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Celebrations are splashy, even though Nazarbayev disavows them
By Alexandr Bogatik
ASTANA – Lavish planned celebrations of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's 70th birthday (July 6) are causing grumbling about a personality cult in the country that is chairing the OSCE in 2010.
The 2008 parliamentary vote to make his birthday Astana Day exemplifies what the longtime president's critics call a personality cult.
Nazarbayev vowed in March to fire officials who staged celebrations of his birthday. But July 4-6 has been declared a national holiday, and the Astana Akimat (governorate) has been marking the run-up to Astana Day with the capital's first Action Film Festival and concerts with international stars.
Not everybody is thrilled at the celebrations honouring the man whose rule dates back to Soviet times. Nazarbayev became Communist Party leader of the then-Kazakh SSR in 1989.
“This is a huge waste of money and pompous precisely because Astana Day and Nazarbayev’s birthday are the same day”, said Astana translator Yurii Gorokhin. “They are constantly driving into my children at school that Nazarbayev is our everything”.
“There are a lot of people ready to flatter him”, said Yerzhan Pereverdiyev, an Almaty student who has protested against Kazakhstan’s ruling party, Nur Otan. “Recently, Nazarbayev University opened. There are many parks and squares named after Nazarbayev. ... Of course, he opposed being declared Leader of the Nation, but this was just to look good in the OSCE’s eyes”.
In June, by refusing to sign the Leader of the Nation bill or send it back to parliament for reworking, Nazarbayev allowed it to become law.
The origin of the glorification is difficult to figure out, said Nurlan Aidarbekov, a journalist from Taraz, who broached two explanations: either the president is pushing his own personality cult while disavowing it in public, or his entourage members are trying to prove their loyalty.
The source doesn't matter, said Aidarbekov. “The important thing is that the president is not stopping these ‘courtesies’”.
Government officials see nothing wrong with the celebrations. “Of course, Nazarbayev’s birthday plays a certain factor in all these celebrations in honour of Astana Day, but he is our president”, said an Astana Akimat official, who requested anonymity. “There is nothing surprising here — all nations pay tribute to their presidents”.
The ruling party is similarly enthusiastic about Nazarbayev's merits. “The history of gaining independence and establishing the Republic of Kazakhstan is inextricably linked to the name of our first president, Party Chairman Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev”, the party said in a statement before the July holiday.
It all smacks of a past best forgotten, complained Dmitry Tikhonov, Socialist Resistance Party leader in Taraz: “Now we have the same thing that the Soviet Union had during (Leonid) Brezhnev’s administration: the masses do not really support Nazarbayev, and all the loyalty and popular support spilling out of the television are created by coercion”.
His popularity is more solid than that, Olesya Khalabuzar, director of the Kazakh Centre for Socio-Political Studies, argued. “Seventy percent of Kazakhstan’s population support Nazarbayev and his soft, non-conflict policy on inter-ethnic issues”, she said. “The people do not care what he calls himself, as long as he remains the head of state. This attitude could be called a cult of personality, but there is still one detail missing: symbols, such as portraits, statuettes, etc., in every home”.
That day is coming, though, Khalabuzar predicted: “Not long ago, all the Maslihat (district, city and regional council) deputies and other officials were made to send the president handwritten letters of congratulation for his birthday. ... The cult elements are being introduced, but slowly”.
“Of course, we are not Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, where the presidents and their families think of themselves almost like gods, but we're getting there”, Pereverdiyev agreed.
Zhambyl Humanitarian-Technical University Rector Zhomart Koshkarov said the blame can't be pinned on Nazarbayev. The president rejected the law making him Leader of the Nation, but parliament still ratified it, he said.
“I daresay that there is not a single citizen in our country who would not recognise the merits of the first president”, he said, crediting Nazarbayev with "multifaceted activities for the good of Kazakhstan's people".
A “monarchy formed legally” in Kazakhstan during the country’s 2010 OSCE chairmanship, Tikhonov said, and only worse things will come.
Khalabuzar is holding out hope that the alleged cult will end with Nazarbayev. “These personality-cult games ... will die with him because democratic processes and transparency in modern countries as well as a lack of skill will not allow the next president to consolidate them”, she predicted.