ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on Tuesday approved constitutional amendments allowing him to stay in office for life, a move the opposition condemned as an attempt to establish a personality cult.
In sharp contrast to the opposition’s criticism, the United Stated welcomed the amendments, which also included giving additional responsibilities to parliament, as a “good step forward for democracy in Kazakhstan”.
Parliament proposed last week to allow Nazarbayev, in power since 1989 and whose current term expires in 2012, to stay in office for an unlimited number of terms in the oil-rich state. Nazarbayev signed amendments on Monday and they achieved full validity with their official publication on Tuesday.
The constitutional article published in the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda newspaper stipulated the president should be elected for a maximum two terms, but added in reference to Nazarbayev: “This limitation does not apply to the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.”
“There are certain elements of Nazarbayev’s (personality) cult in this,” said Aidos Sarimov of the opposition-linked Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly think tank.
The opposition has long accused Nazarbayev, 66, and his family of tightening their grip over most aspects of life in the former Soviet nation, which is key to U.S. and European Union plans to diversify energy supplies to bypass Russia.
Kazakhstan has never held elections judged free and fair by international monitors.
U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan John Ordway, whose country sees Kazakhstan as a source of some stability in a volatile region, did not share the opposition’s skepticism.
“It’s a very speculative question to go from amendments that change term limits to a supposition that President Nazarbayev becomes president for life,” he told reporters.
But he added: “In case of Kazakhstan this (the Nazarbayev clause) came up with no public discussion which I think is probably not the best way to go about taking such decisions.”
Ordway said the clause on Nazarbayev “tends to distract the attention from the overall positive forward movement”.
Other amendments included a number of constitutional changes such as raising the number of parliamentary deputies, cutting presidential terms to five years from seven years and allowing parliament to play a bigger role in picking the prime minister.
The opposition has accused Washington of taking too soft a stance on Kazakhstan, which has agreed to join a major pipeline to take Caspian oil to Western markets, bypassing Russia.
“In general, every country, whether it’s the United States or Estonia, or any country in between in terms of size or significance on the world stage, has its own strategic interests,” said one European diplomat. “I think it’s a kind of pragmatic realpolitik approach.”
The diplomat, who asked not to be named, said the move was “on the face of it, at the very least, a complicating factor” in the Kazakh bid to take over the rotating chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009.
Domestic reaction to the move was muted in Kazakhstan where state-controlled media engage in little public debate.
Nazarbayev’s supporters say that prolonging his rule would ensure stability and investment continuity.
Nazarbayev has not said whether he might exercise his right to run again or stand aside — or who might succeed him.
But for now, the move was all but certain to upset those in his entourage who have put their bets on replacing him, and hushed all talk about Nazarbayev preparing to pick a successor.