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

Some of his current rivals, educated at Moscow academies in economics or engineering (or trained by the KGB), look down on Nazarbayev as crude and ignorant. They maintain that the public would be scandalized to know of his private antics. One opposition source, who told me that Nazarbayev is a binge drinker, claims to have seen him put away a quart and a half of vodka in a single day in the 1990s, but also admits, "I never saw him lose control." (Nazarbayev's personal physician told me the president's health is "very good.") Other opposition sources, in service of their point, supplied me with snapshots of Nazarbayev at a private party in Turkey in the mid-1990s, hosted by a Turkish construction magnate. In one of them Nazarbayev, attired in a white leisure suit, is tucking a wad of money into the brassiere strap of a belly dancer. In another he is handling a golden pistol—a gift, apparently, from the host.

To explain Nazarbayev's rise to the top, critics use the Russian word hitryi, which translates roughly as "tricky" or "cunning"—as in a fox. Stalin, too, was said to possess this trait. Even nonpartisans admit that Nazarbayev has a helpful, possibly instinctive plasticity. Nursultan Nazarbayev, a coffee-table book of photographs lovingly compiled by his press office, includes a reproduction of a painted Soviet-realist-style portrait that depicts him in a muslin blouse with sleeves rolled up, a sheaf of wheat on his lap. Another reproduced painting suggests a kind of modern Khan: he is shown in a suit and tie astride a black horse, a robe draped over his shoulders. Nazarbayev, nominally a Muslim, has made the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, in a nod to Islamic sensibilities, but his chosen image for Western consumption is that of an economic modernizer. To perfect that image he has sought advice from Michael Porter, a famous economic-development guru at the Harvard Business School. Porter flew to Kazakhstan last January for a three-hour lunch with Nazarbayev, punctuated by vodka toasts. "He really wants his country to be a success in a market economy," Porter told me, "and bristles at being compared with other leaders in the region." In the 1990s, because of Nazarbayev's unremitting urging that his citizens make their own way on entrepreneurial initiative, Kazakhs nicknamed their leader "Bazaar-bayev."

In mid-June, a few days after arriving in Kazakhstan, I paid a visit to Temirtau, where Nazarbayev had worked as a youth. A yellowish, foul-smelling exhaust poured from the chimney stacks of the steelworks, which is now privately owned by Mittal, an international steel conglomerate. From the townspeople I learned of Temirtau's rough introduction to capitalist culture. The plant, which during peak Soviet times employed some 40,000 people, is down to a work force of about 25,000. The health of the workers, I was told, had declined with the end of the Soviet practice of sending rabochiye to special state-owned sanatoria for needed rest. Pollution from the plant was poisoning the water and spoiling the breast milk of new mothers. And because Kazakhstan has difficulty controlling its borders, Temirtau had become a transit point for smugglers moving narcotics along a route between the poppy fields of Afghanistan and the drug markets of Europe.

It all sounded dreadful. And yet the people of Temirtau seemed to blame not the Nazarbayev regime but the sudden and chaotic collapse of the Soviet system. Lyudmila Kurtavtseva, an environmental activist, told me that things were actually at their worst in 1996 and 1997; since then government initiatives to address pollution and other hazards have gradually improved living conditions. Outside the gates of the steelworks I chatted with Alex (he declined to give his last name), a twenty-five-year-old blond, blue-eyed Russian who grew up in Temirtau and now earns about $150 a month as a mechanic at the works. His salary is not enough to live on, but Alex, who lives alone, gets financial help from his family. He folded a pair of well-muscled forearms across his bib overalls; his hands were caked with black soot. "Maybe Nazarbayev is one of the richest people in the world," Alex said, "but he cares about the people and does things for the country."

For reasons I could not pin down, it is said in Kazakhstan that Nazarbayev is the planet's tenth wealthiest man. If the state is rich with oil, people reason, then the head of state must be rich too.

