MOSCOW -- Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev has always stood out among political leaders in the former Soviet Union for his skill at manoeuvring in quickly changing situations. As a Communist Party official of Kazakh nationality from the Russian-speaking city of Karaganda, he managed at the end of the 1980s to make himself acceptable both to Kazakh nationalists who were trying to force Russians out of the republic's leadership, and to ethnic Russians who were worried by the growth of Kazakh nationalism. He was also regarded with favour by the significant section of the Kazakh population who hoped to maintain the position of the Russian language and culture in the republic as a guarantee that modernisation would continue.
In 1989 Nazarbaev quickly managed to calm striking miners. In a speech that lasted several hours, he succeeded in presenting himself to the workers as a wise leader and defender of the people. This idyll, however, did not last long. After making the shift from first secretary of the republic's Communist Party to president of the republic, Nazarbaev became embroiled in constant battles with the labour movement and trade unions.
Nazarbaev supported Gorbachev to the last, and fought to preserve the Soviet Union. But after the USSR distintegrated, it was Nazarbaev who headed the independent state of Kazakhstan, becoming the symbol of the new order and arming himself with the ideas of the very nationalists he had earlier fought against. Typical of this new orientation was the call by Vice-President Erik Asanbaev for "Russian science'' to be replaced with "Kazakh science'', and for socialist internationalism to yield up its place to "national'' ethics.
The inevitable consequence of this reorientation was a rapid increase in national conflicts in the once-peaceful republic. Under the pretext of defending the Kazakh national identity several influential Kazakh clans began violating the rights not just of the country's numerous national minorities -- including Russians, Ukrainians, Uigurs, Jews, Chechens and Germans -- but also of other Kazakhs. The quality of education, not just in the Russian language but in Kazakh as well, declined steeply. Kazakhstan's German population began to emigrate en masse. Russians in the north of the republic began struggling for autonomy and dual citizenship.
For years Nazarbaev refused to follow the economic prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund, clearly preferring the "Chinese model''. Initially, he even gave his patronage to the young Socialist Party of Kazakhstan, headed by another Karaganda native, Yermukhamet Yertysbaev. But relations between the president and the political left cooled rapidly as the socialists began criticising corruption in presidential circles and defending the rights of national minorities.
During 1994 Kazakhstan's economy finally turned in the direction of capitalism. The results were even more catastrophic than in neighbouring Russia: rapid impoverishment of the bulk of the population, limitless corruption, and mass protests.
As popular dissatisfaction mounted and coal miners again went on strike, Nazarbaev could only plead touchingly that at least all the branches of government were united. The parliament, that had been elected in the spring of 1994 in totally rigged elections, was conscientiously fulfilling all the president's demands. The electoral boundaries had been drawn in such a way that some of the districts contained several times more electors than others. When the election results were added up, it turned out that more votes had been cast than there were registered voters. International observers testified to the undemocratic nature of the elections. More than 60 candidates who had fallen victim to electoral fraud brought court suits, but completely without result. Only one woman, Tatyana Kvyatkovskaya, managed to win a hearing in the Constitutional Court.
For a long time the court failed to hand down a decision. But on March 6 this year, when the social and political crisis in the republic had reached extreme levels, the court unexpectedly ruled that the elections had been invalid, that the parliament was illegitimate, and that the decisions it had adopted were null and void.
On the morning of March 8 Nazarbaev submitted a protest to the Constitutional Court, and blocked the implementation of the court's ruling. The basis for this move was that the court's decision would create problems in implementing "socio-economic reforms'', and would "impede the activity of the supreme organs of state authority''. But two days later the court took a further decision in which it overrode the president's protest.
Then Nazarbaev once again showed his command of the arts of the politician. Rather than entering into confrontation with the Constitutional Court, he declared the parliament and government dissolved, and accepted that the laws which the parliament had adopted were without force. The same day he named a new government with the same composition, while the laws were brought back into force in the form of presidential decrees. Taking advantage of the vacuum of legislative authority, Nazarbaev informed the astonished population that until the election of a valid parliament, he would make the laws himself. The new parliament would eventually review and confirm the president's decrees, but since there was no money for new elections, it was impossible to say when these elections would take place, or whether they would occur at all.
To take the place of the dissolved parliament Nazarbaev established a consultative council, the People's Assembly, as part of the presidential apparatus. In its first session, this organ of the popular will proposed that the head of state should remain in power without any elections for a further five years. In place of the elections for which money was lacking, a referendum to prolong Nazarbaev's powers was set for April 29. For this, it seems, funds were available.
The deputies of the dissolved parliament tried to resist. Seventy- two people even took part in a three-day hunger strike. The leader of the moderate opposition party, the People's Congress of Kazakhstan, even organised a "people's parliament'' consisting of a proportion of the former deputies. However, these moves failed to attract the sympathy of the population. To most citizens of Kazakhstan it was obvious both that the elections of the previous year had been rigged, and that the now-dissolved parliament had played a wretched role as an appendage of the executive power. When the need arose, the president had simply treated the parliamentarians as small change, and had sacrificed them.
Meanwhile, no-one could accuse Nazarbaev of ingratitude, or of failing to look after his friends. Despite the acute financial crisis, the government allotted the sum of 1.2 billion tenge, and set up a special commission, in order to find employment for the former deputies.