The capital of Kazakhstan has just enjoyed a 20th-birthday blowout costing more than $55 million. July 6 was not just a national holiday to celebrate the anniversary of Astana’s elevation to capital status – it was also President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s 78th jubilee.
This extravagant and highly personalized state-funded partying is provoking mixed sentiments.
“We are having a great celebration. We love Astana, and it’s Nazarbayev’s birthday today,” said Marua Zhanuzakova, an elderly woman sitting on a bench at the foot of the Baiterek Tower, a white and golden lollipop-shaped Astana landmark that served as a focal point for festivities.
There is muted discontent from others, however, at the sense of waste in celebrations for a city whose patina-deep slick modernity has been funded at the expense of development elsewhere in the country.
Such cynicism was far from view on July 6. Throngs of locals and visitors, some of whom had travelled thousands of kilometers to attend, milled around Astana in the muggy conditions of the day.
Indeed, the appeal of the city is so strong that many continue to flow into it for good, despite the inhumanly cold and windy weather in winter. Zhanuzakova recently moved to the capital from the city of Semipalatinsk, just ahead of her 80th birthday later this month.
“She said: ‘I want to live out my life in Astana,’” said her daughter Raushan Ramazanova. “All her grandsons and granddaughters and great-grandchildren live here. So we moved here.”
Astana has become indelibly associated with President Nazarbayev, who is cast in state encomiums as the originator of the idea of relocating the capital away from Almaty. The site chosen for Astana – named after the Kazakh word for capital – could not have been less promising. A dismal, snow-whipped, boggy, mosquito-infested backwater, the town then known as Akmola – “white grave” in Kazakh – was home to around 200,000 people. In the past 20 years, it has become a playground for architects and their quirky designs and the population has more than quintupled.
In formal terms, the capital moved in 1997. But the official unveiling happened in June 1998. And then in 2006, in a reflection of the incipient cult being erected around Nazarbayev, the city anniversary was moved to July 6. The final touch, timed for Astana’s 10th anniversary in 2008, was to make the day a national holiday.
For the president’s admirers, the notion that Nazarbayev would have agreed to have his birthday turned into a national festivity is accepted as a matter of course.
“Happy birthday to Nazarbayev and happy birthday to Astana!” said Tazhegul Abdurakhmanova, a 75-year-old woman who travelled 1,200 kilometers from the southern town of Turkestan to join the celebrations.
There is even a whispering campaign underway to have Astana renamed after Nazarbayev. Some important precedents have been set. Last year, the city’s international airport was named after the president. In Almaty, the smartest road and site of the city’s presidential residence, which common wisdom had it would be redubbed only after Nazarbayev’s death, was rebranded in another personality cult exercise.
To dispel notions that Astana’s renaming would be done at the behest of local sycophants, it was left this time to visiting Russian parliamentarian Valentina Tereshkova to make the same suggestion.
There is a possible, not-too-distant future in which President Nazarbayev flies out from Nursultan Nazarbayev Airport in the city of Nazarbayev to Almaty and drives to his residence on Nursultan Nazarbayev Avenue.
Nazarbayev insists Astana is not about him, though. It is, he said during last week’s celebrations, a “symbol of our statehood and our future.” The city is the “pride of all Kazakhstanis,” he said.
Dissent in any way aimed at the person of the president is a sure way to elicit reprisals, so public criticism is low-key, but many are unhappy that resources for Astana are sapping the potential for development elsewhere.
“In difficult times, don’t they say ‘a feast in time of plague?’” Baltash Tursumbayev, a former deputy prime minister who is now critical of Nazarbayev, asked rhetorically in remarks posted by RFE/RL’s Kazakh service. “They are taking 19 billion tenge [$55.4 million] from [people’s] pockets and throwing this party.”
The money was splashed out on at least 85 events that included an ethno-music concert at Baiterek Tower and a festival of nomadic culture at Khan Shatyr, a Norman Foster-designed shopping mall in the shape of a giant tent.
To lend a sense of history to the occasion, some permanent features were inaugurated. One was the Astana International Financial Center, a financial services hub that Nazarbayev hopes will insert the city into a prestigious club including the likes of Shanghai and Dubai.
Elsewhere, the red ribbon was cut on a botanical garden that will add a splash of greenery to a capital sorely lacking it. It is a work in progress for now since the saplings will take years to grow, but the park has already become a popular spot for joggers, cyclists, strollers and marrying couples memorializing their nuptials with snaps of the city.
Locals are glad to see this kind of development.
“It’s really beautiful,” said Asel Galiaskarova, a young mother out walking with her family by the garden’s lake. “It’s about improving amenities in Astana.”
Another addition was a new footbridge over the Yesil River, which links the older right bank of Astana to the left bank, where Nazarbayev ordained the seat of government should stand. The bridge – covered so it will be functional in winter – is in the shape of a slithering fish and houses a statue of a sturgeon. The design is a nod to the funder – the Atyrau regional government, a province on the Caspian Sea.
The amount spent by regional governments on flattering Astana is another point of contention. Despite Nazarbayev making a show of urging officials not to pressure the regions into coughing up, local apparatchiks dug deep to provide 6 billion tenge ($17.5 million) for new facilities for the capital. The most expensive item was a $4.4 million space museum funded by the Kyzylorda region, home to the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
Not all the new attractions were funded from the public purse. Aktobe region’s gift of a Wall of Peace illustrating the “good deeds” Kazakhstan has done for the world was provided by local businessmen, the governor boasted.
Other gifts were more practical, like the kindergarten given by Almaty.
The fact that often-underdeveloped regions are paying for the wealthy capital’s beautification leaves a bad taste in the mouth for some.
“All the poor people paid for this city,” one Astana young professional told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity. “They continue to live in worse conditions. And here we are, celebrating the birthday of our president.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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