Two Cheers for Kazak Capital's Birthday Party

Officials say most of the millions spent on Astana Day festivities came from private sources.

Two Cheers for Kazak Capital's Birthday Party

Officials say most of the millions spent on Astana Day festivities came from private sources.

While many people in Kazakstan were dismayed at lavish spending on celebrating their capital city’s birthday earlier this month, government officials insisted they were justified in trying to inject a little cheerfulness into the depression of an economic slowdown.



Renowned tenor Placido Domingo joined local and international celebrities as Astana celebrated its 11th anniversary as capital. With tickets for Domingo’s performance priced at between 500 and 1,000 US dollars, this was clearly not a concert for the masses.



“There is a major effort under way to portray a once forgotten town as a pretty important location in the Eurasian steppe where major events can be staged”, said political analyst Eduard Poletaev.



Known variously as Akmolinsk, Tselinograd and Akmola in past years, the city in north Kazakstan was renamed Astana to coincide with its designation as Kazakstan’s new capital, replacing Almaty in the southeast, which remains the main commercial centre.



Some 1.1 billion tenge, or eight million dollars, was spent in the run-up to this year’s July 6 anniversary.



Mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov told a press conference in late June that the city authorities provided 120,000,000 tenge for the Astana Day festivities.



“All the rest – more than a billion tenge – is being provided by national companies and sponsors,” he said, in remarks quoted by the Gazeta.kz website. “One can say the festivities are coming out of non-budgetary funding.”



Until four years ago, Astana Day was celebrated on June 10, but the date was then moved to July 6 to coincide with the birthday of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, for whom shifting the capital from Almaty was very much a personal project.



Poletaev says questions about the scale of the spending first began being asked last year as the global financial crisis started to make itself felt in Kazakstan.



The crisis has had multiple effects on the Kazak economy, from falling oil and metals export revenues as global demand contracts, to business closures, frozen construction projects, and job losses as the banks rein in their lending after borrowing heavily on international markets.



Gulnur Rahmatullina, who heads the department for economic research at the Institute for Strategic Research, expressed worries about the level of spending, even though her institute is affiliated with the president’s office.



“I think it would be possible to do the celebrations more modestly,” she said, noting that in recent months the authorities have urged people to make savings in this time of economic crisis.



“Now every family is postponing all major expenditures such as buying a car or house, and even home repairs,” she said.



Kazak finance minister Bolat Jamishev told IWPR there was no contradiction between frugal policies and the Astana celebrations, which were in any case “on a limited scale”.



“Life doesn’t stop because of the crisis,” he said. “Everything that’s being done is for the residents of Astana”.



A company manager in Astana who gave his first name as Andrei was among those who found it hard to accept such arguments.



“I don’t honestly understand who this celebration is intended for. I’ve heard the authorities have spent enormous amounts of money on it; yet ordinary people still can’t go to the [Domingo] concert,” he said. “It is extremely unwise to be celebrating Astana Day in this manner when the country is enduring hard times.”



Another Astana resident who requested anonymity expressed irritation at an event that, for most people, was most apparent as disruptions to daily life.



“There are more policemen than there are people who want to celebrate. Ordinary people are constantly being told there’s no access to somewhere. It seems that the authorities arrange such festivals for themselves, and to show reverence to the president,” she said.



The minister of economics and budgetary planning, Bakhyt Sultanov, argues that the expenditure is justified as a way of showing that Kazakstan is surviving the crisis.



“The crisis should not affect the celebration of [Astana] day”, adds Sultanov. “We need to see that our capital is developing, come what may.”



Political analyst Oleg Sidorov agrees that it is unfair to talk about wasting money, since it most of the funding consists of private donations.



“These are fairly big sums of money”, he said. “But we have a very interesting situation here as the money did not come out of the government budget…. It’s a kind of social responsibility on the part of businessmen. We cannot forbid them to donate money for the celebrations, just as we cannot forbid them to take a holiday abroad during the crisis.”



Poletayev predicts that Astana Day will be marked on an even bigger scale in 2010.



“These celebrations are just a dress rehearsal,” he said. “Next year will be even more massive, given that Kazakstan will hold the OSCE chairmanship and that it will be Nazarbaev’s 70th birthday,” he said.



Irina Sevastyanova and Marik Koshabaev are IWPR-trained journalists.

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