ALMATY, Kazakhstan – ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — Kazakhs held street parties, concerts and firework displays Tuesday on the 70th birthday of their president — who has capped off a busy month that has seen him effectively appointed leader for life.
Ostensibly, the reason for the festivities was to mark the 12th anniversary of Astana being made the nation's capital. But few doubt that the celebrations for the isolated city rising up in the oil-rich Central Asian nation's barren steppe are tied up in an emerging personality cult surrounding Nursultan Nazarbayev.
In 2008, Nazarbayev, who has been ruling this former Soviet republic unchallenged for decades, endorsed a bill decreeing that a new holiday in Astana's honor be observed on July 6, which happens to also be the date of his birth.
Nazarbayev insists he's no megalomaniac — despite the parallels to the bizarre cult nurtured by the late dictator of neighboring Turkmenistan, who once renamed January after himself.
On repeated occasions, he has ostentatiously rejected national campaigns to have cities — including Astana — named after him, insisting that tribute can only be paid by future generations.
Likewise, Nazarbayev declined last month to give his blessing to a law overwhelmingly approved by both houses of parliament to appoint him "Elbashi," which is Kazakh for leader of the nation.
But critics say the professions of modesty are all a facade.
Relief among the pro-democracy camp at Nazarbayev's decision not to sign the law turned to disappointment within days when it became clear that the title would still come into effect without a formal veto.
The president explained in an interview with Russian state television this week that turning down the law would have been fruitless as parliament would only have used its prerogative to overturn a veto.
"Parliament acted as an independent branch of power and expressed the will of people," he told Vesti television.
Backers of the bill pointed to Nazarbayev's state-building achievements, likening him to George Washington and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and its first president.
The legislation provoked horror among political observers and the international community, who saw echoes of eccentric former Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's decision to style himself "Turkmenbashi," or leader of the Turkmens.
"From the point of view of Kazakhstan's democratic development, this law is a big problem," said independent political analyst Dosym Satpayev. "It is not commensurate with the democratic principles that Kazakhstan loves to cite."
The legislature is currently occupied exclusively by deputies from Nazarbayev's own Nur Otan party, who won their seats in a 2007 parliamentary election criticized by international observers.
"Leader of the nation" status will give Nazarbayev the right to approve important national and foreign policies after he retires, as well as grant him lifetime immunity from prosecution for acts committed during his rule. Other measures passed by lawmakers made defacing images of Nazarbayev an offense and provided property owned by him and his family protection from confiscation.
Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan with an iron fist since it gained independence amid the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. His current presidential term expires in 2012, but under legal changes approved by parliament in 2007, Nazarbayev is allowed to run for president indefinitely.
Consolidation of his grip over the country will come at a delicate time for the international image of Kazakhstan, which this year is chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a trans-Atlantic security and democracy group.
Celebrating Astana, a former regional backwater that officially replaced the larger and more vibrant southern city of Almaty as capital in 1998, is tacitly seen as an acclamation of Nazarbayev, who seems determined to go down in history as one of the world's great city builders.
Astana has seen days of festivities, which culminated Monday with the inauguration of the palatial, tent-shaped Khan Shatyr shopping center designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster.
Khan Shatyr joins a host of other grand, and sometimes just plain odd, buildings that populate the city, which include the 250-foot-tall (77-meter) glass Pyramid of Peace, also designed by Foster and built at a cost of more than US$65 million.