President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been the leader of Kazakhstan since it became independent in 1991. He has used his position enrich himself and his family and is now regarded as one of the world’s richest men. Even so he is well liked, especially by Kazakhs, and has lead Kazakhstan down a road to prosperity and development. His title is "Leader of the Nation". People in Kazakhstan call him “Papa.”

A former steelworker and a Kazakh who prospered within the Soviet system, Nazarbayev has been in power for more than two decades and enjoys sweeping powers. He is equally comfortable speaking Russian with Russians and Kazakh with Kazakhs. As president he has declared that his goal for Kazakhstan is to not just make it an Asian tiger but for it to become “a Central Asian snow leopard, creating a model to be followed by other developing countries” by 2020.

In 2003, the Wall Street Journal said: “Nazarbayev’s success in holding the country together and moving the economy from near-collapse to strong growth is a rare bright spot in the former Soviet Union.” According to Reuters: He “has overseen market reforms and attracted foreign investors, but has kept a tight lid on dissent in his nation which has never held an election recognized as free and fair by the West. Still vastly popular, he has said he will rule as long as his health allows him to stay in power and promised to groom a successor before stepping down.” [Source: Reuters, February 7, 2014]

Book: “ Nursultan Nazarbayev: My Life, My Times and My Future” by Nursultan Nazarbayev (Pilkington Press, 1998)

Nazarbayev's Early Life and Character

Nazarbayev is a Kazakh. He was born on July 6, 1940 into a peasant family in Chemolgan, a rural town near Almaty. His father was a poor labourer who worked for a wealthy local family until Soviet rule confiscated the family's farmland in the 1930s during Joseph Stalin's collectivization policy. Following this, his father took the family to the mountains to live out a nomadic existence. His father avoided compulsory military service due to a withered arm he sustained when putting out a fire. At the end of World War II the family returned to the village of Chemolgan, and Nazarbayev began to pick up the Russian language. He performed well at school, and was sent to a boarding school in Kaskelen. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Nazarbayev began his working career as a blast furnace worker at a steel factory. After leaving school, Nazarbayev took up a one-year, government-funded scholarship at the Karaganda Steel Mill in Temirtau. He also spent time training at a steel plant in Dniprodzerzhynsk, and therefore was away from Temirtau in 1959 when riots over working conditions left several people dead. By the age of 20, he was earning a relatively good wage doing "incredibly heavy and dangerous work" in the blast furnace. He worked at the steel plant for 15 years, steadily rising through the ranks to become the manager of heavy industry in the Karaganda region and later the Kazakh SSR.

Nazarbayev joined the Communist Party in 1962, and quickly became a prominent member of the Young Communist League. He soon became a full-time worker for the party. He graduated from Karagandy Polytechnic Institute in 1967 with a degree in metallurgical engineering. Later he earned a Ph.D. in economics. In 1972, he was appointed secretary of the Communist Party Committee of the Karaganda Metallurgical Kombinat in 1972, and four years later became Second Secretary of the Karaganda Regional Party Committee.

Nazarbayev is married to Sara Alpysqyzy Nazarbayeva, and they have three daughters – Dariga, Dinara and Aliya. Nazarbayev is regarded as a cunning politicians who has been described as “a great chess player.” He has written books about logic, social modernization and political evolution in the former Soviet states. He likes tennis, hiking and listening to Kazakh music. It is said that he can sing very well. He has no known health problems.

Nazarbayev Rise in the Soviet Union

Nazarbayev was the last Communist party chief when the Soviet Union broke up. Like the other Central Asian leaders, he had risen through the ranks in the Soviet era and were in control when independence came. He was elected president of Kazakhstan in a general election in December 1991.

Trained as a metallurgist and engineer, Nazarbayev had become involved in party work in 1979, when he became a protégé of reform members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). In his days as a Communist Party bureaucrat, Nazarbayev spent his days dealing with legal papers, solving logistical problems and industrial disputes, as well as meeting workers to solve individual issues. He later wrote that "the central allocation of capital investment and the distribution of funds" meant that infrastructure was poor, workers were demoralized and overworked, and centrally set targets were unrealistic; he saw the steel plant's problems as a microcosm for the problems for the Soviet Union as a whole. [Source: Wikipedia, Library of Congress]

Nazarbayev was the chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Kazakh SSR from 1984 to 1989. He seemed like a good choice for the leadership role of Gorbachev-era Soviet Kazakh Republic because he was a Kazakh and ethnic riots broke out in 1986 when a Russian was given the job. Having taken a major role in the attacks on Kunayev, Nazarbayev was expected by some to replace him in 1986. When he was passed over, Nazarbayev submitted to the authority of the ethnic Russian leader of the Kazakh SSR and used his party position to support Gorbachev's new line, attributing economic stagnation in the Soviet republics to past subordination of local interests to the mandates of Moscow. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Nazarbayev became the General Secretary of the Kazakh SSR, the First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party, and a member of the Soviet politburo in 1989. In April 1990, he was elected president of the Kazakh SSR by the Kazakhstan Supreme Soviet. In September 1991, the Communist Party in Kazakhstan was renamed the Party of People's Unity.

