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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The question nearly everyone here asks is: why?

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.

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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.

Third, the cost. The government publicly admits that $400 million was spent developing Astana - 25 percent from the budget and 75 percent from direct foreign investment. But Western diplomatic sources estimate that $1.5 billion was spent on new construction alone. This is a whopping sum for a country where the average monthly wage is $125 and where the Red Cross estimates that more than 70 percent of the population lives at minimal subsistence levels. The government appears to be counting on wealth from huge but undeveloped oil deposits, which could make the country another Saudi Arabia.

Fourth, few people want to come here. Officials commute back to Almaty whenever they can. Only three nations have moved their embassies: Ukraine, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan. The Ministries of Defense, Science, Information, Education, and Culture have all remained in Almaty. So have the stock exchange and central bank. At the deluxe Intercontinental Hotel, where occupancy runs at a mere 15 percent, there are more waiters than customers in the lobby cafe.

Fifth, it's harder to get work done in Astana. Not enough housing and offices have been built. Telephones, water, and electricity often fail. Since so many people shuttle between the two cities, it takes longer to do business and documents are often lost.

The airport's one runway is too small for most international flights. In theory there are five flights a day to Almaty, but fog and snow regularly close airports on both ends.

The one positive thing on which everyone agrees, is that the city has a new, more inviting name. It was changed to Astana, or "capital," from Akmola, which means "white grave."The transfer of Kazakstan's capital from one of Central Asia's most beautiful cities to a mosquito-ridden town caused consternation, but the president stands by his decision.

Puzzle over capital move in Central Asia

By Judith Matloff

Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ASTANA, KAZAKSTAN - The question nearly everyone here asks is: why?

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.

Third, the cost. The government publicly admits that $400 million was spent developing Astana - 25 percent from the budget and 75 percent from direct foreign investment. But Western diplomatic sources estimate that $1.5 billion was spent on new construction alone. This is a whopping sum for a country where the average monthly wage is $125 and where the Red Cross estimates that more than 70 percent of the population lives at minimal subsistence levels. The government appears to be counting on wealth from huge but undeveloped oil deposits, which could make the country another Saudi Arabia.

Fourth, few people want to come here. Officials commute back to Almaty whenever they can. Only three nations have moved their embassies: Ukraine, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan. The Ministries of Defense, Science, Information, Education, and Culture have all remained in Almaty. So have the stock exchange and central bank. At the deluxe Intercontinental Hotel, where occupancy runs at a mere 15 percent, there are more waiters than customers in the lobby cafe.

Fifth, it's harder to get work done in Astana. Not enough housing and offices have been built. Telephones, water, and electricity often fail. Since so many people shuttle between the two cities, it takes longer to do business and documents are often lost.

The airport's one runway is too small for most international flights. In theory there are five flights a day to Almaty, but fog and snow regularly close airports on both ends.

The one positive thing on which everyone agrees, is that the city has a new, more inviting name. It was changed to Astana, or "capital," from Akmola, which means "white grave."

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