Born into a rural peasant family in 1940, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since late Soviet times, and still garners Soviet-style percentages of the vote – 97.7% in 2015, an election criticised by international observers (like every other post-Soviet election here) for its irregularities. Nazarbayev has fostered a strong personality cult – his picture and words of wisdom greet you on billboards everywhere you go – and there is nothing to stop him staying at the top for as long as his health holds. In 2010 parliament named him 'Leader of the Nation', enabling him to exert a strong influence over government if he ceases to be president.
Nazarbayev doesn't hide his belief that the economy comes first and democracy second. He has certainly delivered on the economy, using international investment to help develop Kazakhstan's vast resources of oil, gas and almost every other known valuable mineral. As of 2016, Kazakhstan was the world's 16th-biggest oil producer, pumping 1.6 million barrels per day.
Nazarbayev certainly does not welcome political opposition – in fact, protests require police permission which is never granted and any opposition press tends to get shut down by excessive fining – but he has managed to forge a largely peaceful and increasingly prosperous country, which keeps him popular enough among the population at large. In the main cities it's easy to see – from the ostentatious imported motors, the expensive restaurants and the nightclubs where some locals will happily plonk down the equivalent of hundreds of dollars to reserve a table – that Kazakhstan's new rich are quite numerous. And there's a sizeable middle class developing. Yet those who are excluded from the networks of the new wealthy have begun to get disgruntled about corruption and poor health and education services as well as poverty. This was brutally highlighted in 2011 when a strike by government oil workers in the western town of Zhanaozen ended with security forces shooting dead at least 14 demonstrators and jailing the rest – the first time independent Kazakhstan had seen social unrest and violence on such a scale. Nazarbayev's popularity waned somewhat in wake of the oil price crash of 2014, and the subsequent downturn in Kazakhstan's economy.
Even though Nazarbayev signed a decree in 2017 that theoretically gives parliament greater power, he still has the final say, and there is still no apparent strategy in place for a transition to multiparty democracy, nor – despite Nazarbayev's age and rumours of health problems – any obvious heir apparent, which fuels a lot of gossip and shadowy manoeuvrings behind the scenes. Rival clan leaders in Shymkent are engaging in some discreet sabre-rattling in anticipation of an eventual power struggle after he dies.
Critics of Nazarbayev continue to be put out of action. Prominent human-rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis finished serving a four-year manslaughter sentence in 2013 after a driving accident, and in the wake of the Zhanaozen events, opposition politician Vladimir Kozlov spent almost five years in prison for attempting to overthrow the government by encouraging strikes. Both trials were condemned as unfair by human-rights groups. In 2015, Nazarbayev's ex-son-in-law-turned-political-enemy, Rakhat Aliyev, allegedly committed suicide in a prison cell in Vienna. In 2016, Kazakh beer tycoon Tokhtar Tuleshov was jailed for 21 years after a closed trial for allegedly planning a coup against the president. The media-rights body Reporters Without Borders ranked Kazakhstan 157th out of 179 countries in its 2017 Press Freedom Index.
Kazakhstan's Soviet state-run economy was dismantled in the 1990s, but corruption remains a barrier to a true free-market economy: Kazakhstan ranked 131st out of 174 countries in the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International.