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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 capital city. 

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 Kazakh steppe. 

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 vision. 

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.

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