ASTANA IS A POWERFUL SYMBOL OF UNITY, DRIVING FORCE FOR ECONOMIC GROWTH
Astana, June 6: In 1994, when President Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke of moving
the capital of Kazakhstan to a more central location, many considered it a very
unlikely dream. Yet, Astana, a unique capital in the heart of Eurasia and the
centre of Central Asia’s largest country, is already celebrating its 12th
anniversary on July 6.
The Kazakh capital belongs to one of the most unique cities
in the world. As one of the few metropolis built chiefly in the 21st century,
it is also among the world’s youngest capitals.
Local residents marvel at the changes that have occurred
over the past decade in the city, which was founded as a fortified outpost of
Akmola in 1834, and in the 1950s became the centre of the then-Soviet leader
Nikita Khrushchev’s ambitious, though controversial, Virgin Lands campaign.
The Soviet town of Tselinograd (“Virgin Land City” in
Russian) was given its original name of Aqmola after independence. However, the
desire to develop not simply a new administrative centre, but rather a powerful
symbol of new beginning for the young nation was the reason of giving the town
its new name of Astana (translated from Kazakh as “the capital”) in May 1998.
When Kazakhstan got its independence, many believed it was
lacking a unifying idea to shape a single nation referring to its diverse
population and potential for regional differences as the original capital of
Almaty in south-eastern Kazakhstan seemed to be a bit too distant and different
from the rest of the country.
So, when President Nazarbayev came up with an idea to shift
the capital closer to its geographical centre, he also clearly had a vision
that creating a new visible centre for the nation’s life could provide a strong
symbol which would be appealing to all groups of the Kazakh people. And it was
his clear determination in the correctness of such a bold proposal that
persuaded the members of Parliament to overcome their natural initial
scepticism (stirred by economic hardships of the time) and narrowly vote in
favour of the centrally-located town of Aqmola as the nation’s future capital.
The historical choice was made on July 6, 1994, which was President
Nazarbayev’s 54th birthday. It took another three years for the transfer
actually to take place, as the seat of government moved in the frosty December
of 1997, and the official presentation of the new capital with a new name took
place the following June.
Astana was chosen as the new Kazakh capital for a number of
practical reasons as well, including its considerable industrial potential,
availability of free lands for further urban development, and extensive
transport networks connecting the town with major centres in Kazakhstan,
Central Asia, Russia, and China.
It is a well-known fact that the former capital, Almaty
lacks space for further expansion due to being surrounded by mountains from
three sides, and its location in an active earthquake zone was also risky for a
When the decision came to develop Astana as a new city, the
best city planners and architects were invited to develop a concept for that.
They finally came with an advice to the President about turning a left bank of
the slow rolling Yessil River into the main field for construction that would
turn a former sleepy provincial backwater of 280,000 into a dynamic capital
with a unique face that it is today.
As part of the attempt to attract businesses to the capital,
the government has set up “Astana New City”, a 6,000-hectare special economic
zone on the left bank of the Yessil River. Following the success of the first
decade of the successful implementation of the city development plans, further
incentives to invest in Astana are likely to come from Kazakhstan’s Business
Development Roadmap 2020, which will set the country’s priorities for improving
the business climate.
Astana’s population has tripled since the move, to over
700,000 and is estimated to top one million in a decade or two. Astana is a
magnet for young professionals seeking to build a career here, as well as for
thousands of skilled builders and workers.
Astana’s new residents are happy with the economic
regeneration the move has brought. “There are lots of towns around Astana, and
they are developing in parallel,” says Margulan Rakhimbekov, a company manager
who moved to Astana from the nearby city of Karaganda to make his career.
It is widely known that Astana competes with Ulaanbaatar and
Ottawa for the title of the world’s coldest capital. The city’s famous cold and
windy winters, however, turned notably milder in the latest decade, with the
change attributed primarily to the positive effects of a greenbelt of forests
being planted around the city, which essentially lies in the middle of the vast
Yet, it is not only the city’s outward appearance that has
changed so dramatically in the last decade. Astana’s role within Kazakhstan’s
economy has done so too. Over the last ten years, the GDP of Astana has
increased more than fiftyfold and now accounts for 10% of the country’s total
GDP. At the same time, the industrial output has increased sevenfold, and
investment flows are 22 times higher than in 2000.
Today, the young capital is growing rapidly as the key
administrative and a major business centre of Kazakhstan, with over 200 joint
ventures and foreign companies in operation. In addition, Astana is turning
into one of the main business centres of the country. All but a few
governmental organizations, diplomatic missions of 44 countries and 113 joint
ventures and foreign businesses are located here. Almost half of all
construction work in Kazakhstan is taking place in Astana as the government and
investors press on with erecting the flagship city of the country.
Every year, the city hosts various international industrial
exhibitions, conferences, musical contests and festivals. In 1999, by the
decision of UNESCO, Astana was awarded the title of the City of the World.
One of Astana’s most famous buildings is the pyramid-shaped
Palace of Peace and Harmony which is the venue for triennial Congresses of
Leaders of World and Traditional Religions and which recently hosted the OSCE
conference on tolerance and non-discrimination.
Astana is a fascinating example of what one man, armed with
strong determination, the support of his people and the financial resources
that the country has been amassing from its booming economy, can achieve.
Astana is indeed a living symbol of President Nazarbayev’s determination and
In 2008, the Parliament chose to celebrate the Astana Day on
July 6, the day of the original decision to transfer the capital back in 1994.
This day coincides with the birthday of President Nursultan
Nazarbayev, who this year marks his 70th anniversary. Yet, in one of the best
Kazakh traditions, on his birthday, instead of thirsting for gifts from others,
the President gives presents to others, with Astana as his most prized gift to
the people of the country that he has led since independence.
This year, the festivities, which began on July 4 with the
hoisting of a huge flag of Kazakhstan over a sunny Astana, included concerts of
famed singers and ballet dancers from around the world, street fairs and store
promotions, folk concerts, exhibits and fireworks.
The key event, though, was the July 5 unveiling of the giant
Norman Foster-designed Khan Shatyr commercial and entertainment centre with
Andrea Bocelli giving a special concert in front of thousands of Astana
residents and foreign dignitaries. Those included Russian President Dmitry
Medvedev, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Ukrainian President Viktor
Yanukovich, and Armenian President Serge Sargsyan, who came to Astana to
participate in the summit of the Eurasian Economic Community, as well as King
Abdullah II of Jordan, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al
Nahyan of the UAE, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, among others.