Nazarbayev Rise to the President of the Kazakh Republic

In June 1989, after serving for four years, Gennadiy Kolbin — the ethnic Russian Communist Party leader of the Kazakh SSR— was replaced by Nazarbayev. Soon proving himself a skilled negotiator, Nazarbayev bridged the gap between the republic's Kazakhs and Russians at a time of increasing nationalism while also managing to remain personally loyal to the Gorbachev reform program. Nazarbayev's firm support of the major Gorbachev positions in turn helped him gain national and, after 1990, even international visibility. Many reports indicate that Gorbachev was planning to name Nazarbayev as his deputy in the new union planned to succeed the Soviet Union. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Even as he supported Gorbachev during the last two years of the Soviet Union, Nazarbayev fought Moscow to increase his republic's income from the resources it had long been supplying to the center. Although his appointment as party first secretary had originated in Moscow, Nazarbayev realized that for his administration to succeed under the new conditions of that time, he had to cultivate a popular mandate within the republic. This difficult task meant finding a way to make Kazakhstan more Kazakh without alienating the republic's large and economically significant Russian and European populations. Following the example of other Soviet republics, Nazarbayev sponsored legislation that made Kazakh the official language and permitted examination of the negative role of collectivization and other Soviet policies on the republic's history. Nazarbayev also permitted a widened role for religion, which encouraged a resurgence of Islam. In late 1989, although he did not have the legal power to do so, Nazarbayev created an independent religious administration for Kazakhstan, severing relations with the Muslim Board of Central Asia, the Soviet-approved oversight body in Tashkent. *

In March 1990, elections were held for a new legislature in the republic's first multiple-candidate contests since 1925. The winners represented overwhelmingly the republic's existing elite, who were loyal to Nazarbayev and to the Communist Party apparatus. The legislature also was disproportionately ethnic Kazakh: 54.2 percent to the Russians' 28.8 percent.

Nazarbayev Before Kazakhstan Independence

Future Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev became the General Secretary of the Kazakh SSR, the First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party, and a member of the Soviet politburo in 1989. In April 1990, he was elected president of the Kazakh SSR by the Kazakhstan Supreme Soviet.

In keeping with practices in other republics at that time, the parliament had named Nazarbayev its chairman, and then, soon afterward, it had converted the chairmanship to the presidency of the republic. In contrast to the presidents of the other republics, especially those in the independence-minded Baltic states, Nazarbayev remained strongly committed to the perpetuation of the Soviet Union throughout the spring and summer of 1991. He took this position largely because he considered the republics too interdependent economically to survive separation. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

At the same time, however, Nazarbayev fought hard to secure republic control of Kazakhstan's enormous mineral wealth and industrial potential. This objective became particularly important after 1990, when it was learned that Gorbachev had negotiated an agreement with Chevron, a United States oil company, to develop Kazakhstan's Tengiz oil fields. Gorbachev did not consult Nazarbayev until talks were nearly complete. At Nazarbayev's insistence, Moscow surrendered control of the republic's mineral resources in June 1991. Gorbachev's authority crumbled rapidly throughout 1991. Nazarbayev, however, continued to support him, persistently urging other republic leaders to sign the revised Union Treaty, which Gorbachev had put forward in a last attempt to hold the Soviet Union together. *

Nazarbayev Prepares Kazakhstan for Independence

Because of the coup attempted by Moscow hard-liners against the Gorbachev government in August 1991, the Union Treaty never was signed. Ambivalent about the removal of Gorbachev, Nazarbayev did not condemn the coup attempt until its second day. However, once the incompetence of the plotters became clear, Nazarbayev threw his weight solidly behind Gorbachev and continuation of some form of union, largely because of his conviction that independence would be economic suicide. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

