As Mohammed Fayed (www.alfayed.com) has already discovered, the Internet offers wonderful opportunities for those who wish to create their own personality cults. Mr. Fayed is not the only egomaniac to use the Web as a vehicle for advancing his own self-promotional drivel, however, for the president of Kazakhstan has also recently gone on-line. His web-site (www.president.kz) greets the visitor with the - somewhat forbidding - slogan, "Welcome to the Official Kazakhstan!", and goes on to provide numerous photographs of the Great Leader, together with chronicles of his official engagements and activities, as well as an inspiring list of Mr. Nazarbayev's honorary titles and awards. These include not only the Soviet Order of the Red Banner of Labour, 1972, but also the International Association for Promoting the Regeneration of Spirituality's Man of the Year award, 1993, and the Order of the Saint Lord-and-Master Prince Daniil of Moscow, First Class, 1996. Clearly, this is a President to be proud of.
Not everyone agrees. Advertisements in the Western press - including the New York Times - just before January's Presidential elections trumpeted Kazakhstan's "Seven Years of Achievement" and its developing "tradition of free and fair elections". Yet the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) was scathing in its criticism of the conduct of these elections, in which Mr. Nazarbayev won 79.8% of the vote, and refused to recognise the result.
The reasons for the OSCE's criticisms were many and various. The elections had been brought forward by two years in what appeared to be an attempt to deprive alternative candidates of sufficient time in which to prepare their campaigns. The former Prime Minister, and only credible opposition candidate, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, was barred from standing on the grounds that he had been convicted of having taken part in a meeting organised by an unregistered political movement, a group called the campaign "For Fair Elections". Mysteriously, Kazhegeldin's flat was impounded by the police, and the electricity supply and telephone lines to his office in the capital city Almaty were cut off in late November, just at the time when he was trying to organise an appeal against his conviction.
The election campaign opened in October with the establishment of a Special Commission on the Control of the Mass Media under the finely-named Kazakh Ministry of Information and Social Concord, and the closure of a number of opposition newspapers. Valerian Zemlianov, a member of the lower house of the Kazakh parliament, described the firebombing of one newspaper office in Almaty as looking suspiciously like a well-organised attack on the free press. As the presidential web-site proudly reports, Mr. Nazarbayev's "senior daughter" [sic] Dariga heads the Kazakh TV news agency, although in an attempt to shield her father from accusations that he was seeking to monopolise the media, she chose to step down temporarily ("for ethical reasons") from her position as general director while the campaign was actually in progress. Nevertheless, the OSCE reported in its post-election statement that "both the state-owned and private media gave a disproportionately large share of their coverage to the incumbent... [and] a popular soap opera featured election-related segments favouring the incumbent. In general, the OSCE ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) Election Assessment Mission is concerned with the media situation in Kazakhstan".
Mr. Nazarbayev's intolerance of criticism has never been any great secret: Journalists accused of "damaging the honour of the president" have been subject to arrest in the past, and in April 1998 the leader of the Kazakh workers' movement, Madel Ismailov, was jailed for a year, after he had insulted the president at a public rally. The MP Valerian Zemlianov made a number of attempts, both before and after the elections, to draw attention to what he regarded as violations of democratic procedure, only to find himself interrupted by the speaker of the lower house, and his microphone switched off.
Perhaps the most perceptive comment on the Kazakh electoral process was contained in the remark made by the foreign minister Kasymjomart Tokayev, speaking in Washington on 8 December, when he declared that while the elections would be democratic, it would be a form of "democracy suited to Kazakh culture". Given that voters in the previous set of presidential elections, held in December 1991, had only been offered one candidate to choose from, it could be argued that Kazakh culture - and Mr. Nazarbayev's commitment to democracy - has come quite a long way in seven years.
In most countries it has become a convention to remove election paraphernalia from public places once the votes have been cast. Not so in Kazakhstan. A huge billboard was erected in Republic Square (formerly Brezhnev Square) in Almaty, shortly after polling day, depicting the newly re-elected president clad in a dinner jacket, glass of champagne in hand, wishing everyone a Happy New Year. Another poster showed Mr. Nazarbayev in a hard hat surrounded by coal miners with the caption reading: "We Know Him - We Believe Him", and yet another displayed a large state emblem in national colours with the uplifting slogan, "The Government's Voice - My Voice".
In his inaugural speech on 20 January, Mr. Nazarbayev pledged that his top priority would be to ensure that the Kazakh population would benefit directly from economic reform. But only the day before, officials had confirmed that the budget for the new capital city of Astana - one of Nazarbayev's long-standing pet projects - would have to be slashed by 75%, amid warnings that the economic situation was expected to deteriorate; and his speech was delivered as workers at an oil plant in Western Kazakhstan were announcing a hunger strike to demand payment of 22 months' worth of outstanding wages. The collapse of the Kazakh currency unit, the tenge, on 5 April can have done little to reassure Kazakh citizens about the benefits of Mr. Nazarbayev's economic reforms, although the IMF's decision to support a flotation of the tenge will have boosted confidence in some quarters.
Mr. Nazarbayev has often been compared to General Pinochet by admirers of the Chilean dictator who advocate the benefits of a period of "stability" and presidential rule in Kazakhstan, in advance of a transition to democracy. In his most recent speech to both houses of parliament, delivered on 31 March, Mr. Nazarbayev declared that although "our friends in the West... are impatient, they want us to speed up the pace of democratisation". Yet he firmly reasserted his own belief that a more gradual transition was appropriate to his country's needs. Predicting the future would be a foolhardy endeavour. But it will certainly be interesting to see what happens next.