ASTANA, Kazakhstan - Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev on Monday extended his grip on power in the oil-rich, ex-Soviet republic with 97.7 percent of ballots in an election slammed by Western observers as deeply flawed.

Nazarbayev, who has run the huge Central Asian country since before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, improved his already eye-popping scores in previous elections to win a fifth term in power. The Central Election Commission claimed a record turnout of 95.22 percent in Sunday’s vote.

Reacting to criticism of the poll by Western monitors in the capital Astana Monday the 74-year-old president issued a mock apology.

“I apologise that for super-democratic countries these figures are unacceptable... But I can’t do anything about it. If I interfered, it would be undemocratic of me,” he told a news conference.

Kazakhstan’s deeply marginalised opposition did not field a candidate, leaving the incumbent with only two challengers who were widely seen as pro-government.

The two polled less than 3 percent between them. “Voters were not offered a genuine choice between political alternatives,” said Cornelia Jonker, head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission, noting remarks supportive of Nazarbayev from the two other candidates in their pre-election campaigns. The OSCE also slammed “significant restrictions” on freedom of expression and media freedom.

Nazarbayev said the election result boosted his plans to make Kazakhstan one of the world’s 30 most developed economies.

“Without this level of general trust it would be difficult to work on realising such aims,” he said, declaring the turnout to be proof of the desire of Kazakhstan’s people, “to live in a stable state.”

Kazakhstan, which borders both Russia and China, has never held an election deemed free and fair by Western monitors.

While remaining entrenched himself the authoritarian president has overseen two decades of change in the country of 17 million.

Under his stewardship, the sprawling country has parlayed its energy resources and strategic location into influence, emerging from relative obscurity to host Iranian nuclear talks and chair the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. At the last election in 2011 Nazarbayev was credited with 95.5 percent of the vote.

The son of a shepherd, he trained as an engineer before rising through the ranks of the Kazakh Communist Party to head it in 1989 before becoming president two years later. His latest win was celebrated across the country with fireworks and flash mobs.

A recent Ipsos MORI survey poll showed 91 percent of Kazakhs were either satisfied or very satisfied with his performance.

Rights activists said that support is the result of ignorance and propaganda, reinforced by crackdowns on the press and Internet.

“People are brainwashed from early childhood that we live in a peaceful and stable country with great interethnic friendship,” says Dina Baidildayeva, a blogger and rights activist. “Any information that contradicts this official propaganda is blocked online.”

Many citizens standing in long, snaking queues at polling stations in Astana and in the largest city Almaty on Sunday had cited a civic duty to vote. But others complained of having been pressured to go to polling stations by employers, a common practise across parts of the ex-Soviet Union.

“Elections in Kazakhstan resemble political theatre,” Dosym Saptaev, director of the Kazakhstan Risks Assessment Group, a think tank based in Almaty, told AFP. “What matters more is what will happen next. Will we see genuine political reforms to create the basis for political life without Nazarbayev? How will the government fix the economy?”

The most prosperous of the five ex-Soviet Central Asian states, has been hit by the collapse of the Russian ruble over the past year as well as by the plunge in oil prices.

Ratings agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded the country’s sovereign credit rating earlier this year to two notches above junk status.

Meanwhile, factories struggling to compete with Russian imports made cheaper by the currency’s weakening have been forced to lay off workers.

Kazakhstan banned a number of Russian foodstuffs in March and April, citing standards violations. The country has also restricted imports of Russian fuel.

Moscow, which is traditionally viewed as a strong ally of Astana, retaliated this month by curbing imports of Kazakh cheese, among other products.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was nevertheless among the first leaders to congratulate Nazarbayev on his victory.