Nazarbayev's City, 10 Years On

ReutersPeople celebrating the 10th anniversary of Astana as the Kazakh capital, which coincided with Nazarbayev's birthday.
ASTANA, Kazakhstan — If there is one thing Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev cherishes as part of his legacy, it is the gold-plated extravagance of his new capital, Astana.

Tucked away in the empty heartland of Eurasia, Astana was little more than a windswept provincial town a decade ago, when Nazarbayev declared it the capital of his vast, oil-rich state.

Now, with its grandiose, if somewhat surreal, skyline dominating a barren landscape, Astana stands as a monument to Nazarbayev's two-decade rule.

With gold-tinted tower blocks, oddly shaped skyscrapers and a giant pyramid with an opera house, Astana also offers a peek into what a country can do with billions of dollars of oil wealth.

In power since 1989, Nazarbayev dreamed up Astana's creation — Kazakhstan's answer to Dubai and Brasilia — in 1994 as a symbol of independence and a way to give a sense of national identity to his people.

Like other post-Soviet countries, Kazakhstan endured years of chaos in the 1990s, but its economy is now booming thanks to billions of dollars of foreign investment. Five times the size of France but populated by only 16 million people, it wants to copy the experience of Gulf states that have grown rich on the back of oil since the 1970s.

It is also at the center of global oil diplomacy, as Europe courts it as an alternative to Russian energy supplies.

Nazarbayev, however, has been criticized by rights groups for tolerating little dissent and backsliding on democracy.

Over the weekend, he was at the center of lavish festivities where he was unlikely to hear any critical voices: the city was holding its 10th anniversary celebrations, culminating conveniently on Sunday, Nazarbayev's 68th birthday. Regional leaders including President Dmitry Medvedev came for the events.

More than $12 billion has been invested in Astana, which is growing fast in line with a plan laid out by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa.

And some of Astana's once skeptical 600,000 residents have finally come to terms with their city's flashy image.

A walk around Astana, once a tiny outpost founded by Russian troops, reveals a city of magnificent proportions, with some of its austere, glass-and-marble buildings and abstract statues harking back to the brutal grandeur of Stalinist architecture.

Nikita Basov / AP
The presidential palace. Kazakhstan has spent over $12 billion on Astana.
"Behind his back we call [Nazarbayev] the chief architect of Astana," said Bair Dosmambetov, a senior official who oversees Astana's construction. "We always seek his advice."

The official hero worship is also explicit.

"Goal: position the first president of the Republic of Kazakhstan as a leader of global proportions," said the city's web site, explaining the gist of weeklong celebrations that include massive theatrical shows and concerts.

Somewhat mystifyingly, it also lists the "sacralization of the capital" as another key goal. The official cost of celebrations has not been made public.

Kazakhstan's military march-style anthem, its lyrics co-authored by Nazarbayev, blared across Astana and scores of people waving blue-and-yellow national flags strolled through its streets as the festivities started.

At one event, a flag raising ceremony attended by Nazarbayev, a crowd cheered and chanted "Kazakhstan! Kazakhstan!" as the president spoke.

"We've lived through many challenges," he said. "One of the challenges was to build a new country. … Our country has become respectable. Astana has become the center of Eurasia."

But away from the rallies and speeches, there was little cause for celebration in Astana's poorer districts, where people have yet to see the benefits of wealth, like millions of others outside Astana and the old capital, Almaty.

Spiraling food inflation is threatening to undo the gains built up through economic expansion of around 10 percent per year since 2000 in a country where around one-quarter of the population still lives in poverty, according to United Nations figures.

In one district, dotted by crumbling huts and bisected by a rough dirt track, people said their only source of water was a rusty metal pipe sticking out of the ground. "This celebration isn't for us but for the elite," said Gulzhamal, who refused to give her surname.

"We have to solve our own problems, figure out how to buy bread, how to buy clothes for our children, how to support them. We simply have no time for celebration."

Over past years, Nazarbayev has refused offers from his officials to rename the city Nursultan, saying it was inappropriate while he was alive.

But he has continued to bask in lavish praise.

"Without any doubt," Almaty Mayor Akhmetzhan Yesimov said, "The driving force behind this success is one epic figure — the head of state, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and his political will."