KASKELEN, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - The teenage son of a shepherd, who would later become Kazakhstan’s first and only post-Soviet leader so far, had a nickname at school: Sultan.
A shortened form of his name, it quickly came to embody the classroom leadership of Nursultan Nazarbayev in his small-town school in the shadow of the Tien Shan mountains.
“Nursultan was always first to put his hand up in class,” said Raisa Sirazitdinova, who studied alongside the future president in the late 1950s. “He had a talent for organisation.”
The oil-producing Central Asian state of Kazakhstan, independent from the Soviet Union for 21 years, has never known another leader. Its 17 million people will mark a new public holiday on December 1: the Day of the First President.
Amid the choreographed celebrations, though, one question is sure to remain unanswered: who will be the second president?
Uncertainty over who might succeed Nazarbayev, 72, concerns investors with a stake in Kazakhstan’s oilfields and global powers drawn by its strategic location between Russia and China, along a supply line for U.S.-led troops fighting in Afghanistan.
Outwardly, Nazarbayev shows no appetite for relinquishing the power wielded over two decades of economic growth. Secure until at least 2016 after a crushing election win last year, he is by law the only man allowed unlimited runs at the presidency.
Billboards around the country’s biggest city, Almaty, carry the slogan: ‘One Motherland! One Destiny! One Leader!”
A government reshuffle in September was a characteristic step to keep the political elite guessing and balance clan-based and economic interests that vie behind the scenes for influence.
Such balancing acts, effective though they are, also hint that Nazarbayev has yet to entrust a successor to take the reins of a mainly Muslim country five times the size of France, home to 3 percent of the world’s recoverable oil reserves.
Neither will he tolerate dissent. The lasting response to deadly oil town riots a year ago, which dented a hard-won image of stability in otherwise volatile Central Asia, has been a crackdown on the few remaining voices opposed to his rule.
“(Nazarbayev) believes that only he knows what makes this country tick,” said political analyst Aidos Sarym. “There is nobody in his circle or among the elite who could tell him if the dynamic were changing, that it’s time to go.”
His legend grows, meanwhile, captured forever in fairy tales, epic films of his life and the quotations emblazoned on roadside banners and the walls of schools and universities.
“The history of mankind has thrown up many examples of unique and impassioned leaders in those crucial moments when new states are created,” Education Minister Bakhytzhan Zhumagulov said at a forum this week to discuss Nazarbayev’s achievements.
“George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Mahathir Mohamad. To this list we can add the internationally renowned leader of the people of Kazakhstan.”
Image is everything to Nazarbayev. Even as a schoolboy in Kaskelen, a small town 25 km (16 miles) from Almaty, he craved recognition for a homeland then part of the Soviet empire.
“He used to say that, were he ever to be in government service, he would teach the whole world about Kazakhstan,” said Sirazitdinova, his classmate, and now a retired physics teacher.
Kazakhstan prides itself on its chairmanship in 2010 of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. There was an anomalous spike in the name ‘Summit’ for babies born shortly after Astana hosted a meeting of OSCE leaders in December 2010.
State fanfare greets every such honour: chairmanship of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in 2011, accession this year to the 47-nation United Nations’ Human Rights Council and, most recently, the award of the EXPO-2017 world fair to Astana.
“I‘m proud of the fact that Nazarbayev is a world leader from the same land where I grew up,” said Makhsultan Kenesbayev, 63, a magazine editor from Kaskelen.
Nazarbayev also, famously, surrendered the nuclear arsenal that Kazakhstan inherited from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, which at the time was the world’s fourth-largest.
Former Senate speaker Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, now director-general of the United Nations office in Geneva, said this week that the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had written to Nazarbayev in 1992, offering financial assistance to maintain - in Gaddafi’s words - the world’s first “Muslim” nuclear bomb.
“For an irresponsible politician, such generous promises from the leader of a rich country could have been tempting,” he said. “A true statesman is different: he is guided by strategic considerations, not short-term gain.”
December 1 was chosen as Day of the First President as the anniversary of Kazakhstan’s first presidential election in 1991. Nazarbayev won that vote and three more subsequently, not one of which has been judged free and fair by Western monitors.
As much as praise is welcome, criticism appears to sting. Nazarbayev said critical election monitors would not be welcome after the OSCE said a January 2011 parliamentary election lacked true competition in spite of its breaking a one-party monopoly.
