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Day of the First President Celebrates 24 Years of Achievement
On December 1, Kazakhstan marks the Day of the First President, commemorating the anniversary of the country’s first ever popular democratic election of a national leader back in 1991.
A thoughtful editorial in The Astana Times newspaper reflected upon the date’s meaning for the Kazakhs.
Twenty-four years ago this month, Kazakhstan began its journey as an independent nation, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that outside observers would have seen nothing but trouble ahead for the young country – if they thought anything about it at all.
Those observers can’t be faulted for their doubts. Kazakhstan, a shard of the newly fragmented Soviet Union, may have been large in size, but the assets the country had on which to build its future looked small, and the challenges looming were great.
In the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union, young Kazakhstan was left with out-of-date industries and under-funded public services. Standards of living were low; quality of life was poor.
Kazakhstan’s history and geography back then were not seen as assets, but as problems to be added to an already daunting mix. Central Asia was seen as remote. Charting an independent course in the world when surrounded by such powerful neighbours was viewed as a possibility even more remote. On top of that, the migrations – forced and voluntary – of the past meant Kazakhstan’s population was made up of many different ethnic, cultural and religious groups in a region where ethnic tensions are never far from the surface.
Nearly a quarter century on, there are still challenges to conquer. Kazakhstan is not immune to the forces wreaking havoc on the global economy at the moment, for example. But by any assessment, the nation whose beginnings looked dire has enjoyed remarkable, sustained progress. Kazakhstan has risen to become a middle-income country. Living standards and general well-being have improved dramatically, as have the opportunities available to the population. Kazakhstan is a stable and respected member of the world community today.
This progress is, of course, a collective achievement in which everyone in Kazakhstan – as well as the international partners who gave valuable support – can take pride. However, on December 1, the nation recognises the man who has guided it throughout this period of progress: Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The date is the anniversary of Nazarbayev’s election by a popular vote as the first President of an independent Kazakhstan in 1991. It has been celebrated as the official public holiday First President’s Day since 2012.
It is not unusual for a country to celebrate its first President when he or she has played a critical role in establishing the nation. The U.S., for example, has celebrated Washington’s Birthday – now called Presidents’ Day – as an official holiday since 1885.
What causes some discussion is that in Kazakhstan’s case, this recognition is being given while the President is still in office.
But while few individuals in history can equal the role Washington played as the father of the U.S., he only served as its president for eight years. President Nazarbayev has now been the leader of Kazakhstan for three times as long, and commemorating an event that happened nearly a generation ago doesn’t seem so strange.
Despite his long service, Nazarbayev’s popularity, measured both by successive election results and by independent surveys, remains strong, and the respect in which he is held is obvious. Kazakhstan’s population understands and appreciates the role Nazarbayev has played in building prosperity and harmony and giving the new country a voice and status in the world. Looking outside Kazakhstan’s borders to see the challenges other countries in the region face – and which Kazakhstan itself continues to navigate – the appreciation only grows.
Nazarbayev’s leadership and friendship are also valued by Kazakhstan’s international partners, who recognise the role the country plays in promoting dialogue and peace and the lead Nazarbayev has personally provided regarding nuclear disarmament.
It is for all these reasons that Kazakhstan celebrates First President’s Day. It is a day to recognise not just the achievements of one man but what, thanks to his leadership, the citizens of a young country have built together.
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