Editor's note: This feature is the second of a series on Central Asia that will be running on SPIEGEL International in the coming weeks. You can read more about future installments in the series here.
It's one of those mild, cloudless summer nights in Astana, when the sky over the surrounding steppe won't get completely dark.
A stage has been set up in Lovers' Park behind Kazakhstan's huge, triumphal-arch-like Ministry of Oil and Gas. Kazakhstan's top artists are performing scenes from the history of the nomadic country, Italian tenor Andrea Boccelli is singing and the guests in the VIP stand are applauding with delight. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has traveled here along with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gül, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Jordan's King Abdullah. They have also been joined by the heads of state of Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine.
Sitting among them is a man with a round, expressionless face, a high forehead, and carefully parted hair wearing a drab suit. He is Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's president, and in just a few hours, he will celebrate his 70th birthday.
As the oldest son of a shepherd from the remote countryside, Nazarbayev has come a long way. He was a steelworker before becoming the first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and, shortly before the surprising dissolution of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had been planning to appoint Nazarbayev as his vice president. For the past 20 years, he has been the president of Kazakhstan.
The Triumphant Capital
It is the evening of July 5, 2010. The opening ceremony is being held in Astana for "Khan Shatyr," the world's largest tent, designed by star British architect Sir Norman Foster.
Foster has crafted a building of superlatives: Though it looks almost delicate with its translucent plastic exterior, the 102-meter (335-feet) high conic tower over an elliptic base covers the area of roughly 14 football fields. The multilevel interior boasts the country's most marvelous entertainment center: There are palm trees imported from the Caribbean, swimming pools with sand from Malaysia, gardens, water parks, movie theaters, a wellness temple, a children's amusement center with merry-go-rounds as well as cafés, boutiques and a supermarket.
Indeed, it's quite a birthday present, especially given the warnings Nazarbayev had given his subjects. "There will be no festivities on my birthday," he had instructed the akims, his country's chief regional administrators, back in March: "That's an order; and if any of you organizes anything, you will be relieved of your duties." But, long ago, the clever bureaucrats in the realm of Nursultan Nazarbayev the Kazakh had already scheduled the annual holiday celebrating the capital city of Astana for July 6, his birthday. Doing so allowed them to present their ruler with a fitting present -- the Khan Shatyr -- on the eve of his birthday.
Of course, Nazarbayev had wanted July 6 to be exactly like this -- so the entire world's attention could once again be drawn to the new, flourishing Kazakhstan and the man behind it all. "Astana has become the grandest mega-project of the entire post-Soviet region," he said on this festive evening. He then reminded the audience that he had been the one, in 1997, to order Kazakhstan's capital to be moved from the southern city of Almaty to the windy steppes of Astana. "At the time, my decision was met with rejection and a lack of understanding, but now everyone is delighted," Nazarbayev said. "Progressive ideas always have a hard time."
Now Nazarbayev has reached the final step in his plan: With the Khan Shatyr, he hopes to silence the last remaining critics of the move. Astana, after all, is the second-coldest capital city in the world, after Mongolia's Ulan Bator. But now, even when the temperature plunges to minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit), 20,000 people can still frolic under palm trees in Foster's tent. If the deserts of Dubai can have an Olympic-size ice rink, cold Kazakhstan can have its balmy Khan Shatyr.
Detractors & Ambitions
The Kazakh ruler has sunk $10 billion (€7.2 billion) into building projects on the steppes to transform a rural backwater into the country's showcase. There's the blindingly white presidential palace, ministries housed in glass skyscrapers, the Nur-Astana Mosque capable of holding 5,000 worshipers, a brand-new diplomatic quarter, endless shopping malls and luxurious apartment buildings in which a square meter (10.7 square feet) of space can go for up to $4,000.
