Building a New Capital… and a New Nation
Astana celebrated its 15th anniversary as the capital of Kazakhstan on July 6. And what 15 years it has been...
When President Nursultan Nazarbayev first presented the idea of transferring the capital from the tree-lined megapolis of Almaty in the picturesque foothills of the Tien Shan mountains to the mosquito-infested dusty town of Akmola in the windswept steppes of northern Kazakhstan 1,300 kilometers to the north, few people thought this would actually ever happen. And so it was, on July 6, 1994, on his 54th birthday, that the president presented this idea to the then Supreme Soviet (Parliament) of Kazakhstan. The members voted for this idea for the transfer of the capital to take place in December 1997.
But few people, apart from the president, thought much of this decision, as the country was then plagued by myriad of problems following the collapse of the Soviet Union ranging from hyperinflation to high unemployment to moribund enterprises to challenges to the very territorial integrity of the state. Little did they know that the transfer of the capital would indeed take place despite the difficulties of the early years of Kazakhstan's independence. And that instead of throwing the country off the course of its development and pulling away much needed resources, the change would instead become a major driving force for economic growth and a powerful symbol of a new nation on the rise.
The capital was moved in December 1997, but its official presentation to the world took place in the summer of 1998 after Akmola was renamed Astana by a presidential decree in May 1998.
In 15 years, the population of Astana has grown by two and a half times and today stands at 788,000 people. The growth is attributed to both its high birth rate, which is 1.5 times higher here than in the rest of the country, and domestic migration since many people want to live in the new capital.
More than one million square metres of housing are introduced each year now. Overall, in 15 years, 11.4 million square metres of housing have been built and commissioned.
In 15 years, the budget of the city has grown by almost 46 times, now reaching 298 billion tenge (almost $2 billion dollars). The budget is mostly spent on the development of the city. The main projects are the construction of educational facilities, health care facilities, culture and sports buildings, as well as the construction of roads, bridges, parks and gardens.
Social expenditures make up nearly 30 percent of Astana's budget. Astana is the second city after Almaty in terms of the development of small and medium-sized businesses. Tourism is one of the priority sectors for the economic development of the capital. There were 270 tourist companies and 135 hotels in Astana as of Jan. 1, 2013.
In 15 years, Astana has become a major business and industry hub. Many new industrial projects and joint ventures were introduced such as the GE locomotive plant, for example, indicating the economic potential of Astana. As a result, social indicators have improved in line with the economic growth.
The city does look after its people. The budget of Astana's employment department, for example, was only about 500 million tenge ($3.3 million) in 1997. Currently, this figure stands at 5.2 billion tenge ($34.2 million) with assistance provided to all people with low incomes, elderly people and disabled children.
Astana has become a social and cultural center with a special, unique architecture, where people from around the world come to visit and to do business.
Over the years, Astana has acquired a special role and importance in the history of independent Kazakhstan and beyond. The building of a new capital has become an important national project. Today, the idea of the first president of the country Nursultan Nazarbayev to create in the middle of the Eurasian continent's a major metropolis has been realized.
To make a mark on the global map, Astana has invited world famous architects and built striking new buildings such as the Palace of Peace and Harmony – the famous Pyramid, – the Khan Shatyr shopping and entertainment center – the world's largest tent, – both by Lord Norman Foster – and the dombyra-shaped Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall, by Manfredo Nicoletti. The architecture of Astana has become an amalgamation of modern design and traditional Kazakh features, creating a city like no other. It is not surprisingly called "Tomorrowland" by the National Geographic Magazine.
Astana has also become the true center of political power in Kazakhstan and the center of major political decision-making in Eurasia. Astana hosted the historic summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010, the four triennial Congresses of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, countless summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Union. It has hosted numerous world leaders who come here on state visits, including, most recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron.
"Kazakhstan is not only an emerging market, it is an emerging power," said Cameron, seated next to the beaming President Nazarbayev at their joint press conference in Astana on July 1.
We could not agree more. We would just add one thing: Astana also is not only an emerging city, it is an emerging Eurasian capital of the 21st century. But for it to maintain this status and keep up with the global race – again to borrow a phraze from David Cameron – Astana has to not only keep walking ahead, it needs to be running at full speed. It has been running for 15 years already and it does not show any signs it is about to slow down. And the people of Kazakhstan don't want it to.