ALMA-ATA, KAZAKHSTAN — NURSULTAN NAZARBAYEV is everybody's favorite post-Soviet politician. Intelligent, powerful, and engaging, the former Kazakh Communist leader appears to have forged a successful example of what Mikhail Gorbachev failed to accomplish in Moscow - the gradual transition of a communist state into a stable, free market-based democracy.
Kazakhstan, the fourth-largest former Soviet republic in terms of population and the second largest in geographic area, is an island of relative economic and political calm. Produce is piled high in the central market of this city. The state stores have far more goods than any Moscow market, and lines are minimal.
"I have relatives in Russia and it is better here," says Alexander Sotnikov, a psychology professor at a local university. He is one of more than 6 million Russians who make up about one-third of the population of this Central Asian republic. Like most of them, Mr. Sotnikov praises President Nazarbayev for keeping ethnic peace here when nationalist tensions are common elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
"Nazarbayev is a tremendously popular figure," says a Western diplomat here. "He represents an important element of stability because of his policies of ethnic tolerance."
In large part, this is a matter of political necessity given the delicate ethnic balance prevailing here: According to the 1989 Soviet census, Kazakhs make up 40 percent of the 16.5 million population, slightly more than the Russian minority. The Russian population is concentrated in the north, in a belt of industry and mining that is linked both economically and culturally to southern Siberia. Russian nationalists make open claims to this territory.
The emphasis on stability is also reflected in a far slower-paced approach to economic reform than the radical path pursued by Russian President Boris Yeltsin. But Kazakhstan's economic policies are tightly linked to Russia because of its continued reliance on the ruble for its currency as well as the close links between factories in both countries. This creates a tension that seems evident in Nazarbayev's voice.
"They are just shaking air in Moscow," the Kazakh leader told the Monitor last week. "They don't know what is happening in the provinces. They shouldn't believe that the pace of reform is so rapid there."
Even though Kazakhstan, along with Russia, produces more energy than it consumes, Nazarbayev opposes plans to rapidly free the prices of now-subsidized oil, coal, and other energy sources.
"All the other republics will be in dire straits," he warned. "There will be a sharp rise of prices in Russia. This can topple everything.... That is why I am concerned that reform proceed without political confrontation. It is necessary that it is done gradually, step by step, so that people understand it."
Nazarbayev's moderate approach reflects his past as a reformist industrial plant manager and economic policymaker in the Communist Party. He rose to become party leader and Parliament chairman in 1989. After the failed coup in Moscow last August, the Communist Party was renamed the Socialist Party, and it remains the only political force of any size, dwarfing the tiny Kazakh nationalist opposition groups.
Nazarbayev left the party and was elected to the newly created Kazakh presidency in December. But the former communists continue to dominate the state bureaucracy, in many cases frustrating Nazarbayev's reform policies.
"President Nazarbayev's heart is in the right place but it's a one-man show here," says Christian Caryl, assistant head of the Kazakhstan Institution of Management and Economics. "If you combine a dynamic leader and an inert apparatus, you get great image and not much substance."
At the former Communist Party headquarters, now the presidential palace, a bed of tulips, planted last fall and now blooming in the Kazakh spring, indicates how close Kazakhstan remains to its communist past. Bright red, the flowers form a gigantic hammer and sickle in front of the building.