As the Soviet Union disintegrates, a new power called Kazakhstan is rapidly emerging on the vast Central Asian steppe, and its leader now ranks in importance just after Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Boris N. Yeltsin, the Russian Federation’s president.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of the Kazakhstan republic, is one of the people trying to fashion a new Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics and an economic common market from the sprawling wreckage of the Soviet Union.
Nazarbayev has mediated disputes between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, brokered agreements with other republics and, on behalf of the national leadership, announced plans for the new confederation.
So important has Nazarbayev become in U.S. eyes that Secretary of State James A. Baker III, completing a visit to the Soviet Union, will travel six hours by air today to meet with him in an effort to assess the changes here.
Baker has already met several times with Nazarbayev and praises him privately as an intelligent, careful leader who appreciates the depth of the Soviet crisis and the need for urgent but thoughtful change.
A national leader from Central Asia with such clear political clout has been rare in the Soviet Union; those who made their way to the top before were “yes men.” Nazarbayev is not; his policies have increasingly distanced him from the Kremlin, but without the break of full independence.
Nazarbayev, 51, had what the liberal newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda described as a “classic party career"--at least until his resignation this month as the Communist Party leader in Kazakhstan in the wake of the failed coup.
A metallurgical engineer by education, Nazarbayev began work at age 20 in a steel plant. He became a party official after 10 years and won steady promotions. He served five years as Kazakhstan’s prime minister until he was named Kazakh party leader in 1989.
Along the way, Nazarbayev became a convert to a free-market economy, and Kazakhstan was one of the first republics to begin privatizing state-owned enterprises.
At the peak of the Gorbachev-Yeltsin feud early this year, Nazarbayev criticized both.
“I cannot bring myself to say that Gorbachev and Yeltsin are guided by their ambitions alone because these people are vested with such high trust by the people,” he said. “It is difficult, however, to explain such stubbornness by something else.”
He was instrumental in ending the rift between the two.
During last month’s abortive coup, Nazarbayev helped organize resistance among members of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee.
Even before the coup, Nazarbayev had called for the transformation of the Soviet Union into a voluntary confederation of states based, first of all, on an economic union.