With this sparkling new city, Nazarbayev has been able to respond to Kazakhstan's detractors, such as British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. In his 2006 film Borat, Cohen poked fun at Kazakhstan, portraying it as a backward state rife with prostitution, arms trafficking and discrimination against minority groups. The movie's protagonist, Kazakh TV reporter Borat Sagdiyev, says that Kazakh women are kept in cages and that the national drink is fermented horse urine. He then proudly presents his home village, showing off muddy streets, beat-up cars being pulled by horses and kindergarten children waving miniature automatic rifles.
Though the film was meant to make fun of the prejudices many in the West still hold about former Eastern bloc countries, Nazarbayev didn't see it that way. Instead, he was so insulted that he immediately banned the film in Kazakhstan. In his mind, Kazakhstan should be appreciated as the most successful of the group of former Soviet republics east of the Caspian Sea. And having steered the nation unscathed through all the post-Soviet chaos, he now has big plans for it.
A Would-Be Regional Leader
Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world and the largest landlocked nation on Earth. Its northern border with Russia is nearly 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) long. To the east, it stretches to China; to the west, the Caspian Sea; and, to the south, it touches on Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Since Kazakhstan saddles the Europe-Asia divide, it can play in UEFA, Europe's soccer association, and it currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It has mountains up to 7,000 meters high (nearly 23,000 ft.) and the world's most expansive arid steppe. Its territory holds enormous oil and gas fields as well as gold, manganese and coal reserves, and it is the world's largest producer of uranium.
Indeed, Nazarbayev's vast country has just one problem: It only has 16 million inhabitants. Statistically, this works out to less than 6 people per square kilometer. By contrast, Germany crams 230 people into the same amount of space.
Still, Nazarbayev doesn't think this will prevent Kazakhstan from becoming one of the world's 50 most powerful states, just like the Asia Tiger countries. As Nazarbayev explained to his people, only 50 years ago, even Singapore was "one of the poorest countries in the world," but now its per capita income has increased 85-fold. He then went on to explain how Kazakhstan couldn't become an Asian Tiger because it has no tigers. But since it does have snow leopards, he promised that, "by 2030, Kazakhstan will become the central Asian snow leopard."
As posters everywhere in Astana proclaim, Kazakhstan is "on its way to becoming the leader" in the region. They also remind the country's inhabitants that, thanks to its vast reserves of natural resources, within a single decade, per capita GDP has risen from $700 to $8,000.
Patriotic declarations like these are subtle digs at Kazakhstan's unpopular neighboring countries. As Nazarbayev explains, their people don't have sufficient electricity or enough to eat and -- owing to a combination of internal power struggles, ethnic conflicts and democratic experiments -- have all stumbled in their efforts to embrace independence.
In fact, as he said following the unrest in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, these countries haven't managed to set up functioning states because they have weak leaders. To keep the same thing from happening in Kazakhstan, he added, it needs "a powerful president" -- in other words, a man like him.
The Price of Freedom
"Over the past decade, Nazarbayev has developed into an autocrat," says Amirzhan Kosanov, a former deputy minister for youth and sport under Nazarbayev, who now serves as the general secretary of the social democratic Azat ("Freedom") Party. "He appoints the prime minister, the administrative heads of all the regions, judges right down to the district level and the election commission, and he leads the ruling Nur-Otan ("Light of the Fatherland") party, the only one represented in parliament. He clamps down on independent newspapers and has chased potentially threatening rivals out of the country." Corruption is horrendous, he adds, the gap between rich and poor has grown unbearable.
Furthermore, with the president's persecution of dissenters, the opposition has moved out of Astana. The Azat Party has its headquarters in Almaty, the former capital -- and the party's villa is the easiest place to meet political stars from the more liberal era of Kazakhstan's founding. A former head of parliament introduces himself, along with a former deputy prime minister. There are also several former regional heads, an ex-attorney general and even Kazakhstan's first cosmonaut. At one time or another, Nazarbayev has removed all of them from their positions. Today, they have little influence.
But Kosanov, speaking briskly while contentedly stroking his moustache, speaks enthusiastically of the 250,000 supporters he claims his party has. "Nazarbayev's time is up," he adds, "his regime is weak. Why else would he have accepted it when his parliament recently declared him 'leader of the nation,' someone who -- until the end of his life and without restrictions -- may be re-elected president and is protected from criminal prosecution until the day he dies?"
