Sultan of the Steppes

Is he a new Khan? A Muslim progressive? An economic modernizer? A vainglorious despot? Kazakhstan's Soviet-schooled dictator has enough oil to make himself into anything he wants

Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, is a man of grand projects—and the grandest of them all is Astana, his new capital city. Once an obscure fortress town of the Russian Empire, in a region where temperatures swing from 100°s in the summer to -40°s in the winter, Astana today is a fast-growing metropolis of 600,000—and a showcase for a staggering variety of public works. Billions of dollars are being poured into the construction of government buildings, museums, monuments, religious shrines, entertainment palaces, apartment blocks, and hospitals. Business barons and foreign governments, aware of Kazakhstan's growing importance as a global oil exporter, are courting Nazarbayev with generous contributions to Astana's development. To cite just a few examples: the Persian Gulf state of Qatar has funded a national Islamic center, with a mosque able to accommodate 7,000 worshippers; a Saudi prince's foundation has funded a center for cardiac surgery; and the Russian-Jewish oligarch Alexander Mashkevich, who has large metal holdings in Kazakhstan, has funded the Beit Rachel synagogue and Jewish center. Everyone, after all, is aware of the city's immense importance to Nazarbayev. "The heart of the nation now beats here," he informed his people in 1999, two years after officially uprooting the government from Almaty, its former seat, in the temperate south of the country.

Nazarbayev claims to be the planner of Astana's every detail, right down to the choice of yellow and white paints for the houses. There is no reason to doubt his obsession. On the ground floor of the presidential palace is an eye-catching scale model of the emerging capital. The model highlights the so-called "new city," on the left bank of the Ishim River. Important architects, including Lord Norman Foster, of London, are working on major commissions (Foster is building a glass-pyramid "Palace of Peace"), but Nazarbayev has made his own role in designing Astana clear. "I'm the architect," he once told a reporter, "and I am not ashamed to say that."

Considerable speculation attends the reasoning behind the move to Astana. Some Nazarbayev watchers say the main idea was to distance the seat of power from China, whose vast population inspires fear among the Kazakhs. Others say it was to establish the capital in an area populated by many ethnic Russians and close to the Russian border—thus checking any notions those citizens might have about breaking away to unite with Russia. My own hypothesis, born of several days' wandering around the place recently, is that Nazarbayev thinks of the city as a blank canvas.

No small measure of personal vanity attaches to this endeavor. Consider, for example, the Baiterek, an abstract-looking monument in the center of town. Designed to represent a tree of life planted in the heart of Eurasia, the monument has become the principal symbol of the new capital and the new country. A 1,000-ton trunk of white metal shoots up 344 feet from the ground and branches into limbs enmeshing a golden 300-ton glass ball seventy-two feet in diameter. Visitors can take an elevator to the top of the monument and into the ball, which affords a 360-degree panorama of the city's gleaming new structures (the massive, blue-domed presidential palace among them), vacant lots reserved for new buildings, and the steppe beyond. A plaque there is inscribed with wishes for world peace from the Chinese Taoist Association, the Muslim World League, and the Russian Orthodox Church, among other faith groups. But the main attraction is a silver mold of Nazarbayev's palm print. Placing a hand in it strikes up the Kazakh national anthem. Or at least it's supposed to. I tried but couldn't raise a note—a problem that, I was told, a visiting Gerhard Schröder had also had. At night the monument is lit up by pulsating mauve and turquoise lights.

The Baiterek seems right out of Architecture for Dictators 101—and there's no denying that Nazarbayev is a dictator, albeit of the soft variety. He has benefited from a regime-manufactured cult of personality since he became president, in 1991, when Kazakhstan achieved its independence. Not surprisingly, both corruption and cronyism abound. That so many around the world are humoring his grandiosity is owing mainly to the country's impressive deposits of oil, which began to be developed intensively after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Western analysts are confident that the country will soon become one of the world's top oil exporters. "It is the real deal when it comes to oil," a senior U.S. diplomat in Kazakhstan told me.

