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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nazarbayev Calls for More Kazakhs

ReutersPresident Nursultan Nazarbayev signing copies of his annual address in the parliament in Astana on Wednesday.
ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev encouraged his country of 15 million to have more children in an annual address Wednesday that the opposition criticized for failing to pledge democratic reform.

The vast but thinly populated Central Asian state bordering China is enjoying rapid economic growth thanks to its surging output of oil and metals. The population is a little smaller than that of the Netherlands -- across a territory that is 66 times bigger.

Nazarbayev, in power since 1989, used his state-of-the-nation address to focus on social benefits from the federal budget, such as a doubling of payments for the birth of a child to $280 and an increase in pensions, but was almost silent on political reform.

"We've seen the population increase by more than half a million in the last four years," he said. "These measures will lead to a more positive tendency, which is what we're seeking."

Nazarbayev, who has never won an election judged free and fair by international monitors, mentioned "further democratic reform" as only the eighth item on a list of 10 tasks for his government and made clear that power would remain in his hands.

"We are forming our model of political reform, our own Kazakh way," he said. "The distinct features are maintaining presidential government, gradual reform, balanced decisions, national dialogue and consolidation of political forces."

Unusually, the address to both houses of the parliament was not broadcast live on television, although a recording of it was due to be shown later in the day. The live transmission of last year's state-of-the-nation address was interrupted by a power cut.

Kazakhstan's parliament has just one opposition member following a 2004 election that was called flawed by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"Of course there's cause for disappointment," said Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, a nonparliamentary opposition leader who ran against Nazarbayev in a 2005 presidential election, which the incumbent won overwhelmingly. "We need deeper reforms," he said after the speech. "The president is not yet politically ready for such reforms."

Nazarbayev has been seeking to chair the 56-nation OSCE, a security and democracy body, in 2009.

The lack of real progress towards fairer elections mentioned by that very body has caused diplomatic problems for Western states that do not want to be seen rewarding inaction or alienating a growing oil producer.

Washington sought to compromise by publicly offering to back a Kazakh chairmanship in 2011, but this was rejected by Kazakhstan, which has strong backing for its 2009 bid from Russia and the tacit approval of several European states. The decision can only be made by consensus and has been postponed.