(MENAFN - Arab News) KAZAKHSTAN this weekend celebrates a new national holiday honoring strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev, at a time when opposition groups are complaining of an unprecedented crackdown under the country's first and only leader since the Soviet Union's collapse.
Saturday's holiday will take place almost a year after deadly clashes between striking oil workers and police in the Caspian town of Zhanaozen, in what became Kazakhstan's worst post-Soviet unrest and sparked legal attacks on the opposition.
The Day of the First President holiday marks the Dec. 1 date when Nazarbayev was first elected president of Kazakhstan in 1991, several weeks before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"It is clear that the new holiday may point toward a cult of personality in Kazakhstan," leading Kazakh analyst Dosym Satpayev said.
"The trends of the last years show that this cult is growing. And to a significant degree, it is being encouraged and supported by the president's circle.
"History will show his true historical place. So you have to have a philosophical attitude toward the holiday," Satpayev told AFP.
Regarded by his admirers as a national leader comparable to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, or Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi, the 72-year-old Nazarbayev has ruled the energy-rich state unchallenged for two decades.
He has overseen the construction of a new showpiece capital Astana which has been transformed from a sleepy outpost in the steppe into a booming city that won the right to host the EXPO world fair in 2017.
The president won the last elections in 2011 with an astonishing 95.5 percent of the vote and now holds the title "Elbasi," which means leader of the nation in Kazakh.
An international forum called "The First Nazarbayev Readings" organized by the Kazakh government will be held to discuss the subject of a "New Kazakhstan in a New World" at the newly-founded Nazarbayev University in Astana.
The forum is "intended to show through the prism of the expert and political analysis the role of Nursultan Nazarbayev in the history and development of independent Kazakhstan," the organizers said.
The Dec. 1 holiday this year falls on a Saturday and in a sign of its importance, Kazakhstan has declared the following Monday, Dec. 3 to be a public holiday.
"This was the day when the first president who changed the course of the development of our state was elected," said senator Anatoly Bashmakov, a backer of the law which last year created the new holiday.
"The historic mission to create and strengthen the basis of sovereign Kazakhstan belongs to the first president, the leader of the nation Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev," he added, referring to the president by his full name.
In a bid to polish its international credentials, the country last year landed the astonishing coup of hiring former British Pime Minister Tony Blair as a consultant to advise on modernization.
But critics say economic reforms have not been matched by progress in democracy, with the Kazakh Parliament a rubber stamp, anti-Nazarbayev figures sporadically jailed and the press muzzled.
The holiday coincides with one of Kazakhstan's biggest opposition crackdowns of the last years that has hit the anti-Nazarbayev opposition and the few outspokenly critical press.
The General Prosecutor's Office has ordered the closure of a number of media outlets including Vzglyad and Golos Respubliki newspapers and Internet sites Respublika and Stan-TV.
The leader of the opposition Alga party Vladimir Kozlov was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for participating in the Zhanaozen protests.
Analysts said the crackdown is hitting forces deemed to be linked to one of Nazarbayev's biggest foes, businessman and former top official Mukhtar Ablyazov who lives in exile in London and is believed to be an important backer of the opposition.
Satpayev said: "With the Internet it is now impossible to close down all sources of criticism in Kazakhstan and ensure that no opposition opinions or materials appeared."
In an unsettling year for the country, a Kazakh border guard is on trial accused of killing 14 fellow servicemen and a hunter in one of the country's worst ever crimes. The defense insists the case is a cover-up for an even more serious incident and that a border post had come under attack.