It’s party-time on spaceship Nursultan.
KAZAKHSTAN’S capital, Astana, celebrated its 15th anniversary on July 6th with a petrodollar-fuelled party. It happened also to be the 73rd birthday of the country’s strongman president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who commissioned this epitome of surreal bombast rising from the Central Asian steppe.
During the festivities, crowds gathered around Astana’s architectural landmarks as the president’s graven image gazed benevolently down from a bas-relief on a high white column meant to represent the country emerging from the ashes of the Soviet Union. Mr Nazarbayev has ruled this state of 17m people, scattered over a territory the size of Western Europe, with an iron fist. He is one of only two Central Asian leaders to have been in power since before the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Islam Karimov, next door in Uzbekistan, is the other. (They loathe each other.)
Without Mr Nazarbayev, Astana would not exist. In 1997 it replaced leafy Almaty, 750 miles (1,200km) to the south near the Chinese border, as Kazakhstan’s capital (though Almaty remains the bigger city). In the days when oil prices were high, the president decreed that a space-age metropolis would rise from the marshy land on the left bank of the Yesil river. The city bakes in summer and plunges to -40°C in winter. For the president, Astana is the site for flights of architectural fancy as extreme as the continental climate. The capital is meant both to awe his adoring public and to beam soft power across the Central Asian steppe where Kazakhstan, as the economic powerhouse, has pretensions to regional leadership.
Astana has all the weirdness of Pyongyang and little of the human scale of Canberra. It is a collection of monuments and boulevards on a scale that screams “L’état, c’est moi”. The president surveys his city from his marble-clad, blue-and-gold-domed palace. The jewel in Astana’s crown is usually reckoned to be a Norman Foster pyramid, the Palace of Peace and Accord. It flashes neon at night, houses an academy of Turkic studies and is supposed to promote reconciliation among the world’s religions. It is one of several buildings that displays Mr Nazarbayev’s obsession for hosting conventions, expositions and conferences.
A study in Asian authoritarian kitsch is provided by the Bayterek tower, which is meant to represent a poplar tree holding the golden egg of the Samruk, the mythical bird of Kazakh happiness. On the observation deck, 100 metres (330 feet) above ground, visitors may lay their hand in the gilded imprint of the president’s and make a wish. More visually pleasing is the Khan Shatyr (“the Khan’s Marquee”), a vast transparent tent made of space-age fabric. Meant to echo the nomads that exist no more, the 35-acre (14-hectare) site houses, among other things, a shopping mall and a beach resort. It is where Mr Nazarbayev held a lavish 70th-birthday bash.
The ruler is a modern-day khan himself, with a thriving cult industry. He is immortalised in statues, in films and in print as a children’s fairy-tale hero. He rules Kazakhstan as a one-man show, rigging elections, muzzling the media and brooking no opposition. Yet Western leaders beat a path to his door. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, was in Astana this month drumming up business. A former British prime minister, Tony Blair, has a consultancy contract as Mr Nazarbayev’s sultan of spin. The president longs for the Nobel peace prize.
He is no crude dictator. He has a popular touch, and many Kazakhstanis like the political stability and rising living standards his regime supplies. Elsewhere in the region, both are in short supply. Yet, in one of the world’s top 20 oil producers, the dollars are not trickling down to everyone. In late 2011 a growing gulf between haves and have-nots came into focus when security forces opened fire on striking oil workers in the western energy hub of Zhanaozen, killing 15. The turmoil erupted just as Mr Nazarbayev was opening his latest architectural indulgence in Astana, an arch marking Kazakhstan’s 20th year of independence. The contrast between Astana’s spaceship cityscape and the shabby streets of Zhanaozen, with their crumbling, Soviet-era, rabbit-hutch housing, could hardly be greater.
Astana’s name could scarcely be more mundane: it means “capital” in Kazakh. Yet its Persian derivation has connotations of a “royal porte”, and the widespread belief among Kazakhstanis is that the city will one day be renamed Nursultan, after the man who had it built. Mr Nazarbayev has modestly rejected such an idea, but does not appear to mind his capital assuming his name after he is gone. It must be the second best thing to being immortal.
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