But not everyone agrees: "Nazarbayev isn't a dictator," counters political scientist Marat Shibutov. "He has merely closed an ideological gap that emerged after the collapse of communism," he says, adding that Nazarbayev is doing a better job than his counterparts in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In fact, as Shibutov sees it, Nazarbayev is the only thing holding Kazakhstan together -- and the guarantor of the modest prosperity enjoyed by a small segment of society. "The Kazakhs accept any ideology," he says, "as long as there is money in their pockets." And, for that reason, people confine their discussions of the president's cult of personality cult to their kitchen tables at home.
Between Modesty and Megalomania
In Kazakhstan, there is simply no avoiding Nazarbayev. Portraits of him are everywhere, whether in cities or on the sides of remote highways, and he appears on television every night. He meets with young violinists at Astana's new Palace of Art; he presides over the opening ceremony for the newest university in the capital city, Nazarbayev University; and he visits rolling mills and coal mines. And wherever he goes, the cameras follow.
Likewise, there is no topic too minor to warrant convening an international conference in Astana where Nazarbayev can be honored for his role as a politician of global importance. For example, at the Astana Economic Forum -- the Kazakh analogue to the World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland -- the president spoke to "renowned foreign guests" and called for a new global currency. And, in July, at the 1st Kazakhstan International Mineral and Metallurgy Congress, he called for new oil-exploitation regulations. He has even managed to organize the first OECD summit in 11 years, to be held this December -- in Astana.
Indeed, according to Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, Kazakhstan's leading newspaper: "The name Nursultan Nazarbayev has become a household name across the world." With a full-page photo on its front page, the daily paper wrote that, in recognition of his role in the Turkic language-speaking world, a memorial has been erected to Nazarbayev in the Turkish capital, Ankara, and a "3.5-kilometer-long" street in the Jordanian capital, Amman, has now been renamed "Nursultan Nazarbayev Street." "Your historic deeds will remain in the memory of the people for centuries," one reader from the southern city of Turkestan wrote in.
Astana is also, of course, home to a Museum of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. It displays a spinning wheel, soup bowls and wooden spoons from the humble home of Nazarbayev's parents, his first typewriter (an Erika made in the former East Germany), his first reception room and its six phones, and two entire rooms devoted to exhibiting the graduation gowns that Nazarbayev has worn when receiving honorary doctorates abroad.
Though Nazarbayev oscillates between modesty and megalomania, many Kazakhs find it endearing. It gives them the feeling that this country of nomads, which was once the butt of jokes, is carving out its rightful place in the new world. Even Kosanov, Nazarbayev's political rival, admits that: "The president has made few enemies." Still, he adds, danger is lurking in Nazarbayev's state. One threat comes from Kazakhstan's powerful neighbor, China. But the most immediate one comes from within his own family.
"The civilized world will turn its back on you, Mr. President," Kazakhstan's then-ambassador to Austria yelled into the phone before hanging up. It was May 23, 2007, and the man on the phone in Vienna was Rakhat Aliyev, Nazarbayev's son-in-law and the black sheep of his family.
Aliyev -- a former deputy foreign minister, deputy intelligence agency director and co-owner of what was once Kazakhstan's seventh-largest bank -- had fallen out of favor with the president. Nazarbayev had accused him of being involved in two abductions and shipped him off to Europe, where Aliyev announced in May 2007 that he intended to run against Nazarbayev in the 2012 presidential elections.
It was an incredible affront and now, over the phone, Aliyev had even criticized Nazarbayev for pushing through a new constitution that gave him the right to remain in power for as long as he lived. "On that day," Aliyev says, "all hopes for the democratic development of our country were permanently dashed."
Then, 18 days after the phone conversation, a fax arrived from Kazakhstan bearing a copy of a court ruling declaring Aliyev's marriage to Nazarbayev's daughter Dariga null and void. These days, Aliyev lives in exile and has gone into hiding because he fears that Kazakh intelligence agents will try to abduct him. From his hiding place, he is waging a propaganda war against Nazarbayev, whom he calls the "dark despot."
