Windswept Kazakh City Getting Capital Facelift

ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- A bitterly cold wind was blasting across the open steppe, making it so hard for Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to catch his breath that he could barely speak while inspecting a construction site.

Nazarbayev has long had big plans for Astana. A decade ago, newspaper editor Vladimir Kochenov recalled, the president's visit here cemented his determination to turn it into a spectacular new capital at the geographic heart of the nation. Never mind how much others might prefer to stay in Almaty, the old capital in the relatively balmy south.

"The president and the people with him found a calm spot where it was not windy, so the president drew another breath and said, 'Gee, it's so windy here,'" said Kochenov, who was there that day. "And everybody said: 'Yes! It's so windy.'

"And then the president very carefully looked at everyone and said, 'But it is possible to live here.' And everybody said: 'Yes! It's possible to live here.'"

However lacking in enthusiasm much of Kazakhstan's elite may have been, this city, known at the time as Akmola, officially became Kazakhstan's capital in 1997. The next year it was renamed Astana, which simply means "capital" in the Kazakh language, and a gala ceremony with international guests was held to dedicate the nation's new political center.

But Astana at that time was a run-down provincial city, and the capital-to-be of this former Soviet republic was still on the drawing boards. Today the core of the new city, located on the left bank of the Ishim River, is a huge construction site, financed in part by the country's booming oil industry. About $2 billion per year in public and private funds is enabling the creation of what boosters hope will be one of the world's most beautiful cities of the 21st century.

"The logic of our president is clear," Kochenov said. "He wants to build a new nation, a new state, with a new capital."

Most government affairs in this Central Asian country of 15 million are still conducted in refurbished buildings in the old downtown on the opposite side of the river, but ministries are being moved into the new center as its grandiose buildings become ready for use.

Many are laid out in a scheme vaguely reminiscent of the National Mall in Washington, with the new presidential palace at one end, the Senate and lower house of Parliament along one side, a glistening, 100-meter glass-and-metal observation tower in the middle, and high-rise offices at the other end. Some buildings are marble or granite, while others use glass tinted to provide a golden shine.

The tower, called Baiterek, or Tree of Life, and its spherical, golden-hued viewing deck symbolize a Kazakh fable in which the mythical bird Samruk lays a golden egg each year in a poplar tree.

Irreverent locals have given many of the new buildings nicknames based on their shape, such as Grain Silo, Cigarette Lighter and Seven Kegs. The observation tower is sometimes called the Big Chupa Chups, after a well-known brand of lollipop.

The capital's master plan was created by prominent Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, but Kazakh officials have had substantial influence on its execution, including the extensive use of the color gold.

"Since it's a northern city, we decided to choose some warm colors. It's not like California, where it's warm all year round," explained Senator Farid Galimov, who in the mid-1990s headed a state commission in charge of planning the capital's relocation.

Galimov said that in addition to moving the capital closer to the nation's center, the move promoted the development of the country's north. Furthermore, Almaty's development was limited by the mountains on its southern side, he said.

Observers say the capital was also moved partly to ensure Kazakhstan's security by cementing its claim to the northern part of the country, with its large Russian minority, and shifting the country's political center farther away from China, which lies to the east. Few ethnic Chinese live in Kazakhstan, but China is expanding its economic and diplomatic influence here.

When Kazakhstan became independent upon the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the nation had more Russians than Kazakhs. But a Russian exodus and high Kazakh birthrates have changed that. The most recent census, in 1999, put the population at 53 percent Kazakh and 30 percent Russian.

Galimov portrayed the vast sums being poured into the new city as an investment in the nation's future rather than a spending extravaganza.

"Not doing anything for the future is very stupid," he said. "That would mean that you live only for today. You're around today, you're gone tomorrow. To live just for the future, denying yourself the pleasure of everything, working only for the future, is also stupid."

Yet many government employees, businesspeople and diplomats remain unhappy about the capital's transfer to Astana, where winter temperatures can reach minus 40 degrees Celsius. Average winter temperatures in Almaty are significantly higher.

Some countries have resisted moving their embassies here, and Almaty is still the country's business and financial hub.

"It took the people in Almaty a long time to get accustomed to the idea that they no longer live in the capital," Kochenov said.

But the people of Astana were generally happy about the change, he added.

"Can you imagine, just yesterday you were a resident of a small provincial town, and all of a sudden you wake up the next morning and you live in the capital!" he said. "It was like a godsend for the people of the city."

Atalya Tulegenova, a young woman putting herself through college by waiting tables at a restaurant in Astana's Intercontinental Hotel, is among those who have benefited from the move. "I'm happy because if it were not the capital, it would be a small town no one knows about," she said. "We have new buildings, and a lot of people come from other countries. They open our eyes."

Astana's population has roughly doubled to about 600,000 since it became the capital. Projections call for 1.2 million residents by 2030.

Some Astana natives complain about the huge influx of newcomers, including many from Almaty who have more money than the natives.

"All these people from the south came here," said Yury Abramov, an ethnic Russian who works at a bakery in the winter and in construction during the summer.

"The southerners are building houses for themselves on the left bank of the river. Local people will not get any free housing there. All the locals will have to move to the outskirts as far as possible -- out of sight and out of mind."

Abramov said he was considering moving to Russia. "I'm not certain of a prosperous future for Kazakhstan," he said.

But far more are lured to Astana by opportunity, including tens of thousands of construction jobs. "Of course it's better to be with your family. It's better to have home cooking. But I send money to my family and they are better off," said Kanat Kundulin, a Kazakh laborer who left his wife and children in a rural town and moved into a workers' dorm here.

His dream, he said, is to one day make the capital his family's home. "People say that workers will get some preferential treatment in getting housing. This is what I'm hoping for."

At a ground-breaking ceremony last year for the U.S. Embassy now under construction here, then-Ambassador Larry Napper said that "in the American Embassy, we like to call this place the Field of Dreams.

"This is a reference to a classic American movie in which the hero builds a baseball field in his Iowa cornfield in the hope that, if he builds it, the athletes and the fans will come," Napper told the Central Asian crowd. "He does build the field, and they do come."