Astana celebrated its 15th anniversary as Kazakhstan’s capital with a lavish bash designed to cement the legacy of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The country marked Astana Day as a national holiday on July 6, which is also Nazarbayev’s birthday (he turned 73 this year). There is heavy symbolism in celebrating the anniversary of Nazarbayev’s brainchild on the day he was born.
Back in the 1990s, the president generated a hefty amount of astonishment and skepticism when he ordered the capital moved 1,200 kilometers north from Almaty to what was then a dusty and rundown city called Akmola. Since then, the renamed Astana has been transformed beyond recognition, featuring shimmering skyscrapers and grandiose civic structures.
Nazarbayev used this year’s holiday as an opportunity to praise, with hyperbolic flourish, the urban center whose construction he has micromanaged. In a commentary published in the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda newspaper on Astana Day, he described the last decade-and-a-half as “the great epoch of Astana,” which “strikes visitors with the beauty of the urban landscape and the boldness of the architectural decisions.”
Praise for Nazarbayev’s vision is far from universal. Detractors argue that this is a city of architectural follies built using money that could have been better spent developing economically distressed areas of Kazakhstan. One scathing commentary posted on the Adam website asserted that “billions of dollars have been poured into the marshes of Akmola.”
Nevertheless, Astana has made its mark as an unashamedly brash, go-getting city making a statement: Kazakhstan has arrived on the world map.
“The fate of Astana is the fate of all Kazakhstanis who have boldly crossed the threshold between two centuries,” Nazarbayev wrote. “This is the fate of independent Kazakhstan, which has walked the great path from the obscure fringe of a fallen superpower known to few in the world to a dynamic modern state which the international community knows and respects.”
People turned out in their thousands to celebrate the holiday in Astana, gathering at popular landmarks around the seat of government on the left bank of the River Yesil. Crowds thronged to landmarks like the pyramid, designed by British architect Norman Foster; Bayterek Tower, a viewing spot featuring a gold print of Nazarbayev’s hand; and the Kazakh Country column, which hosts a prominent bas-relief of the president on the plinth.
Those attending the celebrations were effusive in praising the city, and the president who dreamed it up. “Astana is like my heart, my dream, my motherland,” pensioner Zhamila Abukyzy, who had traveled three hours from the industrial city of Karaganda for the anniversary, told EurasiaNet.org. “I’m lost for words. Thank you to our president for building this capital for us.”
Yurts – the spherical felt tents of the once nomadic Kazakhs – selling traditional refreshments such as kumiss (fermented horse milk) and kurt (a dried curd snack) stood alongside the Khan Shatyr (Khan’s Tent) shopping mall, creating a dramatic contrast with the backdrop of Astana’s futuristic skyline.
In one giant yurt, a performance of aytys – improvised verbal duels performed by poets playing the stringed dombyra – took place, with the capital city as the theme.
“Astana is a dream come true,” sang one young woman to raucous applause and cheers. “You are my pride, you amaze us with happiness and joy […] I have fallen in love with a beautiful city named Astana.”
In Kazakhstan, national celebrations are increasingly harnessed to cement the legacy of a president who has led the country since independence in 1991, and these were no exception. Nevertheless, Nazarbayev took more of a back seat than in previous years. Astana’s 10th anniversary in 2008 featured a grandiose ceremony with a crowd of warriors dressed in gold armor falling on their knees before the president. This year he contented himself with cutting a 600-kilogram cake featuring models of Bayterek Tower and the pyramid at a ceremony for children.
One nine-year-old boy penned a verse called Astana – Dream City for the holiday which he read to Nazarbayev, telling the Liter newspaper afterward in words far beyond his years: “The will and perspicacity, the boldness and valor of our president inspire me.”
Such paeans fuel criticism that Nazarbayev is fostering a cult of personality. In his third decade in power, he is one of the world’s longest serving leaders. His supporters say he remains genuinely popular among Kazakhstanis; his critics see him as an increasingly out-of-touch autocrat.
Many people out enjoying Astana Day festivities said they hoped Nazarbayev would remain at the helm for as long as possible. “I wish him health and a long life. May he rule for another 30 years,” said Murat Ospanov, a father of three out celebrating with three generations of his family.
But there are signs that the administration is quietly preparing the ground for the post-Nazarbayev future. In a carefully scripted documentary aired ahead of the holiday, Nazarbayev surprised observers by broaching the hitherto taboo topic of what happens after he leaves power.
Asked by the interviewer what the future holds for Kazakhstan, the president offered a reassuring, albeit vague, response. “The most difficult moments are moments of change. Anyone who starts reformation always risks, so you always think what it will be like,” he said. “A system has to be constructed which is itself resilient despite a change of leader … I believe everything will be fine.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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