To burnish his image in the West, he has also hired former British prime minister Tony Blair to work on reforms in a deal that the Daily Telegraph reported in October 2011 was worth up to 8 million pounds a year.
Nazarbayev is pictured on the front page of state newspaper Kazakhstanskaya Pravda’s November 23 edition, hands aloft, beneath a ticker-tape avalanche.
“Another victory for the President! Another victory for Kazakhstan!” reads the headline marking the award of EXPO-2017.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, the editors of Golos Respubliki were surprised their November 23 print run even made it off the overnight flight from Moscow. Two days earlier, prosecutors had accused the paper of “propagating extremism”.
The newspaper, like others under the Respublika umbrella, are among dozens of critical media under threat after the prosecutor-general asked courts to close them down along with two opposition movements.
The crackdown has targeted those judged complicit in rioting in the western region of Mangistau last December. At least 15 people were killed after police fired on crowds of protesters, many of them oilmen engaged in a long-running labour dispute.
An outspoken critic of Nazarbayev, Vladimir Kozlov was jailed in October for seven-and-a-half years after being found guilty of rallying the oil workers in defiance of the state.
In sentencing, the court established that his unregistered Alga!, or “Forward!”, party and a number of media outlets - including Golos Respubliki - were “extremist”.
Back in Almaty, in the cramped, converted apartment that serves as editorial headquarters for Internet portal Stan.KZ - the first to broadcast footage of the Mangistau violence - employees huddle over laptops uncertain of their future.
Baurzhan Musirov, director of parent company Stan Production, rejects charges that its output is extremist, or that his channel is funded by fugitive billionaire and arch-enemy of Nazarbayev, Mukhtar Ablyazov.
“We’re trying to broaden the amount of information available; to give people the chance to see things which aren‘t, for whatever reason, available elsewhere,” said Musirov.
Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said it was “appalled” by a move which would, if rubberstamped by the courts, push Kazakhstan closer to the “ultra-authoritarian model” of Central Asian neighbours Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
In the eyes of the state, the ultimate villain is Ablyazov, the former head of BTA bank, who described himself in a recent interview as Nazarbayev’s “most serious opponent”. The court that sentenced Kozlov ruled that Ablyazov had given the orders.
Ablyazov fled Kazakhstan for Britain in 2009, saying BTA had been forcibly seized from him. But he left Britain in February after being sentenced to jail in absentia for contempt of court, a sideshow to a much bigger fraud trial now under way in London.
“Nazarbayev wanted to deprive me of my business so I couldn’t finance the opposition,” Ablyazov said in an interview with Swiss daily Le Temps published on November 26. Neither his whereabouts nor the date of the interview was made clear.
The closure of opposition media will make few ripples with much of the population, who rely on state media for their news. Most people support Nazarbayev and many adore him, grateful for stability relative to their poorer, more flammable neighbours.
“Many countries are undergoing economic crises, disease or water shortages. We don’t feel any of that here, and for that we should be thankful to the president,” said Daniyar Zhurgenov, an engineering student at Nazarbayev University in Astana.
Kazakhstan’s economy has grown by an average 7.5 percent annually over the last nine years. Foreign companies have invested more than $160 billion since independence and per capita GDP of $11,000 is comparable to that of Mexico or Turkey.
Kazakhstan also has 12,000 millionaires, approximately one in every 1,400 people, and a market that has enticed designer brands such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci to book floor space in a $450 million luxury mall that opened in Almaty last month.
In another sign of rude financial health, ratings agency Fitch raised Kazakhstan’s credit profile on November 20 to BBB+ with a stable outlook, putting it firmly into investment grade territory and a notch above Russia.
There is a caveat, though. “The long-term issue of succession is yet to be settled,” said Fitch. “Social tensions have surfaced in 2011-2012 and governance indicators are weak, increasing political risks.”
The Mangistau dispute, which lasted seven months before erupting, exposed social discontent over the distribution of wealth on a scale never before seen in Kazakhstan. Employers have been quick to bend to the demands of striking miners since.
Nazarbayev, himself a former steelworker, has steered a course through an unprecedented challenge to his authority; leading as once he led his classmates in Kaskelen. But no-one, except perhaps Nazarbayev himself, knows what will happen next.
Additional reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana and Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by Philippa Fletcher