- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 23, 2002

ASTANA, Kazakhstan Call it the first post-Soviet city. With new buildings sprouting like mushrooms and many old buildings newly clad in sidings of glass and steel, Astana, the new capital of this huge nation stretching from Europe to China, is beginning to look more like San Antonio than the decaying provincial town it was only a few years ago.
Riding high on last year's 13 percent growth, 7 percent inflation, ever-increasing revenue from oil, metals and wheat as well as a new financial and banking system that Russia and Turkey can only envy, Kazakhstan is treating itself to a party of sorts: the building of a new capital.
The Turkic-speaking Kazakhs are descendants of cattle-raising nomads who famously constituted the bulk of the Mongol-led armies assembled by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.
Using superior horsemanship, appalling cruelty and brilliant strategy, they conquered what was at one point the biggest empire the world had without ever building a capital.
When the pendulum swung back and their former vassals, the Russians, overran their lands, Moscow was careful to rule the territory the size of Western Europe from three different centers.
When the communists took over in 1920, they picked a southern city called Kyzyl Orda but moved the capital in 1929 to what was then called Alma Ata and was renamed Almaty at independence in 1991.
Today, Kazakhstan is building itself the first capital it can call its own, a city with the same grandiose master plan as Washington, with a new government enclave shaped not unlike the Mall and ending with a three-story, presidential office strikingly resembling you guessed it the White House.
Moving the capital was entirely the idea of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country's leader since 1988.
Mr. Nazarbayev fits the ancient description of the enlightened despot. With a knack for co-opting opposition and, after some early mistakes, implementing shrewd economic policies, he rules with near-absolute power over all three branches of government.
Yet human rights monitors such as the U.S. State Department have found no case of politically motivated killing and nothing more serious than harassment of the tiny opposition.
Mr. Nazarbayev and his family are believed to have amassed considerable wealth and his fight against the widespread corruption lacks credibility, but most Kazakhs don't seem to mind.
They generally shrug, say corruption is everywhere anyway and support him for building the foundations of a modern state, keeping harmonious relations between the Muslim Kazakh and Orthodox Russian halves of the population and attracting billion-dollar investments from U.S. oil companies that in a decade will make the country rich.
Mr. Nazarbayev's motivations for moving the capital are a matter of endless speculation. Why abandon pleasant Almaty, a leafy city of 1 million people snuggled against the ever-white peaks of the Tian-Shan range that provide serviceable ski slopes?
Issyk Kul, one of the world's most beautiful lakes, lies over the mountains to the south and a smaller, closer lake provides relief from the summer heat.
Was it fear of losing Almaty to populous China, 170 miles away, or to an earthquake or a mudslide, as has happened before? Was it a new belief that a capital must be located in the middle of a country, a notion that a glance at any atlas reveals is more the exception than the rule?
And if the capital must be moved, why choose an ugly town with a dismal history located in the windswept steppe in the middle of nowhere, where temperatures range from minus-40 degrees to 105 degrees, a much bigger range than in Almaty?
An official who knows Mr. Nazarbayev well offered the most convincing explanation.
"When we became independent, we went through some very bad times," he said. "Nazarbayev wanted to do something that would be big and beautiful and that he could control completely from start to finish. That's the irrational reason.
"The rational reason is that he wanted to eliminate any possibility of the Russians ever claiming northern Kazakhstan," where ethnic Slavs, mostly Russians and Ukrainians, formed a majority.
Astana, the northernmost big town and a railway and road hub to boot, beckoned.
Built on one side of a river, it offered the other side as a place to build a whole new city.
The choice showed Mr. Nazarbayev is not supersitious.
Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who succeeded Josef Stalin in 1953 and also wielded huge power, decided to make the town, then called Akmolinsk, the center of a misguided attempt to turn the steppe into wheatfields, the Virgin Lands program.
Khrushchev renamed the town Tselinograd (City of Virgin Lands) and supervised the importation of thousands of more-or-less enthusiastic workers called Tseliniki to build a farming infrastructure in Tselinograd.
Just as today, when welding lamps flicker at night in the skeletons of new skyscrapers, Tselinograd became a huge construction site. It received a 1,200-seat theater and was getting ready to welcome the entire headquarters of the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture when Khrushchev was ousted and his grandiose plans with him.
By then, the Russians had discovered what the Kazakhs had always known: the steppe is only good for grazing cattle.
At independence, Tselinograd got back its old name and not much more until Mr. Nazarbayev rescued it from obscurity. A plan to turn it into the capital was approved by parliament in 1994.
In December 1998, when the government officially moved and the new capital was proclaimed, it had 250,000 residents.
Now it has twice that many, and most of the newcomers are Kazakhs, who dominate in the south.
"We are planning to have 1 million people by 2010, but I think there will be more," said Vladimir Laptev, the city's chief architect and planner. "And they, too, will be mostly Kazakhs."
Astana means "capital" in Kazakh. But the concept has a different meaning in the nomadic-rooted language: It lacks a connotation of immobility and actually means "place where decisions are made."
And that's exactly what it became within four years of the initial decision. A design building served as a skeleton for parliament, the main local administration building became the presidential administration and a hotel was turned into the Foreign Ministry.
All three now look brand new. Yet they are only temporary.
"In 1994, we faced the decision of how to turn a small provincial town into a capital," recalled Mr. Laptev. "So we decided to give an immediate face-lift to the center, accommodate all the ministries for ten years and plan a new city on the south side of the river."
While his own architectural firm designed the new S-shaped Finance Ministry and the futuristic sports complex, the city's two most striking modern buildings, hundreds of Soviet-era apartment houses with crumbling facades and unevenly windowed-in balconies received fresh paint and siding. Balconies were evenly closed.
The entire city's electrical and water mains were overhauled. Though 90 percent of the city is in private hands, the face-lift was funded entirely by the government, which in 2001 ran a surplus of slightly more than 1 percent of the gross domestic product.
The siding is plastic, imported from China and is designed to last 10 years. It gives the buildings an oddly American look, as do some new street signs. Both are apparently unknown anywhere else in the former Soviet Union. New buildings that incorporate penthouses and terraces unknown in Soviet times are starting to appear.
Mr. Nazarbayev intends the city to be a center for Central Asia and founded the Lev Gumilyov Eurasian University, which is already poised to overtake Almaty's. It is named after the son of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, an academic who spent 15 years in gulags for advancing the notion that Russians and Central Asian nomads constitute a "super-ethnos" stretching from Poland to China and that Russians have more in common with them than with Europeans.
Meanwhile, a prominent Japanese architect named Kisho Kurokawa, who had written a book on Central Asian nomads, won a competition to create the city's master plan. He is also designing the new airport.
"We chose his plan because it best took into consideration the ecology of the place," Mr. Laptev said. It involves purifying the city's drainage and sewage water for irrigation and setting up a large-scale wind-power generation system.
The plan to create what Mr. Kurokawa calls a "metabolic, symbolic ecocity of the 21st century" includes planting an irrigated forest in the southeast. The forest would lie on the undeveloped side of the Nishim River, where the ambitious new center, called New City, is being prepared.
In addition to the presidential mansion and office, the center will contain all the main government institutions.
"We wanted to avoid the mistake they made in Brasilia [the capital of Brazil], where the offices are on one side and the residences are on the other side," Mr. Laptev said. So the new city will also contain 8,000 apartments in two gently curving wings, schools of law and diplomacy, a diplomatic zone and a shopping mall.
"Astana is the face of our people and of our government," Mr. Nazarbayev proclaimed.

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