoral thesis to the Russian academy of Management on the strategy of resource saving and the development of market relations.

Thus, when his time came for real power in 1991, he was wholly familiar with the machinery of government as it was, and perceptive as to how it might be reformed.

Yet the mindset of the entire apparatus needed to change, and needed time to change. 'Post-Soviet Mentality' was a condition of inertia, of awaiting direction from on high, of an absence of initiative and lateral thinking and commercial imagination, which was vividly evident to foreigners experienced in commerce and economics entering the newly-opened corridors of Kazakhstan's bureaucracy and supposedly liberated economy. Political and economic freedom was a wholly novel reality for both President and people. Yet how to exploit such golden freedoms?

A measure of popular disillusion was inevitable after Kazakhstan acquired independence in 1991. The early setbacks are discussed elsewhere in this book. Yet after the President's candidacy in 1991, supported by 98.7 per cent of those voting, the referendum to approve the constitutional changes of 1995 extending his term of office and strengthening Presidential powers was again substantially approved by the electorate. Nearly four years later, in January 1999, his re-election was massively endorsed by the vote. The people as a whole are unquestionably glad to have him.

He is widely recognised as a Kazakh patriot: whatever his own ambitions, he is known to have the interests of the country at heart. He is seen as wise in the handling of the country's highly significant ethnic minorities (notably the Russian element) and to be a symbol of national unity. He is a fierce guardian of the potential for prosperity offered by the country's vast hydrocarbon reserves.

Internationally, he is respected for his decisive rejection of what might have seemed a nuclear option, and as a force for Central Asian stability. He is known as a daring bargainer - not to say a brinkman - for the best possible deal from the multi-national commercial interests with which he must work to exploit his country's wealth and build its future.

Nazarbayev is as yet a stranger to the caprice of the democratic whim. He has signed up Kazakhstan to the democratic and humanitarian premises of the European community. He is still unpractised at the skills and style of handling dissent in an open society, and perhaps supposes that this Kazakhstan, albeit coming of age, has not yet attained to the political maturity of brooking an active and organised opposition, as among the western democracies with their vaunted electoral choices and their supposed transparency of government. He knows there is 'jam tomorrow' in Kazakhstan. He will not want to pass on his power to others before his people have experienced in their homes and lives the benefits of his economic strategy and he has felt the brush of a genuine kiss of popular gratitude. 


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