In his book, "The Godfather-in-Law," he claims that his former father-in-law leads a double life and that, in addition to his three daughters, he has had other children with a young flight attendant and a model. He further claims that Nazarbayev is the owner of 5,000 outrageously expensive watches, that the move to the pre-planned city of Astana was financed with "billions and billions stolen from the people" and that he has pocketed enormous bribes for oil concessions -- primarily from Americans.
A Family's Fortune
Of course, all of these charges may be nothing more than a revenge campaign waged by someone who's ended up with the short end of the stick. But the fact remains that the Nazarbayev family doesn't have much of a good reputation back home.
Aliyev's ex-wife, Dariga, Nazarbayev's oldest daughter, has a doctorate in political science, owns stock in a large bank and, for many years, controlled key media outlets across the country with a firm grip. She has now reportedly sold her shares of the large Khabar TV network and shifted the proceeds abroad.
Nazarbayev's second daughter, Dinara, is a businesswoman. The US business magazine Forbes estimates her worth at $1.1 billion. This year, she purchased a villa on Lake Geneva for the record sum of €50 million.
The youngest daughter, Aliya, a lawyer by training, is also making good money. Now a prominent businesswoman, she heads a number of companies and chairs the advisory board of the largest Kazakh real-estate company. She also owns a wellness center, a restaurant and a nightclub in Almaty.
Taken together, the Russian magazine The New Times estimates that the Nazarbayev clan has lined its pockets with roughly $7 billion.
That the presidential family isn't squeamish when it comes to making money can be seen from the example of another Nazarbayev son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev.
Kulibayev, who is married to Dinara, is the deputy head of the powerful Kazakh industrial state holding. At one point, three opposition newspapers accused him of having taken millions in bribes from a Chinese company. But, after a hastily obtained court injunction, all editions of the three newspapers were quickly seized and destroyed.
Still, the fact that the ruling clan exhibits special creativity in its business affairs doesn't seem to particularly bother ordinary Kazakhs. Instead, what they are really concerned about seems to be a "biological" issue, as Kosanov puts it. It won't be long before the question of succession will have to be addressed. And who, Kazakhs wonder, will Nazarbayev designate to occupy the presidential palace after him?
Many Kazakhs are convinced that the decision will be made within the family. Some believe that Dinara's husband, Kulibayev, will take the reins. Others think it will be Aisultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakh leader's 20-year-old favorite grandson, who has just graduated from Britain's Royal Military Academy. Still, Aisultan is also the son of the disgraced Rakhat Aliyev, Kazakhstan's "Public Enemy No. 1," whom Nazarbayev has had sentenced to 40 years in absentia.
A Land of Opportunity
Train no. 54 from Astana to the Chinese town of Urumqi travels only once a week: every Tuesday at 3:05 p.m. -- and it takes 25 hours to cover the 1,200 kilometers to the border. Still, this long ride offers a fascinating journey through Kazakh history. The train chugs past tumbledown villages, where the idle tractors rust because all the farmers have fled to the city, past the coal mines of Karaganda, which Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal has bought up, past the remains of the gulag where the Volga Germans slaved away after Stalin brought them here, and then along the 600-kilometer-long north shore of Lake Balkhash, which, like the Aral Sea, is in danger of drying up.
The train is full of Kazakhs traveling to China to buy things or get medical care in Urumqi, the capital of the autonomous Uyghur region Xinjiang. There are also businessmen who commute between the two countries. One of them is Duman Khalmet, 45. Wearing jogging pants and a T-shirt, Khalmet has made himself comfortable in car no. 4.
Khalmet was born and studied in China. Though he started off as a meteorologist, he was later appointed the chief administrator of an area near Urumqi. Some of his ancestors were Kazakhs who rebelled against the Russian czars and fled to China. Now Khalmet is trying to make the jump back to Kazakhstan because, as he says, "the country offers countless opportunities."
