Nazarbayev, a steel worker in the north, made progress in the Communist Party, to become part of the narrow circle of then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbacev.
After the fall of the Soviet regime in 1990 he was elected president. In 1995, in a single stroke, he dissolved parliament and called a quick referendum, which approved the extension of his mandate for years. He then held a referendum that took various powers from parliament, to the benefit of the President, and eliminated other limits to his authority, such as the Constitutional Court.
In the elections of 1989 his main opponent, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, was disqualified for taking part in a opposition march. Nazarbayev won with 89% of the votes. The parliament also extended the presidential term from 5 to 7 years.
In 2005 he again won with 91% of the votes, even though international observers have criticized the elections of not respecting democratic standards. He then had the option of maintaining the position without time limits approved.
But for many among the millions of young people under 20 years of age in the country, Nazarbayev is the only leader they have ever known, who has led Kazakhstan to stability and a much greater wealth compared to other Central Asian states, also rich in oil, gas and other resources. Many say they are interested in their future and economic development of the country, rather than politics. The revenues of oil have been invested in health, pensions, social security and education. The country is now a destination for migrants from neighboring states in search of work. Here, religious communities have a discreet freedom, although the State is criticized by evangelical groups.
But the main opposition leader Pyotr Svoik tells Radio Free Europe that the president has crushed the nascent Kazakh democracy, favored widespread corruption and nepotism, enriched his circle to the detriment of the nation. He comments that "Kazakhstan has no independent institution: Parliament, courts, prosecution and government only serve one person. The future of the country's political system is truly bleak and frightening”. The state shows intolerance toward independent media and is implementing increasing control over the Internet.
In recent years many political opponents and journalists have been arrested, beaten and even killed. It is also true that his "enlightened dictatorship" is the most liberal of countries of former Soviet Central Asia. Above all, these criticisms do not scratch the reputation of the President, at home and abroad. Indeed, he is courted by foreign countries hungry for Kazakh oil, who see him as a much more presentable leader than the presidents of neighbouring countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Companies from Russia, China and the United States here have invested billions of Euros. For 2010, Astana is competing even to take the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), although recent human rights groups have denounced the inexistence of essential democratic standards in the country.