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Kazakh President Hints He May Emulate Singapore's Lee

FILE - Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev attends a meeting at his office in Almaty, Feb. 25, 2013.

Kazakhstan's veteran leader, widely expected to seek re-election in a snap poll next month, hinted on Friday he might yet decide to step down but keep the Central Asian nation under his control, citing Singapore's “founding father” as an example.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 74, has run Kazakhstan, rich in oil and gas reserves, since 1989 when he headed the local Communist Party within the Soviet Union. His current five-year term formally ends only in late 2016, but he has called an early election for April 26.

He said then that he had not decided if he would run in the election, and on Friday he raised new questions, saying it was time to “change scene” in his vast steppe nation of 17 million.

“Frankly speaking, my personal plans were completely different,” he told a meeting with Kazakhstan's prominent women ahead of International Women's Day celebrated on March 8.

“I have run Kazakhstan for many years already, I stood at the cradle of its independence, so maybe it's time to 'change stage', as they say in a theater. I am thinking about this.”

Nazarbayev oversaw liberal market reform and, balancing relations with Russia with Western ties, attracted massive foreign investment to his nation; but he is criticized in the West for his authoritarian style and opponents are not indulged.

On Friday, he cited the case of Singapore, where the three-decade rule of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew transformed a backward city state into a prosperous “Asian Tiger.”

Lee, 91, who is admired by Nazarbayev, headed the country's ruling party and led Singapore in 1959-1990.

He later remained in control, holding the posts of senior minister and of minister mentor.

“The founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew ... once stepped down, and I asked him why,” Nazarbayev said. “And the answer was: 'I had ruled for 31 years, and when I watched myself on television, I did not like myself'.”

“And I said that television distorts things and that well, maybe it's not worth watching TV, but I have a similar plan,” he said, laughing, but did not elaborate.

Friday's remarks are likely to rekindle speculation over a possible successor, a question that while closely watched by investors has not been encouraged by Nazarbayev.

His Nur Otan party will hold a congress on March 11. Nazarbayev will participate as a delegate, but the party has not said if it will appoint him as candidate to run in the election.