In 2003, Khlamet founded Duman, a company that manufactures components for building facades in Almaty. Then he went to Astana, where he built a plant to produce ceramic plates almost overnight. He also owns a café and a dry-cleaning business in the Kazakh capital, and he plans to open a wellness salon there soon, as well. "I have found niches that no other Kazakh has occupied," says Khalmet. But, when he talks about such things, he smiles almost apologetically because he knows how deep the fear of the Chinese runs in Kazakhstan.
Fear of Chinese Expansion
In Dostyk, the border town at the foot of the Tien Shan mountain range, this anxiety is palpable. Here, at the Dzungarian Gate -- once the mountain pass from which Genghis Khan's riders stormed westward and, today, the only rail connection between Kazakhstan and China -- half-buried tanks slowly rust away. These are relics of the bloody battles the Soviets fought against the Chinese here in 1969.
Dostyk means "friendship." The small town is the key trading center for Chinese and Kazakh goods. Every year, 15 million tons are transferred here between Chinese trains running on standard-gauge tracks to other train cars on Kazakhstan's wider-gauge tracks. Kazakh oil and metal head east, while Chinese construction machinery and pipeline materials head west. Still, the border here remains well guarded.
Erlan Shakiyanov, 41, the energetic mayor of Dostyk, admits that he has heard that President Nazarbayev has spoken favorably of the Chinese offer to rent one million hectares (2,470,000 acres) of uncultivated Kazakh land to grow soybeans and rapeseed on. He has also heard the negative responses -- because this would mean that 5 million Chinese would join the 500,000 already living in Kazakhstan.
"I always say: Give them the land; we Kazakhs can't cultivate it, and certainly not as cheaply as they do," Shakiyanov says. "On top of that, we won't be able to resist the pressure of the Chinese. Soon enough, they won't be able to feed their own people anymore, so they'll threaten to open the border if we don't give them any of our land. Is that tragic? No." Czar Alexander II also sold Alaska to the United States, he adds.
Every few days, Shakiyanov crosses over the border. In the Chinese settlement on the other side of the border, there are almost four times as many people as in Dostyk. "They are cleverer than we are," he says with a laugh. "We recently sold one of our steel factories. They dismantled it, moved it and reassembled it in China. This gave us 5,000 unemployed workers, and they got all the business. Now we purchase from them the steel products we used to manufacture ourselves."
Realities & Rumors
The Chinese have invested $9 billion in Kazakhstan. Chinese companies now pump more than one-quarter of the oil taken from Kazakh soil, which alone gives them $3 billion in annual profits. But if you want to read about Kazakh workers repeatedly going on strike to protest the low wages of their Chinese bosses, the only place you'll find mention of it is in opposition newspapers.
Beijing is also financing the construction of a pipeline to allow Kazakhstan to export natural gas for the first time from its western fields to China. In addition, over 50,000 people are working on a highway that will connect China with Europe. The 2,787 kilometers of the highway on Kazakh soil are scheduled to be completed in three years, Shakiyanov says.
Many Kazakhs don't share the mayor's almost fatalistic attitude. Instead, they are afraid of their neighbor's offensive. For them, it's no longer a question of whether the Chinese will come, but when. "It would be a huge mistake to believe that Astana could satisfy Beijing with natural resources," says China expert Murat Auezov. "The Chinese need new areas for settlement, which they will find most readily on the empty steppes of Kazakhstan. And, here, they will also gain access to the Caspian Sea and Iran."
According to a railway worker in Dostyk, wherever you are in Kazakhstan -- be it Astana, Dostyk or Almaty -- people will say the same thing: "If you want to leave the country, learn English; if you want to stay, learn Chinese."
A few years ago, there were also stories about Russian and Chinese plans to divide Kazakhstan between themselves. Of course it was just a groundless rumor, but there are still enough people in Kazakhstan who believe it anyway. These are the same people who don't share Nazarbayev's dream of transforming Kazakhstan into the snow leopard of Central Asia.