Nazarbayev: Kazakhstan's moderniser with an authoritarian streak

Astana (Kazakhstan) (AFP) - A shepherd's son who counts former British prime minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin among his admirers, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev has overseen two decades of change in his Central Asian country, while remaining entrenched himself.

Under Nazarbayev, the sprawling nation of 17 million has parlayed its energy resources and strategic location into influence, emerging from ex-Soviet obscurity to host Iranian nuclear talks and chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The gleaming futuristic new capital Astana, built in the years since independence, symbolises Nazarbayev's drive to put the country on the map.

Nazarbayev, re-elected in a barely contested election to a fifth term on Sunday, was born to a peasant family. He trained as an engineer before rising through the ranks of the Kazakh Communist Party to head it in 1989 and was elected president on the eve of the Soviet breakup in 1991.

Since then, his power has become absolute, with resounding, but internationally criticised election victories in 1999, 2005 and 2011. There is no obvious succession plan in place and there are no clear alternatives to Nazarbayev's rule in the largely Muslim country with a significant ethnic Russian minority.

"Kazakhstan's state institutions are fairly hollowed out," says Edward Schatz, an authority on Kazakhstan at the University of Toronto.

"Parliament is a legislature only in name. The judiciary lacks independence."

An Ipsos MORI survey poll on Tuesday showed 91 percent of Kazakhs are either satisfied or very satisfied with the job Nazarbayev is doing.

Rights activists say that support is the result of ignorance and propaganda, reinforced by crackdowns on the press and Internet.

"People are brainwashed from early childhood that we live in a peaceful and stable country with great interethnic friendship," says Dina Baidildayeva, a blogger and rights activist. "Any information that contradicts this official propaganda is blocked online."

- Stable partner -

Viewed as a guarantor of stability at home, Nazarbayev has projected himself similarly abroad, remaining a close partner to Russia while engaging with the West and accommodating the growing economic interests of China in the region.

Most recently, Nazarbayev has offered his country as a site for talks over the Ukraine crisis, and is hosting representatives of the Syrian opposition in the aftermath of his victory.

Between 1998 and 2008, Kazakh GDP grew by roughly 10 percent annually, fuelled by pro-business policies and revenues from the country's key crude oil exports.

While still the most promising in Central Asia, the economy has looked less perky recently, with low energy prices and economic turmoil in neighbouring Russia taking its toll.

Putin last year called Nazarbayev "the most prudent" leader in the post-Soviet space, while Blair, who has acted as a paid advisor to the country's government, credited Nazarbayev with "subtlety and ingenuity" in a promotional video that aired in 2012.

A desire to be accepted abroad has led Nazarbayev to pursue a "less brutal and pernicious" form of authoritarianism than leaders such as Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, said Eric McGlinchey, a Central Asia expert at George Mason University.

In 2011, however, a pay dispute in the oil sector turned violent with government troops shooting dead 15 protesters and injuring over a hundred.

"This was a black eye for the government and Nazarbayev personally. He knows if he wants to present himself as a purveyor of international peace, this is a mistake that cannot be repeated," said McGlinchey.

The success story of Kazakhstan and Nazarbayev has not been without other murky subplots, one of which ended in February when the president's former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev apparently committed suicide in an Austrian jail.

Aliyev was married to Nazarbayev's eldest daughter Dariga until 2007, but he publicly fell out with the Kazakh supremo that year and went on to author a tell-all book on the ruling family.

He was found dead in his cell while awaiting trial in Austria for the murder of two Kazakh bankers. He had been convicted in absentia on multiple counts in Kazakhstan, including plotting to overthrow the government.

- Nation's 'father' -

Nazarbayev, who bears the honorary title "Elbasi," or "father of the nation", is ubiquitous on state television and billboards across the country.

He has embraced grandiose projects, transforming Astana from a sleepy provincial town into a glitzy metropolis with buildings designed by internationally-renowned architects.

Nazarbayev hinted ahead of Sunday's poll that he had considered stepping down from power.

"I have received thousands of letters asking me to put forward my candidacy," he mused in March, before adding: "Perhaps it is time for a scene-change?"

He later announced he decided to stand again to tackle the economic challenges, which some have speculated will prompt a post-election devaluation of the tenge currency.

Nazarbayev married his wife Sara in the early 1960s. Of their three daughters, Dariga, 51, is an MP and is considered the most politically influential. The husband of his middle daughter Dinara, oil baron Timur Kulibayev, is sometimes mentioned as a potential successor.