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Kazakh corruption?

"Kazakh corruption?" Continued...

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

For sheer color, opposition figures are no match for the president. Mr. Nazarbayev's first name means "lucky man" in Kazakh. His life story-part Horatio Alger-can be bought in convenient book form. As a boy, Mr. Nazarbayev was a shepherd. He dreamed of becoming a pilot, but ended up working a blast furnace. From there he rose through the ranks of the Communist Party, transforming himself in the days of Gorbachev and perestroika into a global-minded capitalist. He cultivates the image of normal family man, with three daughters and a love for water-skiing.

What distinguishes Mr. Nazarbayev from other communist-cum-democrat leaders of the old Soviet order is the nation that he keeps. Kazakhstan equals all of Western Europe in size. Not only is his dominion large, it is also rich-possibly the richest country in the world in per capita natural resources. Soviet scientists used to brag that they could export the entire periodic table from Kazakhstan. Leading into the next millennium, the key export promise is oil, trillions of dollars worth in the Caspian Sea alone.

That's why foreign investors continue to praise Nazarbayev, or more accurately, the apparent promise of economic stability and capitalist reform he brings to his resource-rich land.

That is also why investors watched nervously in April as Kazakhstan weathered a currency crisis similar to Russia's. The government devalued Kazakhstan's currency, the tenge, in a delayed reaction to the monetary crisis which engulfed Russia and other former republics. After a brief tenge collapse, monetary values recovered slightly by month's end. The monetary shift fueled discontent at home. With unusual boldness, newspapers berated Mr. Nazarbayev for keeping people in the dark about the devaluation.

Opposition leaders said Kazakhstan's self-styled image as an "island of stability" was blown, while deeper internal problems remain after monetary reform. Unemployment now runs rampant, and as of early this year, a backlog of unpaid wages had climbed to more than $792 million. Development of Kazakhstan's natural resources is hampered by a Soviet-era legacy of pollution. In some parts of the northern region, radiation levels exceed Chernobyl. In the south, the slow death of the Aral Sea is creating an ecological debacle not yet addressed.

In the seat of power, Mr. Nazarbayev may have seven years secured, but in the street the capitalist has already squandered much capital with people waiting for real democracy.

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