ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — Kazakhstan's president announced a raft of reforms for this energy-rich, authoritarian state Friday, ranging from having more direct local and regional elections to imposing the use of the Latin alphabet for the Kazakh language.
But 72-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev gave no indication that he would step down as president any time soon, despite two decades of heavy-handed power.
Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's government has faced sustained international criticism for cracking down on popular dissent, limiting media freedoms and being too slow to reform politically. Still, as speculation mounts over his plans for succession, Nazarbayev's administration has tried to forge a historic legacy to endure after his rule. Friday's wide-ranging address appeared to be part of that effort.
Nazarbayev said more than 2,500 local and regional postings — such as village and town mayors, and heads of rural districts — would be elected starting next year. That means more than 90 percent of mayors at all levels will be elected, he said. No local administration heads are currently elected.
The elections are part of a broader attempt to foster democratic standards in this vast Central Asian nation of 17 million, Nazarbayev said, even as he insisted the country would not be rushed into reforms before the economic conditions were right.
"Every step of our political reforms is closely tied to our level of economic development," he said.
The bulk of Friday's speech was aimed at cataloging achievements in the ex-Soviet nation during Nazarbayev's tenure. The president said Kazakhstan, which borders China and Russia, has to date attracted $160 billion in foreign investment. Much of that has gone toward developing the country's abundant energy and mineral resources.
As he laid out a strategy for the country up till 2050, the president called for improving the tax system, creating better conditions for business and urging support for the welfare system. But he also went beyond economics, delving into cultural and social issues.
In what may prove an especially controversial announcement, Nazarbayev said the Latin alphabet would be adopted for the Kazakh language by 2025 in place of the Russian-style Cyrillic alphabet currently in use.
"This will enable our children to better understand English, the Internet and it will reinforce our desire to modernize the Kazakh language," he said.
By the same year, 95 percent of Kazakhstan's citizens should have learned to speak in Kazakh, he said. Although Kazakh is the official state language, many people speak Russian instead.
The president warned against allowing ethnic tension to fester in a nation defined by its diversity. Kazakhstan's occupation by the Russian Empire and the Soviet policy of mass deportations turned the Kazakhs into a minority within their own territory.
Nazarbayev has strenuously resisted Kazakh nationalist strains, seeing them as a source of possible instability. "If we want to see our country as a strong and powerful state, we should not rock the boat that would destroy peace and order, which are fragile," he said in Friday's address.
The rise of hardline Islam also has created anxiety in Kazakhstan, not least due to a string of Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks over the past two years. Nazarbayev proposed adopting legislation to hinder religious radicalism.
"The secular nature of our state is an important condition of the successful development of Kazakhstan," he said.
That call, however, could concern advocates of religious freedom, who say already adopted Kazakh laws place undue restrictions on minority faiths.