At the same time, however, Nazarbayev pragmatically began preparing his republic for much greater freedom, if not for actual independence. He appointed professional economists and managers to high posts, and he began to seek the advice of foreign development and business experts. The outlawing of the CPK, which followed the attempted coup, also permitted Nazarbayev to take virtually complete control of the republic's economy, more than 90 percent of which had been under the partial or complete direction of the central Soviet government until late 1991. Nazarbayev solidified his position by winning an uncontested election for president in December 1991. *

Nazarbayev was not happy about the break up of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan was the last Soviet republic to declare independence. A week after the election for the Kazakh Republic presidency, Nazarbayev became the president of an independent state when the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus signed documents dissolving the Soviet Union. Nazarbayev quickly convened a meeting of the leaders of the five Central Asian states, thus effectively raising the specter of a "Turkic" confederation of former republics as a counterweight to the "Slavic" states (Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) in whatever federation might succeed the Soviet Union. This move persuaded the three Slavic presidents to include Kazakhstan among the signatories to a recast document of dissolution. Thus, the capital of Kazakhstan lent its name to the Alma-Ata Declaration, in which eleven of the fifteen Soviet republics announced the expansion of the thirteen-day-old CIS. On December 16, 1991, just five days before that declaration, Kazakhstan had become the last of the republics to proclaim its independence. *

Nazarbayev as President

After he became president of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev seemed like a modest, reform-minded leader open to Western ideas. He spoke about democracy in his speeches and denied that he had any intentions of being a “khan.” But that turned out not to be the case. Nazarbayev has held on to power for more than two decades through shutting the opposition out elections and manipulating the intelligence and security services. In some cases opposition have suddenly died violently under mysterious circumstances. While doing this he has enriched himself and his cronies and family members by gaining control of valuable assets and dividing the profits, kickbacks and commissions among themselves.

After Kazakhstan became independent Nazarbayev took several effective steps to ensure his as president and leader of Kazakhstan. The constitution of 1993 made the prime minister and the Council of Ministers responsible solely to the president, and in 1995 a new constitution reinforced that relationship. Furthermore, opposition parties were severely limited by legal restrictions on their activities. Within that rigid framework, Nazarbayev gained substantial popularity by limiting the economic shock of separation from the security of the Soviet Union and by maintaining ethnic harmony, despite some discontent among Kazakh nationalists and the huge Russian minority. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Nazarbayev is given credit for paying pensions on time, streamlining the government, fostering economic growth and avoiding trouble with Muslim extremists. He has forged close ties with Russia, even raising the idea of Russia and Kazakhstan having a single parliament and currency. But at the same time he has been criticized for letting corruption thrive, allowing Soviet-era Communist to remain in power, and failing to aggressively push economic reforms.

See Economic History

Nazarbayev in His Early Years as Kazakhstan’s President

As the Soviet Union faced dissolution late in 1991, Nazarbayev was one of the last advocates of the union's preservation in some form. Since that time, he has pursued a careful foreign policy aimed at preserving both close relations with Russia and as much as possible of his nation's economic and political independence. In domestic politics, he nominally expanded some of the republic's democratic institutions, pushing through a new constitution and a popularly elected parliament. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

However, Nazarbayev also consolidated his executive power steadily in the mid-1990s. Parliaments were dissolved in 1993 and 1995, and Nazarbayev made numerous changes in the personnel and structure of his cabinets, all in an effort to obtain cooperation in his reform programs. In April 1995, a referendum overwhelmingly extended the president's term to 2000, canceling the 1995 presidential election. Decrees by Nazarbayev in December 1995 and April 1996 further extended the president's powers. Nazarbayev also dissolved the Constitutional Court in 1995 and replaced members of the Supreme Court in 1996. *

Party politics in Kazakhstan have not worked well, although a substantial opposition movement exists. Despite efforts by the ruling People's Unity Party (SNEK) to minimize opposition activity, the top three opposition parties gained twenty-two of sixty-seven seats in the lower house (Majilis) of parliament in the December 1995 elections, and another fourteen seats went to independent candidates. Indicating the inferior role of parliament in the Kazakhstani government, however, was the lack of competition in those elections; only forty-nine candidates vied for the forty Senate (upper-house) seats being contested. In both houses, Kazakhs outnumbered Russians, by forty-two to nineteen in the Majilis and by twenty-nine to fifteen in the Senate (the president appoints seven senators). [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Nazarbayev and One Man Rule

Nazarbayev has become the khan that he claimed he didn’t want to be. He controls the parliament and the courts and has crushed the opposition. His family controls most of the country’s wealth and the media. Nazarbayev doesn’t tolerate any criticism of his policies. Personal information about the president by law is a state secret. “Infringement of the honor and dignity of the president” is a crime.

