The City of Astana – the Capital of the Republic of Kazakhstan

December 04, 2012

Personal Recollections of a Beginning

Margaret Skok, 2012


In April, 1992 – Canada established diplomatic relations with the newly independent Republic of Kazakhstan. After a year of dynamic business development, in December 1993 the Embassy for Canada in Kazakhstan took up “residence” in what is now a historic architectural site - in the former capital of Kazakhstan – the 26-story Hotel Kazakhstan, Rooms 912 and 914, Lenina Street (now Dostyk), built in 1977 for seismic conditions. Mountains to the south and east, the steppe to the north – and who knew what lay beyond. Led by our exporters of agricultural machinery from Western Canada we explored the north; subsequently our offshore drilling experts led us to then the Caspian Sea. And somewhere along our business travels, we brought our cold-weather paving experts, or bridge engineers, and ultimately the architects and experts who created our Embassy in the capital of Astana - inaugurated by the Honorable Stockwell Day during his September, 2009 visit.

Change is hard to accept in urban development; modernity even more difficult.  But it worked, as example, in Barcelona, Beijing, Brasilia, Paris, London, and Glasgow. And the move to this day does remain controversial.

Why move the capital?  Almaty is located in the south, known for its warmer temperatures, the Tien Shen Mountains, universities, site of past Asian winter games, Olympic skating rink, fruit orchards, and a population of 2 mlln (pop of Kazakhstan approx. 16 mlln).  Many reasons were suggested for a move – seismic region (indeed Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic experience many earthquakes per year), proximity to potentially unstable regions. There is no question that ethnic, geographic and economic reasons also played a role. As well, in my view, overhauling the bureaucracy in order to keep pressure on the reform agenda would have been difficult in Almaty. Kazakhstan, landlocked to the north, double-landlocked to the south – surrounded by Russia to the north, China to the east, and to the south – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan – and further into Central Asia – Tajikistan – where today, July 24th 2012, violence erupted in the beautiful area of Gorno-Badakhshan, close to the Afghan border.

Why Astana? Certainly past history did not commend it. Founded in 1830 as a Cossack fortification known as Akhmola, and then as Akmolinsk in 1862 - it did have its hey-day as a thriving agricultural region, and then embraced a nomadic lifestyle. In 1961 it was renamed Tselinograd – and under Stalin, over 10 labour camps surrounded it where “enemies of the people” were interned – Russians, Volga Germans, Koreans, Poles, etc. And the steppe is brutally cold or hot, now laying claim to the second coldest capital in the world (following Ulan-Bator in Mongolia; mercifully supplanting Ottawa)

In 2004, H.E. President Nursultan Nazarbayev received support in the bicameral Parliament to relocate the capital of Kazakhstan to Astana (which in Kazakh, a Turkic language means “capital”) - effectively the geographic centre of Kazakhstan, and a perfect east/west route – “centre of Euro-Asia”. A vision, accompanied by a hefty budget, began to be implemented. On a bitter day in 1997, the capital was moved; on June 10, 1998 the capital of Astana proclaimed. I remember President Nazarbayev stating in Parliament, that Almaty would continue to thrive as a financial centre, and Astana as a government one, - not dissimilar to “Toronto and Ottawa, New York and Washington D.C., Berlin and Frankfurt”.  Ottawa was mentioned again, after a 2003 visit of President Nazarbayev to Ottawa; it was said that all significant capitals are located on “mighty rivers” i.e. Ottawa on the Rideau, Paris on the Seine, and London on the Thames. This ended up giving impulse to creating a beach, a boat house (bears a striking resemblance to Dow’s Lake), somewhat “canalizing” the not so mighty Ishim River, where now elegant residential high-rises are located on its embankment – and hockey players and cross-country skiers are seen on the ice during the winter.

Astana’s layout has the “old city” on the Right Bank (somewhat revitalized) and the “new city” where the government administration is resident, and the Embassy of Canada – on the Left Bank – featuring amazing skyscrapers and forms not seen elsewhere. While many architects and engineers participated in Astana’s creation – bridges, hotels, medical facilities, universities, veterans’ homes, residential areas, parks, monuments – some of the world’s best were attracted to Astana. Some of the new landmarks include the Presidential Palace, various government buildings, the efficient airport, the new Concert Hall, the Pyramid of Peace, Khan Shatyr (a new recreation and shopping centre). Critical were the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokauwa – also involved in the layout of the city, and Norman Foster (of Beijing airport and Reichstag fame). In 2007 - 08, there were over 140 construction cranes working in Astana.

And while Dubai was carved out of the sea, one could say that Astana was carved out of the steppe.

Astana was built, in part, to help steer the future ambitions and directions of Kazakhstan as a sovereign nation.  From a population of 270,000 in 1998 to over 750,000 – Astana is now the second largest city in Kazakhstan. The economic impact is hard to miss: the “urbanization” of a country, and economic renewal of the north in terms of industry and surrounding smaller cities, with the resultant thousands of kilometres of planned road and rail (construction has begun) and its own airline company, Air Astana (IATA certified). Sometimes called “futuristic”, and recently CNN called it “the world’s weirdest capital” – the majority of the vision was completed before the global financial crisis of 2008.

It is worth the effort to visit, and judge for oneself. And hope that the vision of a city and a new capital carries through to a successful new nation.