It is just 24 years ago this month that Kazakhstan began its journey as an independent nation. It would be no exaggeration to say that few outside observers, if they thought about the country at all, saw anything but troubles ahead.
We can’t blame them for their doubts. We may have been a large country in terms of size, but the assets on which to build our future were seen as small and the challenges great.
Having been born out of the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were left with industries which were badly out of date and public services which had been run down. Living standards were low and quality of life was poor. Added to this mix were problems stemming from our geography and history.
Our region was seen as remote. Charting our own course in the world when we had such powerful neighbours was viewed as an even more remote possibility. And our country’s past meant our population was made up of many different groups and backgrounds in a region where ethnic tensions are never far from the surface.
There are, of course, plenty of challenges, old and new, still to overcome. Kazakhstan can’t, for example, escape the powerful forces which are battering the global economy at the moment. Yet by any objective assessment, Kazakhstan has enjoyed sustained and remarkable progress.
Our country has joined the ranks of the middle income economies. Living standards have improved dramatically, as has the well-being of families and the opportunities available to them. Kazakhstan is a stable country and a respected member of the international community.
This is, of course, a collective achievement in which everyone in our society – and our international partners who have provided valuable support – can take pride. But guiding our country throughout this whole period has been one man whose leadership and achievements we celebrate this week.
Dec. 1 is the anniversary of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s election by a popular vote as the first President of an independent Kazakhstan in 1991. The date has been celebrated as the official public holiday First President’s Day since 2012.
It is not unusual, of course, for a country to celebrate its first President when they have played a critical role in establishing the nation. The U.S., for example, has celebrated Washington’s Birthday – which is now called Presidents’ Day – as an official holiday since 1885.
What has caused comment is that such recognition should be given when the President is still in office. But while few people in history can match the extraordinary and historic role that Washington played as the father of his nation, he only served as president for eight years.
President Nazarbayev has led our country already for three times as long. In this light, it does not seem so strange to commemorate an event which happened almost a generation ago.
Despite this longevity, his popularity, measured both by successive election results and by independent surveys, remains strong throughout the country. No objective observer can doubt the respect in which he is held.
The reasons for this respect are not mysterious. Kazakh citizens appreciate the role Nazarbayev has played in improving prosperity, in building a harmonious society and giving our country a voice and status in the world. This appreciation is even greater when they see the challenges that other countries within the region face – and that Kazakhstan must continue to chart its way through today.
His leadership and friendship are also highly valued by Kazakhstan’s international partners. They recognise the role that our country plays in promoting dialogue and peace and the lead he has personally provided regarding nuclear disarmament.
It is for all these reasons that our country will celebrate First President’s Day Dec. 1. It is a day to recognise not just the achievements of one man but what, thanks to his leadership, we have all built together.