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Puzzle over capital move in Central Asia

The transfer of Kazakstan's capital from one of Central Asia's mostbeautiful cities to a mosquito-ridden town caused consternation, but thepresident stands by his decision.

By Judith MatloffStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 3, 1999


The question nearly everyone here asks is: why?

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President Nursultan Nazarbayev's transfer of the capital from scenic Almaty to Astana on the frozen, barren steppes will go down in Kazakstan's history as one of its most mystifying decisions.

A little more than a year after the fact, many of the country's 16 million people are still pondering the folly, or foresight, of shifting the government's seat from one of Central Asia's most lovely cities to a blizzard-whipped wasteland where electricity and airline flights are erratic.

As with Braslia in Brazil and Nigeria's Abuja, the official explanation for establishing a new capital in the hinterland was to develop poor areas and center the government in the country's middle.

But while life clearly improved for the locals, the 700-mile trek from Almaty is deeply unpopular with those who have to make it.

"Most public opinion was that it was a totally stupid idea," says one Western diplomatic source - who is relieved that his embassy is staying put in Almaty.

This part of the world is used to ill-thought-out central planning. Kazaks remember well Soviet times, when entire villages were relocated and dumped here, wheat-growing experiments ruined vast tracts of pasture land for traditionally nomadic Kazak herders, and the Aral Sea was drained to irrigate cotton fields.

Autocratic President Nazarbayev's justification for his decision is that Almaty lies in an earthquake zone. Plus, the new capital, with its required building projects, is transforming a remote region whose factories and farms were dying.

"The town has changed and it's impossible to recognize it since December 10, 1997 [when the transfer took effect]" he said in an interview with the Monitor. "Modern business offices and comfortable apartment houses have made Astana modern and elegant. Now it serves what it intended to serve."

Officials say privately that Almaty was uncomfortably close to the border with China. And shifting the capital to a region that was largely the domain of Russian Slavs changes the ethnic balance in the country's heartland. Kazaks and Russians each comprise about 40 percent of the population, and since independence in 1991 Mr. Nazarbayev has been keen to assert a Kazak identity nationwide.

Life is certainly more exciting for locals such as taxi driver Valery Subchuk. He likes to stroll with his children along the river to gaze at all the new construction. He enjoys the better job prospects and new shops. "It's a more interesting place now," he says.

But this is small consolation for those who had to leave Almaty's snow-peaked panoramas and fine skiing for a drab, provincial town of 300,000.

"It's a desert here," says one official, adding that his wife has refused to come along. He and other discontents rattle off the negatives.

First, there is the weather. Extremes of temperature make Astana a forbidding place during any season. Constructed on marshlands, it is home to battalions of mosquitoes who make life a misery in the summer's 100-degree-plus F. heat. There's no relief in winter, when the thermometer swings to minus 20 F. as winds howl in from the steppes.

Second, there's little to do, beyond gazing at the alienating Soviet-style architecture or going bowling at the Strike alley.