ASTANA, Kazakhstan—In Kazakhstan's part of the world, the standards for a cult of personality are high. In neighboring Turkmenistan, former President Saparmurat Niyazov renamed himself " Turkmenbashi," meaning "Father of the Turkmen"; then he renamed, among other things, a major city, the international airport, and a month of the year after himself. He also erected a massive golden statue of himself in the center of the capital that constantly rotates to face the sun. In Azerbaijan, there are more than 50 museums devoted to the life of the country's former strongman leader (and father of the current president) Heydar Aliyev.
By those measures, Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is relatively modest. Thus far, there are only two statues of him in the entire country and a single museum. But unmistakably, Nazarbayev is becoming identified with the state itself. In addition to the creation of Nazarbayev University, there is the fact that "Astana Day," a holiday celebrating the capital, happens to fall on the same date as Nazarbayev's birthday. Nazarbayev also rewrote the lyrics to the national anthem. In 2010, parliament formally named him " leader of the nation" (an honor that includes immunity from any sort of prosecution after he retires).
In Kazakhstan, I saw a phenomenon I haven't noticed anywhere else: There are at least three bronze handprints of Nazarbayev in the country. Kazakhs place their own hands in the prints and make a wish. One is at the top of the Baiterek (Independence) Monument in Astana, and it featured in a locally made film in which a boy loses his parents, goes to the monument to wish on Nazarbayev's hand to get them back and, in the tear-jerking conclusion, finds them again.
A curious feature of the propaganda surrounding Nazarbayev is that, although it is intended for domestic consumption, its aim is to emphasize his stature abroad. In Astana's Museum of the First President of Kazakhstan, devoted to Nazarbayev, a couple of perfunctory rooms focus on the future president's early life (including his Communist Party membership card, a history he definitely doesn't run away from), but the bulk of the collection is devoted to room after room of awards, honors, and gifts that Nazarbayev has received from abroad.
One room is devoted to state honors, from the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George from Great Britain to Luxembourg's Order of the Oak Crown; every one is accompanied by a photo either of the other country's leader presenting Nazarbayev with the award (in the case of Great Britain, Queen Elizabeth was pictured with the president) or of Nazarbayev proudly wearing it sashed, pinned, or draped around his neck. Apparently, no gift is too modest to put on display: There is a set of golf balls presented by Bill Clinton, leather drink coasters that Donald Rumsfeld gave him, a citation from the International Association of Amateur Boxing, and a medal from the Port Authority of Thailand. An academic gown is displayed, with an explanation that it was associated with his "Honorary Level in the Field of Applied Technology" of the Technological Institute of Southern Alberta.
Along with his hopes of making Astana a world-class capital, Nazarbayev has also proposed the creation of a new universal currency, called the akmetal (from the Greek word acme) to replace the dollar in international commerce, a sort of monetary Esperanto. (The IMF said the idea was "interesting, but poorly explored.") He has aggressively fought for Kazakhstan's leadership of international groups like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. "Kazakhstan is too small for him," said Dosym Satpayev, a political analyst in Almaty.
Nazarbayev was a rising figure in the Soviet Union in the 1980s—Mikhail Gorbachev reportedly offered to name him prime minister—and when the Soviet Union started to come apart, he lobbied other leaders of constituent republics to save the Soviet Union, albeit in a looser form called the Free Union of Sovereign Republics, rather than for Kazakhstan's independence. In the early days of independence, Kazakhstan didn't have much to build a nation on: Its nomadic history meant there was no pre-Soviet state to revive, and since Kazakhs were a minority, Nazarbayev couldn't rely on nationalism, either. So he decided to stake his internal legitimacy on his international reputation. As scholar Edward Schatz wrote, Nazarbayev "sought to portray an image of a state elite that was engaged internationally and therefore deserving of support domestically."
The strategy worked, and today Nazarbayev is undeniably popular: According to U.S.-run opinion polls, his approval rating hovers around a stratospheric 90 percent. While some positive responses likely came from people who were afraid to voice their opposition to a stranger on the phone, even his most cynical opponents suggested to me that, in a truly fair election, Nazarbayev would still receive at least 60 to 70 percent of the vote. (In spite of his genuine popularity, elections in Kazakhstan are not fair: In April, Nazarbayev won an election with 95.5 percent of the vote; international observers noted several irregularities, like ballot-box stuffing and multiple voting.)
