In the teeth of opposition from the public, the government in Kazakhstan has revived costly plans to build what it is billing as a “national pantheon” — a mausoleum to house the remains of the country’s great and good and dead.
Finance Minister Bakhyt Sultanov announced on February 21 that just one phase of the project alone will set the state coffers back $5.3 million. The final cost will likely be much greater, possibly running into the hundreds of millions, if the earlier blueprint was anything to go by.
A spot has been allocated for the mausoleum in a location around 20 kilometers outside the capital, Astana, next to an existing building housing the tomb of 18th-century Kazakh warrior prince Kabanbai Batyr. Sultanov was unable to offer more specifics, inviting reporters instead to put their questions to the mayor’s office.
Decisions of who is to be buried at the national pantheon are to be taken by President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself. The intended site for the mausoleum is already the resting place to numerous departed public figures whose importance was acknowledged by the president.
In 2013, Nazarbayev decreed that the first person to be buried there should be the late member of parliament Oral Muhamedjanov — “for his massive contribution to the development of the state.” Kazakhstani poetess Fariza Ongarsynova; Sayahat Konakai, the younger brother of Nazarbayev’s wife; former Supreme Court chairman Maksut Narikbayev; and writer and scholar Abish Kekilbayev are among others buried there. The site also allows for Christian burials, like that of Sergei Dyachenko, a former deputy speaker of the lower house, who died last year.
The thinking is also that Nazarbayev may possibly also one day be interred there, unless his scientists finally succeed in cracking the solution to eternal life.
Plans to erect a national pantheon were first aired in 2014, when the authorities announced a competition for the best design. Seven companies — including three foreign ones, from the US, Italy and Iran, and four from Kazakhstan — were invited to draw up proposals. Of the 20 or so designs put forward, none were to the pleasing of the authorities.
The general public has been pretty cool over the whole idea. Some have been irked by the perception that creating a dedicated burial ground for members of the elite would only serve to accentuate existing divisions in society. Others simply objected to the inappropriateness of the huge expense at a time of economic stagnation.
The matter appeared to have been put to bed in May 2016, when then National Economy Minister Kuandyk Bishimbayev, who has since been jailed, announced that plans for the pantheon had been dropped.
“This year, the budget does not envision [this project], and neither does next year’s,” he said. “In light of the fact that in the country as a whole there is less money, because there is quite the economic situation, we are unable to assist in this issue.”
The figure mentioned last year in connection with the mausoleum was a whopping 79 billion tenge (around $250 million) — an amount that caused eyes to pop all around. It appears this time around, the idea is to creep information about the ultimate cost in dribs and drabs and hope nobody notices.