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

Zhakiyanov was poring over the Federalist Papers, on his son's recommendation. "The danger in Kazakhstan is instability of the political system," he said. He set an empty plate on the table and stacked three apples. He gave the plate a little shake, and the apples toppled. That's Nazarbayev's "vertikal' vlasti," he said—his top-down hierarchy of power. He then rearranged the apples, putting a big one in the middle of the plate and ringing it with several smaller ones. He shook the plate again, and nothing moved. This is how it should be, he said: a president in the middle, surrounded by members of a genuine parliament. "Our opposition is not one person but one idea," he said. "No more vertikal' vlasti." So Zhakiyanov and other opposition leaders pledge to amend the country's constitution to limit the president to a single term in office.

"There is no question this transformation will happen," Zhakiyanov said. "The question is how peacefully it occurs."

The week after my interview with Zhakiyanov, I encountered President Nazarbayev at a dinner in Almaty that he gave to open a business conference in town sponsored by the New York—based Asia Society. The tables were laid with platters of smoked fish and bowls of black caviar; white-gloved waitresses poured vodka into small goblets. Richard Holbrooke, a veteran U.S. diplomat and the chairman of the Asia Society, was seated directly across from Nazarbayev. Holbrooke motioned toward him and suggested I go over and introduce myself.

This conversation, I sensed, would be short. Deciding not to mention my unauthorized visit with Zhakiyanov, I told Nazarbayev about my lunch with Zharmakhan Tuyakbay in Washington. Mr. President, I said, the opposition is saying that you have been in power too long, and that the time has come to go. Nazarbayev fastened his large brown eyes on me. "Did you know," he asked, "that Mr. Tuyakbay was the general prosecutor during Soviet times, and he jailed many dissidents?" He shifted his gaze to someone else who wanted to talk to him. I had in effect been dismissed.

Nazarbayev was in his element, surrounded by his closest backers. I chatted briefly with one of the head-table guests, Alexander Mashkevich, the funder of the Beit Rachel synagogue, who holds the title of president of the Jewish Congress of Kazakhstan. Opposition leaders have him in their sights: his holdings in Kazakhstan are sure to be scrutinized avidly if Nazarbayev falls from power. But Mashkevich is viewed as a crucial ally by the country's Jewish leaders, who are struggling to rebuild their community. "We like his good relationship with the government," Yeshaya Cohen, a rabbi at Beit Rachel, told me. Cohen met Mashkevich back in the 1990s, when, he said, he found the businessman stuffing $50 bills into the charity box of a synagogue in Almaty. Another contribution, an envelope stuffed with $50,000 in cash, followed. Beit Rachel itself cost Mashkevich about $2.5 million, Cohen told me.

In an interview at the presidential palace in Astana, Makhmud Kasymbekov, a top Nazarbayev aide, dismissed the opposition leaders' vow to end the system of crony politics in Kazakhstan. "Just get them a tasty pie and a good position," he said, "like mayor of a city, and they will forget about all their opposition views."

And yet surely the palace must be anxious. The list of Nazarbayev's once trusted associates who are now out of office and openly in opposition includes, in addition to Tuyakbay and Zhakiyanov, a former prime minister, a former minister of emergency situations, a former central-bank chief, and a former ambassador to Moscow. In Almaty a former counterintelligence official for the regime told me that Nazarbayev could not count on the loyalty of the security services. The loyalties of others in the political and business elites are also up for grabs; I know of one prominent businessman who is simultaneously encouraging the opposition and courting the regime. The opposition is amply funded by sources that include the former prime minister, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who made a fortune in the waning days of the Soviet Union by exporting pharmaceutical chemicals to the West at prices of up to twenty times his costs. Kazhegeldin lives a moneyed if restless life in Europe, skipping from capital to capital. "Sometimes at night I dream I am back at the center of things," he told me when I met him recently.

I had a long talk about the situation with Dariga Nazarbayeva, the president's oldest daughter, who has founded a national television channel and is herself active in politics. We chatted at a café at the Ankara, a five-star hotel in Almaty. Nursing a sore throat, she sipped from a cup of green tea into which she deposited spoonfuls of honey. She was smartly dressed in an orange-and-turquoise blazer over a turquoise jersey and white slacks.

A Kazakh newspaper had recently reported that Nazarbayeva believed a putsch against the president, like the one in Kyrgyzstan, was possible in Kazakhstan. I asked her to elaborate. "This is possible everywhere now," she said—not because of grassroots discontent with her father but because Western-aided NGOs and small elites with money and the help of modern media technologies can create a kind of false revolutionary situation. "We have to be more active to avoid this," she said. To that end her father is crafting laws to restrict the activities in Kazakhstan of the International Republican Institute and other Western pro-democracy groups.

Nazarbayeva portrays herself as a political progressive. She conceded that "some people around my father don't want to see power devolved" and that this stance is in the long run an obstacle to "political modernization." As for the criticism that the president's family had in effect hijacked the national economy: "It's a lie." (Nazarbayev himself has dismissed the charges against the consultant James Giffen as "baseless," and denies any personal role in that scandal.)

I gained from her a sharp impression of just how personal and intimate elite politics is in Kazakhstan. Everyone knows everyone else; her children are close friends with the children of a leading opposition figure. She switched from English to Russian to deliver her most emotive points and concluded our talk with a wail against Tuyakbay and his brethren: "Pochemu, pochemu, oni begayut v Washington?" ("Why, why, do they run to Washington?")

Dariga Nazarbayeva is probably right about one thing. If the revolution comes to Kazakhstan, it will be a revolution of the elite, masterminded by Western-oriented activists—some more scrupulous than others—with tight ties to power brokers in Washington, the imperial capital. Such an upheaval might well turn out to be a step forward for global democracy. Still, it is a curious kind of democratic movement that has as its mainspring not "the people" but a selected clique. I gave my estimation of the popular mood to one opposition activist. "Since when," he said, "have the people of Kazakhstan decided anything?"

At issue in vulnerable places like Kazakhstan—for the first time in centuries, the protagonist of its own history—is a question of power. Who gets to write the next chapter of the tale, and the one after that?

In his resolve to remain the story's author, Nazarbayev attends to the public in the way he knows best. Soon after the coup in Kyrgyzstan he announced a 32 percent wage hike for government workers. At the new cardiac center in Astana, the most modern of its kind in Central Asia, more than 650 people have received open-heart surgery. And for the plebeians in his model capital city Nazarbayev is delivering not just bread—and health care—but circuses, too.

Early on a Friday evening I crowded into a stadium with thousands of others for a celebration of the capital's eighth birthday. Hoofbeats sounded the entry of stallions, astride which young men in crimson costumes performed daredevil stunts. Scores of comely young women resplendent in folk garb marched in. There were jugglers and elephants—and a small boy who managed to walk upside down on his hands for at least fifty yards. Halfway through the ceremonies the performers turned and faced Nazarbayev, who was seated in a box in the middle of the grandstand. They took up a chant:

"Astana, Kazakhstan, Nursultan, our homeland!"

Nazarbayev stood and waved. And the crowd roared.

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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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