Kazakstan's 'Bleak' Capital

Astana - a shining symbol of economic progress or a white elephant in the Kazak steppe?

Kazakstan's 'Bleak' Capital

Astana - a shining symbol of economic progress or a white elephant in the Kazak steppe?

Astana is an unlikely choice for a capital city. The cohorts of bureaucrats who moved here from Almaty in 1997 were appalled by the harsh climate and the bitter winds sweeping in from the steppe.


And, despite ambitious plans to develop Astana into a modern metropolis, officials still use any excuse to escape the city in the winter months, when temperatures can fall to - 50 Degrees Celsius.


In fact, the problem has proved so damaging to the bureaucratic machine that Kazak prime minister Kasymjomart Tokaev is to introduce stiff penalties for officials who leave the capital without good reason.


The difficulties of moving the seat of government from Almaty to Astana - then Tselinograd - were first examined by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s.


Beyond the climactic considerations, there was the matter of Tselinograd's natural foundations - a rocky shelf concealing underground lakes with a high salt content.


Any metal pipes sunk into the ground are prone to corrosion and, consequently, both heating and water pipes are laid on the surface, snaking between the houses and arching over the roads.


Khrushchev dismissed the idea as impractical and, when the same plan was resurrected in 1997, sceptics predicted it would also founder on the bedrock of common sense.


However, the authorities remained adamant and a monumental development plan was unveiled - with promises that the building would be financed exclusively from sources outside the state budget.


The project focused on building administrative facilities as well as modern apartment blocks. Some government offices were built from scratch, others were developed from existing structures - often with ironic results. The Kazak foreign ministry, for example, is now located in the former Hotel Moscow.


Obvious benefits have silenced many of the original critics. Astana now boasts high-class restaurants, casinos, an extensive hotel complex and the most modern cinema in Kazakstan.


And the project boasts the emotive slogan, "The Dawn of the Capital is the Dawn of Kazakstan", reflecting the ideological value which the Kazak government places on its new capital.


When commenting on the country's economic development in 2000, Jaksybek Kulekeev, the Kazak minister for economics and trade, said that the building of Astana was playing a vital role in reviving the country's economy.


He says, "We are building excellent apartments in Astana and I think this will trigger similar initiatives in many regions of Kazakstan. It's essential to change the mentality of our people, to lay down new guidelines for construction.


"Our studies show that the building of Astana is having a positive effect on the economic development of the country as a whole."


But not everyone in Kazakstan shares this opinion. A round table debate featuring top Kazak economists described the project - ironically dubbed "The Construction Site of the Century" -- as the single biggest threat to the local economy.


Critics are swift to point out that the scale of the project is too ambitious for private investors alone and, last year, the Kazak government admitted that some state funding had been unavoidable.


It also emerged that, while the new apartment blocks were built mostly by foreign labourers, the local work force was used for menial tasks and paid minimal wages.


Furthermore, the redevelopment project has caused a gaping social divide in Astana. The original inhabitants of what was once the administrative centre of an outlying province are still housed in virtual shanty towns whilst the droves of newcomers occupy modern apartment blocks.


Last month, the Azamat Times commented, "The bulk of the original inhabitants have remained unaffected by the changes. They still live in the same shanty towns, overshadowed by supermodern skyscrapers inhabited by the new residents." The delivery of gas also remains a constant headache. A plan to build a gas pipeline from Western Siberia to Astana has yet to be realised and, last month, the supply to some regions of the city was cut off completely.


A foreign diplomat working in the new Kazak capital said, "I was simply appalled when I arrived here. It was bitterly cold and the wind practically knocked you off your feet -- but the gas burner was hardly alight."


This month has been one of the coldest in living memory with gale-force winds sweeping through the city and temperatures plummeting to -45. Local schools have been closed down while office workers are often sent home early.


One civil servant who moved from Almaty three years ago commented, "I had never imagined that it could be so cold."


Consequently, the weekends see a mass exodus of government officials to Almaty, where many have left their families. The plane ride costs $100 one way, the alternative is a 21-hour journey by train.


A well-known Kazak journalist commented, "I was born and grew up in Astana but, having lived for a part of my life in Almaty, I can't get used to life here again."


Frequent absenteeism can paralyse the work of the Astana government. On January 9, at the first session of 2001, Prime Minister Kasymjomart Tokaev. commented, "How can we hope for any constructive work in the government if there are ministers who get on a plane on Friday evening and only appear for work on Tuesday morning?


"We discussed this matter last year but the practice continues. I am signing a directive banning such trips and proposing possible penalties for offenders."


But this problem cannot be solved so simply. As temperatures dropped in February, droves of ministers and government officials once again flocked back to Almaty on a variety of different pretexts.


Yaroslav Razumov is a journalist from Kazakstan


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