Kazakhstan: Astana's Anniversary Celebration Serves as Showcase for New National Identity

The festivities on July 5-6 in Astana were designed to reflect Nazarbayev's desire that the national capital both help assert the culture and language of Kazakhs while being respectful of the traditions of the country's myriad other national groups. "Every state has its symbols, at the mention of which the hearts of citizens begin to beat more strongly, and their souls are filled with dignity and pride," Nazarbayev told dignitaries assembled in the presidential palace on July 5, the day before the anniversary. "For us Astana is such a symbol."

To underscore the Astana's importance in the efforts to recalibrate Kazakhstan's national identity, July 6 was declared a national holiday. "Today the name of the capital of our motherland, Astana, has become kindred and close for all the country's citizens," Nazarbayev said. "Each Kazakhstani, from the moment of the transfer of the capital, began to live with the feeling that a great and necessary deed was being carried out in the country."

Mindful of concerns among other groups – particularly Russians, who make up almost a quarter of the national population – Nazarbayev's administration has traditionally soft-pedaled its Kazakhification policies. Of late, however, officials have become more assertive in promoting the Kazakh identity. Before the anniversary, for example, the capital altered its coat of arms, instituting a new design reportedly created by Nazarbayev himself. The new design combines Astana's Bayterek tower with the shanyrak – the top of the yurt and a symbol of home and hearth for Kazakhs.

The old coat featured a sheaf of corn, reflecting the city's past association with the 1950s Soviet Virgin Lands campaign, and a fort. Both those symbols are out of step with the present, Mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov said. During a presentation of the new design, Tasmagambetov mentioned that the presence of a fort in the old coat was an unwanted reminder of "the former colonial domination of Russia."

The centerpiece of the 10th anniversary celebration was Nazarbayev's unveiling of the Kazak Yeli (Kazakh Country) monument on July 6. The monument, a symbol of the titular nation, is a white column rising 91 meters – commemorating the year Kazakhstan gained independence from the collapsing Soviet Union – topped by a golden eagle, a hunting bird revered by Kazakhs. After the grandiose opening ceremony, a crowd of golden warriors carrying multi-colored flags fell on their knees before the departing Nazarbayev. The display caused some observers to wonder about the development of a creeping cult of personality surrounding the president.

Astana's city day was shifted to July 6 in 2006. Two years on, the decision continues to generate controversy. The date marks not only the anniversary of the 1994 parliamentary vote in favor of moving the capital, but also the birthday of Nazarbayev, who turned 68 this year. This coincidence of dates has led critics to suggest that Nazarbayev has given himself the most expensive birthday present ever, in the form of a lavish new city.

There are no precise statistics on how much it has cost to build Astana, which was known before the capital transfer as Akmola. Nazarbayev said this year that $8 billion had been invested, of which 70 percent was private capital. Yet, last year he put the figure at $12 billion. Critics believe the costs to be exorbitant, adding that funds would have been better spent on improving infrastructure in rural areas.

The cost of the 10th anniversary festivities has been a sensitive topic as the government negotiates an international credit crunch, while many Kazakhstani citizens struggle to cope with rapidly rising prices for essential foodstuffs. Officials pledged that the anniversary celebration would be privately funded. However, armies of workers were deployed to spruce up the city during the run-up to the anniversary, casting doubt on the likelihood that the celebrations – which included concerts and conferences, a festival of nomadic culture and firework displays – came free for the taxpayer. Few were counting the cost as they enjoyed the festive atmosphere, though. "We love this holiday, we love this city, and we love Nazarbayev," Sara Gabdiyaliyeva, a middle-aged Astana resident told EurasiaNet.

Two dozen facilities were opened in connection with the 10th anniversary of the capital transfer, including a state-of-the-art diagnostics center and recreation and business facilities. But away from the towering skyscrapers of the new city on the left bank of the River Yesil, and the renovated old center on the right bank, many residential areas feature crumbling apartment blocks and potholed roads.

The cityscape is also blighted by the sight of idle cranes lining the skyline, testimony to the construction industry crisis which has stalled the building of at least 23 apartment complexes. This has left thousands of would-be homeowners who have already paid for their apartments feeling cheated. There are reportedly at least 5,000 disappointed investors in Astana alone, and the government – conscious of the bad publicity these people have generated with their protests, which have made headlines in Kazakhstan – has pledged public funds to complete some of the unfinished buildings.

Nazarbayev has personally promised that all investors will receive their housing, but some are wondering when, or if, this will happen. "They keep postponing [the completion date] – from December to January, from January to April, from April to June, from June to July, from July to August

Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan: Astana's Anniversary Celebration Serves as Showcase for New National Identity

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