President of Kazakhstan
Born Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev, in July, 1940, in Kazakhstan; married Sara Alpysovna; children: Dariga, Dinara, Aliya. Education: Earned degree in metallurgy, 1967.
Addresses: Office—Office of the President, Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Krasnyy Yar, Astana, Kazakhstan.
Began career as a laborer at the Temirtau steel-works, Kazakhstan, c. late 1950s; joined Communist Party of Kazakhstan, early 1960s; worked as a technician and later an economist at a metalworks facility in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, after 1967; secretary for the Karaganda committee of the Communist Party, 1973-77, and of the Karaganda Regional Committee, 1977-79; Kazakh Communist Party (KCP), secretary of the Central Committee, 1979-84; chair, Kazakh Council of Ministers, 1984-89; appointed head of the KCP by Mikhail Gorbachev, 1989, and elected presidium chair of the Kazakh Supreme Soviet; named president of Kazakhstan by the legislature, April, 1990; resigned from the KCP, 1991; formed Socialist Party of Kazakhstan; elected Kazakhstan president by popular vote, 1991; presidency extended to the year 2000 by a 1995 referendum vote; re-elected, 1999 and 2005.
Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. A rare post-Soviet leader who has managed to maintain his leadership despite the immense political and economic turmoil of the intervening years, Nazarbayev is alternately described in the Western media as either a despot or a politically astute leader whose policies have helped his nation—the ninth largest in the world—prosper and remain at peace. Though Nazarbayev has engaged in some questionable maneuvers to ensure his grip on the presidency, he appears to be a well-liked leader among Kazakhs, and his country is poised to become one of the world's leading oil exporters by the year 2015.
Born Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev in 1940, the future president grew up in a village near Kazakhstan's border with Kyrgyzstan in the southeast. He came from a family of shepherds, a common line of work in the area and a historic legacy of the Kazakh people. A nomadic people descended from Turkic and Mongol invaders who conquered the steppes in medieval times, the Kazakhs emerged as a nation around the fifteenth century. A series of invasions in the nineteenth century brought the Kazakh republic under imperial Russian rule, along with much of the rest of Central Asia.
By the time Nazarbayev was born, Kazakhstan was officially known as the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, and was ruled by Moscow with an iron hand. The tribal Kazakhs had strongly resisted Russian domination over the years, and suffered heavy population losses in the decade before Nazarbayev's birth when they balked at the forced collectivization of their farm and pastoral lands. The area was industrialized, too, and it was at the massive Temirtau steelworks complex that Nazarbayev began his working life while still in his teens. He was an iron caster, and his long workday inside the overheated blast furnaces required him to drink salt water in order to maintain his body temperature.
Nazarbayev joined the Communist Party in the early 1960s, while studying toward a degree in metallurgy. Party membership was obligatory during the Soviet era for anyone who hoped for professional advancement in their careers, and after Nazarbayev graduated in 1967 he went to work at a metalworks facility in Karaganda, a large industrial city in the north of Kazakhstan. He began as a technician, and later became an economist. He was active in the Komsomol, the youth organization of the Communist Party, and became the local secretary of Karaganda's Communist Party committee in 1973. Four years later, he advanced to the post of secretary of the Karaganda Regional Committee of the Kazakh Communist Party (KCP).
After a stint as secretary of the KCP Central Committee from 1979 to 1984, Nazarbayev was appointed chair of the Kazakh Council of Ministers. He held this post until 1989, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev named him the new head of the KCP. His local party colleagues also elected him chair of the presidium of the Kazakh Supreme Soviet. But the Soviet Union was quickly disintegrating into political turmoil thanks to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the declarations of independence made by the Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe. In Kazakhstan, there had long been deep discontent with Moscow, most recently in clashes that occurred in the winter of 1986, when Soviet troops used force against protesters on the streets of Almaty, the capital.
In April of 1990, a newly convened Kazakh national legislature selected Nazarbayev to serve as president, and six months later declared its sovereignty as a republic within the Soviet Union. This was different than declaring independence, for some in the country—Nazarbayev among them—believed it would be better to ally with the powerful Soviet bloc than against it. This was crucial to the stability of Kazakhstan's economy, because at the time, nearly all of its exports went to Soviet-controlled lands.
The break with Soviet-style communism, however, was completed within a year, with Nazarbayev formally resigning his membership after hardliners within the party made an unsuccessful coup against Gorbachev. "Don't ask what we're building in Kazakhstan, communism or capitalism," he told journalist Robin Knight for a September of 1991 article in U.S. News & World Report. "I'm tired of this tedious question. We have believed in myths for too long. We now want to fling the doors wide open."
A few months later, in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan declared its independence. It joined the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) with Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and seven other former Soviet republics, and elections were held that same month, in December of 1991 Nazarbayev ran unopposed, and was elected president. He continued to maintain a cordial alliance with Moscow, but at the same time, courted favor with the West by dismantling the nuclear test facilities located in Kazakhstan.
The year 1995 marked a turning point in Nazarbayev's political career. Results from legislative elections were declared invalid by the Kazakh Constitutional Court, and the country's parliament was ordered dissolved until new elections could be held. Nazarbayev approved the dissolution, partly because he was unhappy with the body's lack of support for his policies. He assumed legislative powers himself, also known as rule by decree. A new constitution was approved by referendum, but vote fraud was rumored to have occurred. The new constitution gave him additional powers, and another referendum that year approved a measure to extend his presidency until the year 2000.
