The collapse of the Soviet Union brought independence for Kazakhstan in 1991 but also an economic crisis with the threat of disintegration and social unrest. The man who steered Kazakhstan through the transitional period, Nursultan Nazarbayev, became the President of Kazakhstan in the first presidential elections in the same year and has been holding this office ever since.

President Nazarbayev initiated the creation of a strategic concept to lead the country not only out of instability, but also into the bright future of a nation that participates in world affairs.


The President’s capital

One of the steps was the relocation of the capital from Almaty near the Kirgese and Chinese border to Akmolinsk, a more central town. Akmolinsk was renamed Astana in 1998, meaning “Capital City” in Kazakh. On 6 July, the day that is also President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s birthday, the new capital was born. That event is celebrated annually as Astana Day with cultural programmes and fireworks.

When one approaches Astana on a land route, on one of the new highways, the silhouette of super-modern buildings emerges like a Fata Morgana mirage in the distance. Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world and the biggest land-locked state. Travelling across the large flat grasslands gives a visitor time to ponder whether one is trying to approach a mirage or a real site.

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Astana is considered to be President Nazarbayev’s brainchild. He was directly involved in the planning process. The 97-metre-tall “Bayterek” tower, the symbol of Astana, is his idea. “Bayterek” means large poplar tree. In Kazakh mythology, it is the tree of life: a bird laid a golden egg – the symbol of happiness – in the top branches of this tree. Under the roots of the tree, an evil dragon is asleep, but then climbs up to swallow the egg. A hero kills the dragon and is taken up to heaven as a reward. The visitor to the Bayterek tower has a magnificent view over the futuristic buildings of modern Astana and gets a special treat for which people patiently queue up. They can place their hands into the imprint of the hand of the President for good luck.


Curiosity towards foreigners

Coming from the West, one cannot help but wonder whether the Astana project is an outgrowth of personality cult or oriental despotism. But then what better way to find out whether this often-repeated mantra is true than to mingle with the people? Most of Astana’s population is below 30 years of age. Many of them do not recall the hardships of the post-Soviet times, only knowing of it from their parents’ narratives. They believe in a brighter future; they stand behind the President’s decision to make Kazakhstan a nuclear weapon-free zone, which was achieved by dismantling the Soviet testing site in Semipalatinsk. They want to be open to expertise from outside and they consider Kazakhstan’s diversity of over 130 nationalities and ethnic groups (mainly a heritage from Stalin’s deportation policies) to be an asset. It also seems that the tradition of the Old Silk Road – where not only goods but also ideas were exchanged – lives on in curiosity towards outsiders and their notions.

The concept that Kazakhstan as a nation should stand for peace and conflict resolution is an aspiration that resonates with the population’s desire to avoid tribal, ethnic or religious strife, and to move forward together in pursuit of cooperation with the outside world. Kazakhstan’s leadership has offered Astana as the location for peace talks. In May this year, the ninth round of peace talks for Syria took place here. The Centre for Peace and Reconciliation is an emblematic building in the shape of a pyramid, meant to emphasise this aspect.

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Arriving at prayer time at the beautiful Central Mosque, on a quiet Saturday, a young man with his little son kindly and patiently instructs me where to deposit my shoes and where to find a cloak with a hood, so that I should dress according to Islamic requirements. Seventy percent of Kazakhstanis are Muslim, and 26 percent are Christians. Along with the other religious leaders, the Catholic Church – with an estimated 130,000 members in a country of 18 million – welcomes the efforts of President Nazarbayev to further dialogue between traditional and world religions. One Sunday Mass is scheduled in the modern cathedral in Astana, for which a joyful community of about 100 people gathered when I was there.


Expected influx of 50,000 people annually to Astana

Many more people than in the mosque or in the church are in the glittering shopping centres that are dotted all over the town and are one of the most striking features of globalisation, apart from futuristic buildings and mega-size apartment blocks that have been or are being created everywhere. Astana adds two million square metres of living space every year for an estimated influx of 50,000 people. The Mayor, Asset Issekeshev, says private investors are building 95 percent of these. Internet is freely available in public places. Astana is bent on using the possibilities of information technology to make the city more efficient and cultivates an exchange of ideas with other “smart cities”. The possibilities seem limitless – from using smart traffic lights to a system of pointing out free parking lots to e-administration, grey water management, regulation of street lighting, and surveillance. In a town of under 30s, the problem of the adaptability of an ageing population is less of a concern than the question of how to protect personal data that need to be collected to make citizens and the city smarter.

The people I managed to talk to, officials and men and women of the street, all look with great confidence to their long-serving leader, President Nazarbayev. The attribute “wise” is generously used in connection with his name. A well-meaning observer might point out that even the wisest man of his time, King Solomon, gambled away the fruits of his legacy when he made unwise concessions to foreign influences.

If the influx of investment that Kazakhstan hopes to attract is not serving sustainable development, merely creating the image of prosperity, then the next generation might have to realise in a couple of years from now that they have not become freer and richer, but rather are tied to loans that they will have to service.


Strategic programme

Kazakhstan would not be the first country where the hope for a brighter future dissolves like a Fata Morgana, a mirage. But I am being put at ease. The way is long and might be difficult. But ground has been covered and the guiding star is the strategic programme that includes plans from the diversification of the economy to updating education and from eco-friendly investment to introducing the Latin alphabet. These ideas are being translated into institutions, such as the Astana International Finance Centre, opened on 5 July, the eve of the city celebrations. The centre’s aim is to make investment easier and safer as well as financial services more accessible, so that progress can be made even faster.


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