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Kazakh leader puts own name in lights with film of his childhood


Shaun Walker
Saturday 16 April 2011 00:00 BST

In a region famous for its personality cults, Kazakhstan's President has added a new feather to his dictatorial cap, with a big-budget movie release that dramatises his childhood.

The Sky of My Childhood, released this week in the Central Asian country, is a dramatised version of Nursultan Nazarbayev's early life. The Kazakh President makes brief appearances at the beginning and end of the film, while three different actors play him at various stages of his childhood.

Mr Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, last week won an election with a staggering 95 per cent of the vote: it will keep him in office for another five-year term. The constitution was changed in 2007 to allow Mr Nazarbayev to stand as many times as he likes, and while he does enjoy genuine popularity, critics complain of minimal press freedom and widespread human rights abuses. The country's opposition boycotted last week's election, while one of the three candidates who did stand against Mr Nazarbayev said that he himself had voted for the incumbent.

Now, Kazakhs will have the opportunity to see their President's early life on the big screen. In one scene, the child who will become Kazakhstan's future president arranges stones into the shape of a model city that vaguely resembles the country's new capital, Astana. The city was built from scratch under the watchful eye of Mr Nazarbayev. Several outlandish buildings have been constructed in it, including the world's largest tent, designed by the British architect Lord Foster and opened in time for the President's 70th birthday last year.

The young Nazarbayev, growing up as the son of a shepherd in a mountain village in southern Kazakhstan, is also seen in the film courting a girl at a dance, and diligently pursuing his studies.

It is unclear whether Mr Nazarbayev is pushing his own personality cult, or whether the cult is fuelled by underlings rushing to prove their loyalty. The President has grumbled about the cult of personality surrounding him, threatening to fire officials who over-zealously celebrate his birthday, and refusing to sign a bill designating him "Leader of the Nation".

But the "Leader of the Nation" law came in to practice last year anyway. Among other things, it means that even if he steps down from the presidency, he will still have a say in running the country, and it also grants him immunity from prosecution for any acts committed during his presidency.

Mr Nazarbayev has been accused of nepotism, with several family members among the richest people in the country. Earlier this week, his son-in-law Timur Kulibayev, was named as the head of the country's national wealth fund, which controls two-thirds of the entire Kazakh economy and is worth around £50bn.

Mr Nazarbayev's personality cult has not quite reached the level of neighbouring Turkmenistan, where the former president built a gold statue of himself that rotated to face the sun, and renamed the months of the year after himself and his mother. Nevertheless, the country's cities are adorned with billboards featuring photographs of the President, and praise for him on state-controlled television is ubiquitous.

At a press conference to mark its release, the makers of The Sky of My Childhood said that Mr Nazarbayev had watched the film twice before its release, and had enjoyed it, being moved to tears by the scenes about his childhood.

They're so vain

Saparmurat Niyazov, former president of Turkmenistan

During his 21-year reign, the self-styled "Father of All Turkmen" decreed that his collection of philosophies was compulsory reading for kids (and somehow formed part of the nation's driving test). Vanity projects included an ice palace and a 40-metre tall pyramid.

Kim Jong-il, North Korean leader

If the nation's state media is to be believed, the bouffant-sporting, platform shoe-wearing leader's talents include a photographic memory, piloting fighter jets, and hitting 11 hole-in-ones during the first round of golf he ever played.

Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan leader

Gaddafi's Green Book, a semi-coherent collection of his theories written six years after he seized power in 1969, is a compulsory school-room text and boasts a stone effigy in most major Libyan cities. Gaddafi styles himself as the "Father of the Nation".

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