Those sentiments were echoed on a visit to Chimkent, the main city in the impoverished rural region of southern Kazakhstan, from which Zharmakhan Tuyakbay hails. In the old quarter I met with Ziyatulla Madaliyev and Abdugani Baibulotov, a pair of Uzbek elders, at a modest private home shaded by an arbor of grapevines. Uzbeks have lived in Chimkent for centuries (present-day Uzbekistan is just a short drive away), and make up about 30 percent of the current population. They are also pillars of the local business establishment. Madaliyev poured out bowls of hot tea, and we nibbled from trays of candies, nuts, and dried apricots. I turned the conversation to politics. "We would prefer for Nazarbayev to stay for another seven years—in fact, for as long as he is living," Madaliyev told me. "If there is a new president, he will not stop stealing until his pockets are full." This was an idea I heard repeatedly: Nazarbayev and his cronies are already so wealthy that their appetite for money has been sated.

It seemed plain that the opposition's call for Western-style political reforms was not a burning issue for these people. If their political liberties were restricted, others remained untrammeled. Baibulotov told me that he goes to the neighborhood mosque every Friday. The mosque is 300 years old, he said, and has survived the Bolshevik Revolution and all other onslaughts. And these days, he said, it is thriving; 80 percent of the people there on Fridays are young men. In neighboring Uzbekistan a more repressive ruler, Islam Karimov, enforces tight restrictions on religious activity and consequently faces a grassroots revolt urged by Islamic militants. Life is better here in Kazakhstan, the elders told me.

For a decidedly unofficial view of Nazarbayev, I made secret arrangements to meet Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, Kazakhstan's most famous political prisoner. With the help of an opposition activist living outside Kazakhstan, I met up in Astana with Zhakiyanov's son, Berik, for a drive to the Shiderty prison colony, two hours east of the capital. A student at the University of Texas in Austin, Berik had rented a cottage near the prison gates in order to spend summer time with his father as prison rules permitted. My subterfuge was necessary because Zhakiyanov had not asked the authorities for permission to give an interview, fearing that it wouldn't be granted.

As we drove out on the highway toward Shiderty in a Toyota Camry, the white seedling strands of the kovyl' steppe grass suggested a carpet of snow. Cowboys on small chestnut horses tended cattle. Eventually the Toyota veered left at a grove of white birch trees and sped past a coal mine. Berik told me to duck down. We halted at his cottage, and I was hustled through the door into a room decorated in the fashion of a yurt, the felt tent traditionally used by Kazakh nomads. The floor and walls were covered by carpets, and in the middle was a low round table.

In walked Zhakiyanov, a slight man wearing eyeglasses, a sports shirt, and blue jeans. An ethnic Kazakh born in 1963, Zhakiyanov was an up-and-coming provincial governor in the early years of Kazakhstan's independence but was dismissed after helping found Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, a reform-oriented group that criticized state power as excessively centralized—and demanded an explanation of Nazarbayev's holdings in foreign bank accounts. A criminal investigation was conducted of Zhakiyanov's alleged misdeeds as governor, and in 2002 a court handed down a seven-year sentence for "abuse of office" and related financial crimes. "The real reason for his imprisonment," Amnesty International states in its most recent report on Kazakhstan, "appeared to be his peaceful opposition activities."

The Shiderty colony is located in prime Soviet-gulag territory: Solzhenitsyn did time at a camp in the area in the 1950s. But Zhakiyanov acknowledged that Shiderty, a low-security center, is not a great hardship. He works at a horse farm, milking mares to produce kumys, a fermented beverage much enjoyed by Kazakhs.

A cook set on the table a steaming platter of besbarmak, a Kazakh national dish of lamb chunks boiled in broth and ladled over large, flat squares of pasta. It was delicious. We sipped tea from bowls as we sat, in a concession to me, on small chairs instead of on the carpet. I shifted the discussion to Nazarbayev. "Yes, he has a good survival instinct," Zhakiyanov said, "but he doesn't have any strategic plan. He can't see further than his own nose. If he was thinking strategically, he would be doing political reforms."

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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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