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.
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.