Nazarbayev dubs his philosophy of government as “”freedom under the law.” If anything, over time, the government has become more repressive and less democratic despite claims to the contrary. The government have asserted it needs authoritarian measures to bring about stability. American diplomats have argued that the opposite is true. They say the government need to adopt democratic reforms and tolerate opposition to give the government legitimacy and genuine grassroots support.

In the early 2000s as the opposition became more vocal Nazarbayev responded by jailing two opposition leaders and cracking down on the opposition media. But unlike the other Central Asia countries Nazarbayev has been able to deliver economic prosperity. This is worth noting especially compared to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan which are also rich in energy resources but are more repressive than Kazakhstan. A widely shown television public announcement in the 2000s showed Nazarbayev as giant walking the streets of Kazakhstan’s new capital Astana.

Nazarbayev and the Political Situation in Kazakhstan

Public opinion in Kazakhstan appears to have accepted the imposition of presidential rule, at least partly because the parliament Nazarbayev dissolved had focused on its own wages and benefits rather than on solving the nation's problems. In the short run, the imposition of direct presidential rule seemed likely to reduce ethnic tensions within the republic. Indeed, one of Nazarbayev's primary justifications for assuming greater power was the possibility that bolstered presidential authority could stem the growing ethnic hostility in the republic, including a general rise in anti-Semitism. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The ethnic constituency whose appeasement is most important is, however, the Russians, both within the republic and in Russia proper. Stability in Kazakhstan is overwhelmingly shaped by developments in Russia, especially as that country returns its attention to some measure of reintegration of the former Soviet empire. Because of Kazakhstan's great vulnerability to Russian political, economic, and military intervention, experts assume that Russian national and ethnic interests play a considerable part in Nazarbayev's political calculations (See International Issues and Foreign Policy). *

It also seems likely that Nazarbayev would use presidential rule to increase the linguistic and cultural rights of the republic's Russians. Although Nazarbayev had taken a firm stand on the issue of formal dual citizenship, a treaty he and Russia's president, Boris N. Yeltsin, signed in January 1995 all but obviated the language question by permitting citizens of the respective countries to own property in either republic, to move freely between them, to sign contracts (including contracts for military service) in either country, and to exchange one country's citizenship for the other's. When the Kazakh parliament ratified that agreement, that body also voted to extend to the end of 1995 the deadline by which residents must declare either Kazakhstani or Russian citizenship. After the dissolution of that parliament, Kazakhstan considered extending the deadline until 2000, as Russia already had done. *

In the mid-1990s, Nazarbayev seemed likely to face eventual opposition from Kazakh nationalists if he continued making concessions to the republic's Russians. Such opposition would be conditioned, however, by the deep divisions of ethnic Kazakhs along clan and family lines, which give some of them more interests in common with the Russians than with their ethnic fellows. The Kazakhs also have no institutions that might serve as alternative focuses of political will. Despite a wave of mosque building since independence, Islam is not well established in much of the republic, and there is no national religious-political network through which disaffected Kazakhs might be mobilized. *

The lack of an obvious venue for expression of popular dissatisfaction has not meant, however, that none will materialize. Nazarbayev gambled that imposition of presidential rule would permit him to transform the republic's economy and thus placate the opposition through an indisputable and widespread improvement of living standards. Experts agree that the republic has the natural resources and industrial potential to make this a credible wager. But a number of conditions outside Nazarbayev's control, such as the political climate in Russia and the other Central Asian states, would influence that outcome. By dismissing parliament and taking upon himself the entire burden of government, Nazarbayev made himself the obvious target for the public discontent that radical transformations inevitably produce. *

Elections and Lack of Democracy Under Nazarbayev

Kazakhstan has not held an election deemed free and fair by Western election observers despite claims by Nazarbayev that elections would be “transparent, fair and democratic.” Since his first election in 1991, Nazarbayev has maintained firm control of Kazakhstan’s political and economic policy, removing all potential political rivals, including four prime ministers. A new constitution ratified in 1995 significantly expanded presidential power. After canceling the 1996 presidential election, in 1999 Nazarbayev easily won an election that received international criticism. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

Nazarbayev has positioned himself to be leaders for life. In 1994, he rigged an election to pack the parliament with his supporters. The election was deemed unfair by international observers and declared illegal by his own courts. In 1995, he dissolved parliament after its members showed to much independence, introduced a new constitution that gave him dictatorial powers, and introduced a rigged referendum that extended the presidential term to seven years (and his presidential term to 2000). His allowed him to avert an election in 1996.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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