MOSCOW–Nursultan Nazarbayev, the longtime leader of Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s richest country, has always had a rather particular sense of humor. Back in 1998 he moved the country’s capital from the cozy, sunny city of Almaty to a place called Akmola on the windswept northern steppe. The locale was known as “a white grave” because of its unbearable climate: the lowest registered temperature there once dropped down to -51.6°C (−60.9 °F). But Nazarbayev named the place Astana, which translates simply as “The Capital.”
That did not change the climate, which remained deadly. In winter, members of his government complained endlessly about heart-hurting icy winds—and flew back to Almaty on weekends.
Although Nazarbayev, 78, stepped down as president last month, much of his power, and the way he likes to wield it remains intact as he organizes a succession that will keep Kazakhstan in the family. He still has the title of Elbasy, or “national leader”; he’s still in charge of the ruling Radiant Fatherland party; and as head of the Security Council (for life) he has some powers that supersede those of the his hand-picked successor as president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, promoted from the position of Senate Speaker. Replacing Tokayev in that role? Nazarbayev’s 55-year-old daughter, Dariga.
Oh, and that frosty capital there on the steppe is being renamed. Now it’s to be called not Astana, but Nursultan.
“Nazarbayev is in a hurry to promote his own daughter to the leading position of the Senate. To rename the capital after himself—that is disgusting, bullying, and rude,” Daniil Kislov, an expert on Central Asian politics, told The Daily Beast. “Nazarbayev acts in the traditional way for a dictator.”
Like the Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin or Josef Stalin before him, Nazarbayev has always nurtured a cult of personality, presenting himself as the country’s leading poet, scientist, architect, the man with the best and biggest gifts. He’s shown an affinity with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but also with U.S. President Donald Trump, who knows a thing or two about cults of personality himself.
In Astana (now Nursultan) they called Nazarbayev’s visit with Trump last year at Mar-a-lago “historic.” His message to the American president: You can rely on Kazakhstan for help in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and in Afghanistan.
For three long decades Nazarbayev insisted that there was “no political culture in Kazakhstan for the development of full democracy, yet,” but he always rejected the label “dictator.” (Which is not that unusual for dictators.)
Here in Russia, too, we see growing signs of a personality cult around President Putin, and he’s not too shy about it. He hasn’t renamed Moscow “Vladimir,” but there already are nine streets named after him in different Russian regions and his image is ubiquitous.
Last month, we drove along Putin Prospect in the Chechen capital of Grozny as we headed to the town of Shali to watch an important trial. The city’s court building does not have an indoor toilet but its front wall is decorated with an image of a smiling Putin shaking hands with the local authoritarian leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
One of the risks run by “non-dictators” who cultivate an overpowering personal presence on the streets, in the offices, and in the homes of their countries, is the problem of self parody.
The Museum of the First President of Kazakhstan is full of pictures and presents given Nazarbayev by his admirers, and Trump’s golf club now has a proud spot there. Meanwhile locals amuse themselves with nicknames for some of the modern buildings Nazarbayev has thrown up.
The Baiterek Tower in Astana is supposed to represent an image from a popular myth about a magical bird of happiness that lays an egg in the branches of a poplar. It’s been nicknamed the Chupa Chups, after the popular European sucker that resembles an American Tootsie Pop. Inside the globe at the top a visitor can climb up the podium and place his or her hand over a golden mold of Nazarbayev’s right hand to hear the national anthem play. The lyrics are supposed to have been written by Nazarbayev, of course.
According to legend (which may have a kernel of fact) Nazarbayev once took German Chancellor Helmut Kohl upstairs to impress him with the musical handshake, but it broke and the anthem did not play. There were more embarrassing stories. The central government skyscraper, a home for the ministries of communications, culture, sport and tourism, was damaged by a major fire in 2006, and has been known ever since by the sobriquets “Lighter” or “Ashtray.”
Last November, media experts gathered in Astana for an OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) conference devoted to issues concerning freedom of the press in Central Asia in an “atmosphere of pressure and fear.” It was so cold and windy outside that the participants preferred to stay at the hotel full-time, according to Daniil Kislov, one of those who attended.
Not long before Nazarbayev resigned as president, and promoted his daughter in the Senate, he met with women leaders to congratulate them on International Women’s Day. He was full of jokes about men, encouraging women to compete with them and beat them. “Any man knows that as soon as a woman replaces him in his position, she starts working better than him, that is why he tries to prevent the competition,” the “Father of the Nation” said, and then seemed to gather his thoughts. “And still,” he told the women, “whatever success you reach, you are always with your family, with your loved ones on your mind.”
Certainly he expects that Dariga, no matter how high she rises, will always protect her family, and him.