ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — Kazakhstan on Saturday observed a new holiday lauding President Nursultan Nazarbayev, part of a growing cult of personality around the leader of the sprawling, resource-rich former Soviet republic.
The highlight of First President's Day, which marks the anniversary of Nazarbayev's first election in 1991, was a carefully choreographed pageant by some 30,000 performers in an arena in the capital Astana, including mass singing and banner-waving.
Across the country, schoolchildren and state employees held demonstrations of affection, concerts, and sports events in his honor. To what extent the participation was voluntary was unclear.
The 72-year-old Nazarbayev exercises extraordinary dominion over Kazakhstan's political life. In the most recent presidential election in 2010, he pushed aside three token rivals to win 95 percent of the vote; international monitors criticized the election as unfair.
He receives blanket, praiseful coverage from state news media, while the government has cracked down on independent outlets.
In the run-up to the holiday, state media lauded him as a visionary who prevented the ethnically diverse country from plunging into bloodshed like that in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and equated him with the United States' founding fathers.
Nazarbayev has become subject of films, plays and even children's fairytales. A university, a network of elite schools, and a city park adorned with his statue have been named after him. An imprint of his hand is incorporated into the design of the nation's banknotes.
Observers say this is partly old-style cult of personality, but also an attempt to cement a unifying element in a vast and sparsely populated, multiethnic country of 16.5 million that some fear could one day be torn apart by clan rivalries and regional loyalties.
"Kazakhstan's statehood still lacks a symbol uniting all of its citizens," said Marat Shibutov, a well-known political commentator. "That is why this holiday has appeared."
All across the country, billboards bear Nazarbayev slogans identifying national strength in ethnic unity. Russian-speaking ethnic Slavs make up around one-fourth of the population, and there are also substantial German, Tatar, Uyghur, and Turkish communities, among a dizzying array of ethnic groups.
The development of Kazakh nationalism has been fervently resisted by Nazarbayev, although tight controls over the media make it difficult to assess the strength of underlying social tensions. Occasional violent outbursts of local village disputes that play out along ethnic lines offers only a hint of what some see as a grave danger in waiting.
Making Nazarbayev an inescapable part of public life is a task that has been undertaken with gusto by government media. One Twitter user noted that the news on Khabar state television Wednesday evening mentioned Nazarbayev's name on 26 occasions and the word "president" 40 times.