In the run-up to Saturday's holiday in Kazakhstan, a day of lectures was held in the capital, Astana, at Nazarbayev University to celebrate the leader's much-trumpeted legacy, including his decision to get rid of the nuclear weapons arsenal that Kazakhstan inherited in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, a senior United Nations official and Kazakhstan's former foreign minister, said Nazarbayev had resisted overtures from pariah states.
"In early 1992, the foreign ministry received a letter addressed to Kazakhstan's president from Libyan revolutionary leader Moammar Gadhafi proposing to hold onto the nuclear arsenal," Tokayev said. "Billions in assistance were offered in return."
Instead, Kazakhstan drew on substantial U.S. assistance to dispense with its nuclear stockpile, earning widespread plaudits. But international criticism also is strong.
U.S.-based advocacy group Freedom House has designated Kazakhstan as not free and noted a worsening trend last year with legislation that in effect limited religious liberties.
The past week alone has seen a new crackdown on opposition parties and independent newspapers critical of the president as authorities seek the courts' approval in having them ruled extremist.
Vladimir Kozlov, the country's most vocal opposition politician, was sentenced in October to 7 1/2 years for allegedly stirring unrest and seeking the government's overthrow in a trial that international legal experts declared prejudiced and politically motivated.
There is no obvious sign of when or even if the president will ever step down — Nazarbayev University's Life Sciences Center announced last month that they had devised a yogurt-type concoction that could extend life expectancy. Nazarbayev has in the past, perhaps only half-joking, urged scientists to find him an elixir of youth.
And yet, even his supporters recognize change is beckoning.
In an interview published Saturday in Vremya newspaper, an adviser to the presidential rights committee, Vitaly Voronov, said the time had come to boost the role of parliament, which is now occupied by Nazarbayev's party and two weak and largely pro-government forces.
Nazarbayev "should go down in history as the first and last leader of Kazakhstan with super-presidential powers," he said.
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