Kazakhstans Capital Rises From Soviet Ruins

ASTANA, Kazakhstan At the very center of the Eurasian landmass, as far from the open sea as it is possible to get, lies the limitless, flat, inhospitable landscape of the Central Asian steppe.

To gaze down on this bleak, brown terrain from the air is to see no rivers, no hills, just endless fields of wheat. If there is a "middle of nowhere," then surely this is it.

With temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius in summer and below minus 40 degrees Celsius in winter, it seems a harsh environment in which to live and work.

And a strange spot to build a capital city.

Yet that is exactly what Kazakhstans president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, decided to do. After independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, he moved the government to the steppe city of Astana, which means simply "capital," in 1997.

Midway between the Arctic seas to the north and the Indian subcontinent to the south, between Moscow to the west and Beijing to the east, Astana is truly remote.

But three years on, it is already beginning to feel like a capital.

Its international airport is as efficient and comfortable as any in Western Europe. Plenty of grand buildings parliament, the governments headquarters, the presidents official residence, a national museum, ministries, theatres, concert halls and the like are already built.

True, a sign marked "diplomatic region" is fixed to a fence enclosing nothing but a patch of wasteland. And plenty of buildings look impressive from the front but from the back are as cheaply built and slipshod as any in the former Soviet Union.

But residential districts are taking shape. Along the embankment of Astanas river, the Ishym, marches a line of well built bright-yellow tower blocks, forming a fine river front facing an attractive park across the water.

Cranes and construction workers are everywhere, as is an army of municipal workers sweeping, tidying, planting, watering and otherwise sprucing up the place.

Any visitor who knows other parts of the former Soviet Union is immediately struck by the fact that economic activity any economic activity is going on, something depressingly rare in most post-Soviet lands, where decay, not development, is the norm.

"I arrived in a completely different city," says Lev Tarakov, the head of Nazarbayevs press service and a resident of Astana for 2 1/2 years.

"It seemed unlikely then that from that town theyd build a capital."

As the site of his new capital, Nazarbayev chose an existing city, Tselinograd, founded under the tsars, developed under the Soviet Union and by common consent as grim a place as it could boast.

"The architecture was so poor then. Everything was built very quickly, that was the main factor in Soviet building," Tarakov says.

Indeed, although old Tselinograd is vanishing fast, one can still find many a run-down example of a Soviet housing estate, or Khrushchyoba a pun on the Russian word Trushchyoba, or slum, and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader under whom these particularly brutal blocks were built.

But the center is a different matter. Elegant squares, fountains, impressive modern buildings, some carefully restored 19th-century houses, opulent shopping malls and a rapidly modernizing car fleet are dispelling its provincial feel.

Opinions differ as to why, or whether, Kazakhstan needs a new capital. It is, after all, a huge expense for a transition economy, although there are ways around this: When Chevron, the U.S. oil company, increased its stake in a big Kazakh oil project recently, a promise to invest $20 million in Astana was part of the deal.

Some say Nazarbayev felt the old capital, Almaty in the far southeast, was too close to China, and so unduly vulnerable.

Others say Kazakhstans main cities other than Almaty are too close to Russia, economically and culturally closer to nearby Siberia than to far-off Almaty, making a new capital necessary to unify the country.

Not all residents of Almaty see it this way.

"This is a senseless waste of precious money," says Yelena Georgiyevna, a music teacher. "It would have been better to spend the money on Almaty, which is the historical capital.

"Why now when everyone is so poor? All our cities need improving why spend everything on Astana alone?"

Others say Nazarbayev simply wanted a monument to himself.

Certainly a central capital cuts traveling times in the worlds ninth largest country, as big as Western Europe.

So vast is it that even defining its borders is far from complete nearly a decade after independence. The head of a commission to delineate the 14,000 kilometers of borders said recently the job would not be finished until 2007 or 2008. Given Kazakhstans size, Astanas location makes some sense.

And for those who remember the old days before Nazarbayev hatched his grandiose plan, Astana is changing dramatically for the better.

"The changes have been colossal in a very short time," says Rabiga Amanzholova, head of the lower house of parliaments press office and a resident of Tselinograd, then Astana, for 10 years.

"Every day Astana is becoming a little more beautiful."