Such political tactics caused some international political analysts to question whether democracy had taken hold in the country, but Nazarbayev courted favor with both Russia and the West. He allowed international oil companies, for example, into the rich oil fields in Tengiz and Kashagan. The Kashagan deposits, discovered in 1979, comprise the second largest oil field in the world, and also contain vast natural gas reserves. ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, and government-owned entities of Russia and Kazakhstan are partners in developing the Tengiz field, which is expected to reach full capacity of 700,000 barrels a day by 2010. Construction of a massive pipeline route to take the oil to the West, via a longer Caspian Sea route instead of through Iran, also began.
Nazarbayev called the next presidential election a year early, in January of 1999, and this time the fairness of the ballot was undisputed: his daughter, Dariga, was his nominal opponent, but her slogan was, roughly translated, "there is no alternative to the current president." She also controlled the state-run news agency. Nazarbayev's most credible opponent, the former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, was declared ineligible to run because of a political meeting he attended. Candidates also needed to post a $30,000 deposit to register for a place on the ballot, an amount that would be forfeited if they lost. To the surprise of few, Nazarbayev won another seven-year term with 78 percent of the vote. The Communist Party candidate, Serikbolsyn Abdildin, finished in second place with a little more than 13 percent.
Thanks to the country's oil wealth, Kazakhstan became the first of the 15 former Soviet republics to repay its debt to the International Monetary Fund. Its economy grew nine percent in 2004 and 2005, and petroleum-industry analysts predicted that the country will enter the list of the world's top ten oil exporting nations by 2015. Nazarbayev funneled some of that new wealth into a new capital, called Astana, which featured nationalist paeans to Kazakh history and to his leadership, too. The heavily restricted Kazakh press, meanwhile, reported little on the 2005 indictment in U.S. federal court in New York City of James Giffen, a U.S. citizen who had worked as a consultant to the Kazakh oil ministry. Giffen was charged with handing out some $84 million in cash payments to Nazarbayev and two other top officials, including the former prime minister, when the contracts with Chevron and Exxon for oil rights in the country were in negotiation. Nazarbayev's political enemies claim he has secreted his windfall away in private Swiss bank accounts.
Kazakhstan's next presidential elections were scheduled for December 4, 2005. Again, human-rights groups charged Nazarbayev's regime with engaging in underhanded tactics to silence genuine political discourse, a claim that took a sinister turn when his main adversary, a former government minister named Zamanbek Nurkadilov who had promised to speak publicly about government corruption, was found shot to death three weeks before the election. Nazarbayev won the election with more than 90 percent of the vote, and was sworn into office on January 11, 2006.
Despite his authoritarian ways, Nazarbayev is tolerated and even respected by many citizens, according to Western journalists, who also report that there are visible signs of the country's newfound prosperity, especially in the main urban centers. Nazarbayev's youngest daughter, Aliya N. Nazarbayeva, constructed a grand spa in Almaty, the former capital and largest city, that was modeled on Egypt's famed temple of Luxor. When it opened for business in March of 2005, an annual family membership could be bought for a sum of tenge, Kazakhstan's unit of currency, that approached $8,000, about twice what an average worker takes home annually. Her sister, Dariga, left the media business to form a political party, Asar ("All Together") and was elected to parliament in 2004.
Dariga Nazarbayev was widely quoted in the Western media for speaking out against the official reaction to British-born comic Sacha Baron Cohen around the same time of the 2005 election. Cohen stars in an HBO sketch-comedy series, Da Ali G Show, in multiple roles. One of his characters is a fictional journalist from Kazakhstan, Borat Sagdiyev. On his reporting travels across the United States, Borat makes jokes about his homeland, often citing the rampant drunkenness and polygamous nature of its men, and occasionally mentioning the Kazakh national beverage, which he claims is fermented horse urine. The most popular drink in the country is actually kumys, made from fermented horse milk, which was first made in the thirteenth century and survives as a legacy of the formerly nomadic Kazakh lifestyle.
Borat's lewd blunders and racist remarks may serve, unfortunately, as the only image many Americans and Britons have of the Kazakh people, but Borat was beamed worldwide in November of 2005 when Cohen hosted the MTV Europe Music Awards in character as Borat. A spokesperson for the Kazakh Foreign Ministry objected to Cohen's character, asserting that the jibes were actually the work of anti-Kazakh elements, and even hinted that legal action might be forthcoming. In response, Cohen set up a website, borat.kz, which was blocked by the government agency that governs Internet domain usage in Kazakhstan. Dariga Nazarbayev voiced her dismay over the move, commenting that the borat.kz site "damaged our image much less than its closure, which was covered by all global news agencies," she was quoted as saying by the Canadian Broadcasting Company. "We should not be afraid of humour and we shouldn't try to control everything, I think."
Dariga Nazarbayev is considered one of the two possible successors to her father, the other being her cousin, Kairat Satybaldy, an executive with the state-run oil company, KazMunaiGaz. Others hope that Kazakhstan will successfully—and peacefully—transition into a genuine democracy. One of Nazarbayev's critics is U.S. Senator John McCain, who told Paul Starobin in the Atlantic Monthly that the United States "cannot support despotic governments and expect over time not to pay a heavy price."
Atlantic Monthly, December 2005, p. 98.
Christian Science Monitor, November 30, 2005, p. 20.
New York Times, December 23, 2005, p. C1.
Sunday Times (London, England), December 16, 1990.
Times (London, England), December 2, 2005, p. 2.
U.S. News & World Report, September 23, 1991, p. 45.
"Daughter of Kazakhstan's President Defends Borat," CBC.com, http://www.cbc.ca/story/arts/national/2006/04/21/borat-kazakhstan-d efence. html?ref=rss (May 14, 2006).