Kazakhstan Comes On Strong

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PAT WELLENBACH / AP

Former President Bush, left, greets Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev as he arrives at his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, on Tuesday.

This story originally appeared in the October 2nd issue of TIME Europe

O.K., it wasn't exactly the G-8. Still, when Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev hosted a summit of heads of neighboring Central Asian states in his capital of Astana earlier this month, there was a certain whiff of power being flexed, albeit arriviste power. The occasion was marked by the inauguration of the Palace of Peace and Accord — a 62-m-high pyramid of steel and pale gray granite, designed by Norman Foster, with stained-glass panels by the artist Brian Clarke. Its art and sculpture were chosen to represent the world's major religions, to underscore the religious tolerance and respect that has been firmly established in a multiethnic country. An opening concert was headlined by legendary Spanish soprano Montserrat CaballÚ, as if to personify the harmoniousness and opulence Kazakhstan wants to project.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the presence of Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov. After the 1991 U.S.S.R. breakup, Uzbekistan looked down its nose at Kazakhstan — historically nomadic, steppe-locked, undeveloped — and Karimov claimed the role of regional heavyweight for himself. But here he was, despite his obsession with protocol, choosing his own country's independence day to embark on a state visit to Kazakhstan. It was the visible sign of a new order in the region. "From now on, we're calling the shots in Central Asia, and Karimov came to acknowledge that," commented a senior Kazakhstani official.

It's hard to disagree. Kazakhstan is now the most prosperous nation in the region, accounting for 60% of Central Asia's entire GDP. This week, U.S. President George W. Bush will welcome Nazarbayev at the White House, and then the Kazakhstani President will go to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Kazakhstan's growing oil shipments to world markets, and its potential to emerge as a stable, modernized, predominantly Muslim but religiously tolerant state with a secular government in the volatile region, have obvious appeal for the Bush Administration — so much so that it tends to downplay the country's gagged media; the arbitrary arrests, exiles and murders of opposition leaders; its rubber-stamp political institutions and bogus elections; and rampant corruption, including a $78 million kickbacks-for-oil-rights case that has been pending in the U.S. courts for more than three years.

Within the country, the tension between the surging economy and stagnant politics is palpable. Nazarbayev, popularly referred to as "Papa," has used his unlimited powers to pursue liberal economic reforms with vigor, and maintains that economic growth and stability come ahead of political freedoms. Yet a political system that trumpets its commitment to development has grown too rigid to accommodate the very success it helped create. "Our main problem is our political system that hinges on one man," soberly admits Dariga Nazarbayeva, the eldest of Nazarbayev's three daughters, a Member of Parliament and a major influence in Kazakhstani politics.

The issue that now worries the country's ruling Úlites is whether Nazarbayev, 66, has the courage to launch long-promised political reforms, delegating many of his powers to the now subdued Majlis (lower house of Parliament), Cabinet and judiciary. "Even if they were necessary to get the country to where it is now, authoritarian ways have exhausted themselves," says Asylbek Bisenbayev, formerly Nazarbayev's spokesman and top strategist.

Getting the country where it is now has taken guts, though. "Back in 1991, there was no money, no food, no nothing," says noted Kazakhstan economist Rakhman Alshanov, a mastermind behind the early 1990s liberal economic reforms. Nazarbayev had to rule by decree. He twice dissolved the Parliament, and gave reformers the latitude to abruptly terminate the state's paternalistic support of industry as well as collective and state farms. "No more injections into a wooden leg — no more credits to big state-run industries," Alshanov explains. The message was straightforward: earn or else.

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