Nazarbaev Builds a 'Big Chupa-Chups'

President's critics say momument he dedicated to peace and unity is little more than an ego trip.

Nazarbaev Builds a 'Big Chupa-Chups'

President's critics say momument he dedicated to peace and unity is little more than an ego trip.

A huge monument has been unveiled in Astana to provide a focus for the new capital taking shape in the depths of the Kazak steppe. But residents, cynical at the way they have been treated in the building project, have named it "The Big Chupa-Chups", after America's favourite lollipop.

The 97-metre tower, which dominates the windswept new capital, is modelled on the Baiterek tree, or poplar, from Kazak legend, and is topped by a 22 metre dome - with restaurant and viewing tower - representing the egg laid in tree's branches by the mythical Samruk bird.

"Today we have unveiled a wonderful monument, with which Astana will truly begin to function as the new centre. The new capital will be concentrated around it. Everyone who climbs it will absorb the vastness of the steppe and the boundless expanses of our country," President Nursultan Nazarbaev told journalists on August 29.

The tower, which cost 4.5 US million dollars to build, was unveiled by Nazarbaev on the eve of Constitution Day, the national holiday of Kazakstan. The height of the monument reflects the year, 1997, when Nazarbaev moved the capital of the nation from Almaty.

Nazarbaev said at the unveiling ceremony that the monument "is a symbol of life, a symbol of the people and a symbol of peace". But his critics say it is designed to make the people of Kazakstan feel the greatness of the state, which means the greatness of President Nazarbaev

"Authoritarian Central Asian leaders love to immortalise their deeds by creating monuments," an employee of a foreign representative office told IWPR. "Everyone is talking about the 'Turkmen grill' - a golden statue of the Turkmen president that revolves so that it is always facing the sun. The 'Uzbekistan globe' is also famous - a monument on Independence Square in Tashkent, where the territory of Uzbekistan takes up almost half the globe."

Nazarbaev has laid great ideological significance on the success of the new capital, saying it will determine the future prosperity of Kazakstan. Astana has become a huge building site, a maze of residential and administrative high-rise buildings in stark contrast to the low-rise cities that are the norm in Kazakstan.

Critics question the choice of location. Astana stands on soil rich in underground water with a high concentration of salt. In the boundless steppe around the capital, there are severe winds, the climate is harsh, and there are abrupt fluctuations in temperature, which cause the thermometer to drop to minus 50 degrees Celsius in winter.

Called Tselinograd in Soviet times, the city was later renamed Akmola. But when people sceptical at the relocation of the capital translated this as "white grave", it was renamed Astana, which in Kazak simply means "capital".

Nazarbaev's ambitious plans to turn Astana into a modern megalopolis have met with increasing resentment from the ordinary residents of the city, for whom the new casinos and restaurants are inaccessible and the beautiful buildings simply underline the harshness of their lives.

A key issue is that the new city, with its grandiose buildings designed by Japanese architect Kurosawa, is being built on the left bank of the river Ishim, while most of Astana's existing residents live on the right bank, many in old houses that do not measure up to European standards.

Officials and businessman who come to settle in the new capital live in luxurious apartments on the left bank, prompting the local newspaper Vremya to write that residents joke bitterly that while "the capital will be on the left bank, Tselinograd will stay on the right".

Residents unlucky enough to live where new buildings are to be built face an uncertain future. Several have been demolished without warning. The local television station KTK has reported that compensation of 3,000 dollars is to be paid for the demolition of a residential block. But this is not enough to buy even a one-room apartment in the new Astana.

KTK reported that one resident had refused to leave his ruined home and was demanding sufficient compensation from the authorities to buy an apartment. He had threatened to hang himself in front of the Kazakstan supreme court building if his demands were not met.

The excessive zeal of the president's officials is also affecting the livelihood of residents. Last month, the akim (governor) of Astana, Adilbek Jaksybekov, ordered officials to drive cattle out of the city because they spoil the image of the new capital. The owners of the 4,000 cows are mostly poor families and pensioners for whom the animals are a source of income and dairy products.

Janabai Shukubaev, a specialist at the veterinarian inspection department, says it is planned to rid the capital of cattle this autumn. No one knows whether their owners will receive any compensation.

The residents who welcomed Nazarbaev's decision to move the capital, believing that it bring them benefits, have changed their views.

"The euphoria has passed," said Astana resident Sergei Krivosheev. "We now realise that Nazarbaev and his officials are building a city that is mainly for themselves. For them, the original residents of Astana are just pesky flies, or a cheap labour force."

Amanjol Smagulov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Kazakstan.

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