In Kazakhstan’s part of the world, the standards for a cult of personality are high. In neighboring Turkmenistan, former President Saparmurat Niyazov renamed himself “Turkmenbashi,” meaning “Father of the Turkmen”; then he renamed, among other things, a major city, the international airport, and a month of the year after himself. He also erected a massive golden statue of himself in the center of the capital that constantly rotates to face the sun. In Azerbaijan, there are more than 50 museums devoted to the life of the country’s former strongman leader (and father of the current president) Heydar Aliyev.
By those measures, Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is relatively modest. Thus far, there are only two statues of him in the entire country and a single museum. But unmistakably, Nazarbayev is becoming identified with the state itself.
Typical leader behavior in certain parts of the world, where people respect toughness.
To most Kazakhs—and to foreigners who deal with Kazakhstan—Nazarbayev’s ability to keep the country stable and prosperous trumps whatever failings he might have. And he is lucky to be neighbors with some of the most dysfunctional countries on the planet, places that make Kazakhstan look quite well off in comparison.
An effective leader and relative prosperity trump any desire for political and economic freedom.
(The same poll that gave Nazarbayev a 91-percent approval rating found that 39 percent of Kazakhs blamed the violence in Kyrgyzstan on a low standard of living, while 38 percent put the onus on the Kyrgyz authorities’ “weakness.”)
Nazarbayev is particularly popular among Kazakhstan’s many ethnic minorities, who credit him for tamping down the nationalism many feared would erupt after independence. Many foreigners have bought into Nazarbayev’s brand of business-friendly authoritarianism.
Then we hear about how a Republican went off the reservation:
Darrell Issa, R.-Calif., told Kazakhstan’s foreign minister at a 2010 appearance before a congressional committee that Kazakhstan was no more a one-party system than the United States is: “In your country there are competing movements; the seeds don’t sprout so you don’t have a two-, three-, four-party system, in which they have representation in your parliament,” Issa said. “Washington, D.C., is exactly the same: It is a one-party town even though there are people who are not Democrats.”
Now we understand what it means when Republicans criticize Obama for not being a strong leader: they mean he isn’t autocratic enough.
The path Kazakhstan has taken is not the only one Nazarbayev could have chosen. Mongolia, for example, is culturally and historically similar to Kazakhstan (a long history of nomadism followed by Soviet domination). But it has taken a very different route since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and today it is still quite poor but with genuine democracy. (Its GDP per capita is $2,200, a quarter of Kazakhstan’s, while according to the index of the advocacy group Freedom House, Mongolia is “free” while Kazakhstan is “not free.”)
Democracy is overrated as a method of obtaining political solutions. It is best at making middle-class people feel like they are politically active because they complain about politicians every day and vote once every four years. The purpose of democratic politics is to keep such people complacent.