To most Kazakhs—and to foreigners who deal with Kazakhstan—Nazarbayev's ability to keep the country stable and prosperous trumps whatever failings he might have. And he is lucky to be neighbors with some of the most dysfunctional countries on the planet, places that make Kazakhstan look quite well off in comparison. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are brutal dictatorships, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are on the verge of becoming failed states. In addition to their disastrous political systems, all those countries have standards of living far below Kazakhstan's.
For example, Kyrgyzstan's relatively open political system made it the human rights/democracy darling of Central Asia. But my visit coincided with an outbreak of horrific ethnic violence there, only the latest political crisis that has beset the country. Whenever I made small talk about Nazarbayev to Kazakhs, over and over again I heard the same thing: After a litany of complaints about corruption and maybe some eye-rolling about the "leader of the nation" status, they would add: "but at least we're not Kyrgyzstan." (The same poll that gave Nazarbayev a 91-percent approval rating found that 39 percent of Kazakhs blamed the violence in Kyrgyzstan on a low standard of living, while 38 percent put the onus on the Kyrgyz authorities' "weakness.")
Nazarbayev is particularly popular among Kazakhstan's many ethnic minorities, who credit him for tamping down the nationalism many feared would erupt after independence. Many foreigners have bought into Nazarbayev's brand of business-friendly authoritarianism.
Two members of the U.S. Congress have nominated Nazarbayev for the Nobel Peace Prize (ostensibly for his decision to get rid of the Soviet nuclear weapons Kazakhstan inherited upon independence). One of them, Darrell Issa, R.-Calif., told Kazakhstan's foreign minister at a 2010 appearance before a congressional committee that Kazakhstan was no more a one-party system than the United S tates is: "In your country there are competing movements; the seeds don't sprout so you don't have a two-, three-, four-party system, in which they have representation in your parliament," Issa said. "Washington, D.C., is exactly the same: It is a one-party town even though there are people who are not Democrats." This, of course, was before the 2010 midterms. And in any case, it ignores the fact that in Kazakhstan the opposition doesn't simply fail to sprout, it is stomped out as soon as it peeks above the soil.
The creation of a larger-than-life persona for Nazarbayev and his one-man rule, unbound by any checks or balances has led some to worry about what will happen when he passes from the scene. Nazarbayev just turned 71, and recent health scares have raised worries that he has no obvious successor. He has systematically sidelined his political opposition, occasionally by force but more often simply by fixing the rules of the game in his own favor, using restrictive laws on political parties, elections, and the media. With no other legitimate centers of power in the country, Nazarbayev's death could result in a free-for-all. Schisms in the current ruling elite could burst into the open, with the combatants making populist appeals to economic or ethnic grievances. In short, Kazakhstan's strategy has been high-reward, but also high-risk.
The path Kazakhstan has taken is not the only one Nazarbayev could have chosen. Mongolia, for example, is culturally and historically similar to Kazakhstan (a long history of nomadism followed by Soviet domination). But it has taken a very different route since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and today it is still quite poor but with genuine democracy. (Its GDP per capita is $2,200, a quarter of Kazakhstan's, while according to the index of the advocacy group Freedom House, Mongolia is " free" while Kazakhstan is " not free.")
A few months after I returned from Kazakhstan, I attended a forum in Washington, D.C., where various young leaders from Central Asia talked about their countries' respective political futures. During one session, the representatives from Mongolia and Kazakhstan got into a friendly debate about their countries' respective strategies.
The slick young Kazakhstan representative noted that it took Mongolia about nine years to work out a single, albeit massive, mining contract—and that in that same period, Kazakhstan had built a new capital. He allowed that there may have been corruption in Astana's construction, and that corners may have been cut, but the goal after independence had been to develop the standard of living as quickly as possible. Mongolians suffered in poverty while the democratic process of public review of the mining contract chugged along for all those years, the Kazakh concluded.
The Mongolian representative replied by noting that, like the tortoise and the hare, there were two models of development in Asia: that of China—which Kazakhstan has followed—and that of India. "China's growth is fast and breathtaking. But that comes with a strategic risk—the whole country could collapse. India is slow, but no one says it's going to collapse."