"He thinks he is the Messiah," Zharmakhan Tuyakbay told me about Nazarbayev. Tuyakbay is one of the leaders of an elite opposition faction made up of Nazarbayev's former close associates, which aims to topple the regime, establish a Western-style parliamentary democracy, and, if popular support exists, return the capital to Almaty. (Most opposition leaders still live in Almaty or abroad, and detest Astana.) As for oil, the opposition hopes that it will be the president's undoing. James Giffen, a U.S. citizen and a consultant to the Kazakh regime, is awaiting trial in New York on federal charges of funneling more than $84 million in kickbacks to three senior Kazakh officials, two of whom were subsequently named by prosecutors as Nazarbayev and the former prime minister Nurlan Balgimbaev. The indictment alleges that this money—which came from the purchase of Kazakhstani oil rights by certain Western oil companies in the 1990s—belongs to the government and people of Kazakhstan. The indictment also details the alleged transfer of funds into various Swiss bank accounts and alleges that millions of dollars were used to buy luxury items, including diamond jewelry. Opposition leaders are gearing up to use the Internet and all other available channels to publicize what they refer to, in PR-savvy style, as "Kazakh-gate."

A soft-spoken man in his late fifties, with a full head of steel-wool hair and a wardrobe of dark business suits, Tuyakbay impressed me as level-headed and resolute when we met for lunch at the Tabard Inn, in Washington, D.C. "The structure of power," he told me, "is totally corrupt."

Tuyakbay had come to town to attend a dinner of the International Republican Institute, a pro-democracy group chaired by Senator John McCain. McCain detests autocrats like Nazarbayev, as I learned when we discussed Kazakhstan. "Would I be glad if he were gone?" McCain said. "Yes." Later he elaborated on that thought. America, he said, "cannot support despotic governments and expect over time not to pay a heavy price." Kazakhstan's oil is no reason, he feels, to embrace the current regime. Bush has been reluctant to publicly criticize Nazarbayev's authoritarian bent—especially in light of Nazarbayev's commitment to ship oil by a Washington-favored pipeline route that skirts Russia and ends on the Turkish Mediterranean. But in a speech at the dinner Tuyakbay attended, Bush did sound a note of encouragement for the Kazakh opposition. "Across the Caucasus and Central Asia," he declared, "hope is stirring at the prospect of change—and change will come."

Perhaps it will: a Washington-applauded putsch recently removed the authoritarian leader of Kyrgyzstan, a neighbor of Kazakhstan and another former Soviet republic. The spark in Kazakhstan could come as soon as December, when Nazarbayev may be elected to another seven-year term—in a contest that is unlikely to be "free and fair."

What I discovered during my journey to Kazakhstan, however, is that the prospect of change has many ordinary folks there feeling nervous. I went in search of a despised dictator and instead found a tolerated one—in some quarters even a popular one.

Kazakhstan lies in the great Asian steppe. Its 15 million people are scattered across an expanse of territory as large as Western Europe, stretching from China in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west. By tradition the Kazakhs, a Turkic-Mongol people, are nomads, grouped in kinship clans and larger hordes. Islam arrived in the eighth century, but except in the less nomadic south it never inspired an especially fervent devotion. European culture and the Russian language (now universally spoken) came with the Russian colonial conquest, starting in the eighteenth century. Early in the Soviet period the Kazakhs endured a brutal series of Moscow-dictated transformations, including the collectivization of agriculture. Many Kazakhs, unwilling to become settled farmers, let their cattle perish. But they gradually accommodated themselves to Soviet rule and developed their own strong bench of party leaders.

Nazarbayev accepted and mastered the Soviet system. The son of ethnic Kazakh shepherds, he was born in July of 1940, in a village in southeastern Kazakhstan, close to the border with Kyrgyzstan. After high school he joined tens of thousands of other rabochiye—manual workers conscripted by the Communist Party's economic planners—at an enormous steelworks in the republic's northern town of Temirtau. He began at the bottom, as an iron caster, gulping salt water to retain body fluids in the furnacelike conditions. He joined Komsomol, the Communist Youth League, and proved adept at cultivating powerful patrons. By the time he left the area, in 1980, for a senior Party job in Almaty, he was well along the path to the top Party post of first secretary (reporting directly to Moscow), which he attained in 1989.

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Paul Starobin is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His profile of Vladimir Putin appeared in the March issue.

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