Kazak Leader Cultivates Image

Is President Nazarbaev attempting to build a personality cult ahead of the next election?

Kazak Leader Cultivates Image

Is President Nazarbaev attempting to build a personality cult ahead of the next election?

Sunday, 20 November, 2005

Visitors file respectfully through President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s office, looking at what he’s written in a notebook left open on a table in the modestly-furnished room. There’s a strong feeling that he went out just a minute ago and will be back any moment.


In fact, although the office really used to belong to Nazarbaev, it is now just an exhibit in a museum devoted to his life.


Some observers see the museum, which opened on July 7, as part of a sinister trend towards mythologising the Kazak leader, who has been in power since before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and shows no sign of departing.


Although it is dominated by the figure of Nazarbaev, Kazakstan has so far avoided the kind of personality cult seen elsewhere in Central Asia.


Turkmenistan’s president Saparmurat Niyazov – by far the worst offender – has images of himself everywhere, forces everyone to study his book the Ruhnama, and has turned over the state-controlled media to a ritualistic cult of adulation strongly reminiscent of that of Joseph Stalin.


After rebranding himself as Turkmenbashi – Leader of the Turkmen – the former communist functionary had towns, streets and buildings renamed in his honour.


Nazarbaev is another Soviet official who suddenly found himself at the helm of an independent country in 1991, but while happy to be elected and re-elected in ballots that external observers said were less than democratic, he adopted a distinctly more modest style than his Turkmen neighbour.


A well-known story that illustrates this approach is that when the new Kazak currency was introduced in 1993, Nazarbaev refused to allow his portrait to appear on it.


That is not to say the president does not get extensive coverage whenever he makes a speech or goes on a visit somewhere. The media is largely subservient, and the beleaguered opposition parties have few opportunities to make themselves heard.


Two state awards have been created in honour of the country’s “first president”, although without Nazarbaev’s name featuring, while in 2003 the main street in the western city of Aktau had its title transformed overnight from the obsolete but brief Lenin Street to “Avenue of the President of the Republic of Kazakstan”.


President Nazarbaev has indicated that he will stand for election again, although constitutional lawyers are currently trying to work out whether the vote should take place this December or a year later.


As the vote approaches, observers see signs that the Kazak leader is trying to build up his public image, and thereby beginning the slide towards a personality cult.


“The magnitude of any political figure becomes clear with time, but Nazarbaev is in a hurry,” political analyst Nurbolat Masanov told IWPR. “It has to do with a PR campaign ahead of the presidential election.”


Nazarbaev’s 65th birthday on July 6 was surrounded by a number of events that strengthened this impression.


The following day saw the official opening of the Museum of the First President of the Republic of Kazakstan in the capital Astana. Located in a residence Nazarbaev used before he moved to the Ak Orda palace, the museum contains the apparently untouched presidential office, and rooms full of exhibits designed to encapsulate his life – from his school reports as a young boy through the honours he received from the Soviet state to the signed tennis ball the president, a keen amateur player, was given by German star Boris Becker.


The guides who take parties of schoolchildren and students round the museum constantly reinforce the theme of an ordinary man who reached a lofty position through hard work and patriotism.


According to Masanov, such messages will resonate most with people from the poorer, rural parts of Kazakstan’s population, who “accept these things as a matter of course”.


“It is the mentality of subjugation, the mentality of dependence on power,” he said. “And tomorrow, young people will salute a bust of the president, just as the Pioneers [Soviet youth group] once saluted the bust of Lenin.


“It’s an indication of the low level of political awareness and civilisation among our population that it allows the regime to take such decisions. It [also] demonstrates the extreme narcissism and vanity of a regime which wants to immortalise itself during its lifetime…. But marble and plaster are unstable materials - the most durable thing is people’s memory.”


There has also been an attempt to spruce up Nazarbaev’s image abroad. The Kazak leadership’s reputation has been tarnished in recent years by the “Kazakgate” case, involving a United States trial over allegations that western oil firms paid millions of US dollars in bribes to secure contracts from senior officials in Kazakstan in the early Nineties.


None of that was mentioned in a lavish new book called the “The International Elite on NA Nazarbaev”, a collection of positive remarks about the president made by world leaders.


At the July 8 book launch in Astana, Foreign Minister Kasymjomart Tokaev lauded “the Nursultan Nazarbaev phenomenon [which] arose at the meeting point of two parts of the world – Europe and Asia; two civilisations – East and West; two political systems – totalitarianism and democracy”. According to Tokaev, Nazarbaev succeeded in synthesising these opposites.


Another birthday treat for the president came in the form of a feature film which cost the treasury 34 million dollars. “Nomads”, premiered in Kazakstan’s second city Almaty on July 7, had Milos Forman as one of its executive producers and is clearly aimed at an international market.


Instead of addressing current themes, the film is set in the 18th century and takes an allegorical tack, telling the story of a boy who unites the warring Kazak tribes to triumph over their enemies, the Mongolian Jungars.


While the filmmakers hope to make Nomads a commercial success and may even put it forward for an Oscar, the government’s motive for funding it was clearly political – to make a glossy feature-length advertisement for Kazakstan under its present management.


However, one slight hitch may be that President Nazarbaev appeared underwhelmed after watching the film. Eyewitnesses noted that he left the premiere without speaking to the waiting press, and made only the most cursory remarks to the film crew.


Alim Bekenov and Amanjol Smagulov are pseudonyms for IWPR contributors in Kazakstan. Zamir Karajanov is an IWPR contributor in Almaty.


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