Astana at 20: the reality exceeds the vision

There is a great deal to celebrate as Astana marks its 20th anniversary this year. It has, by any measure, been an extraordinary journey. In just two decades, the city has become not just the vibrant, contemporary capital of a modern, energetic country but one that is well on the way to achieving a high global profile.

This success, of course, was never certain. There were many who worried whether the decision to move the capital to what was going to be in effect a new city was too big an undertaking for a country still making its way in the world. Kazakhstan was, after all, still struggling with the legacy it had been left with from the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union. The country had enough difficulties to overcome, it was said, without inventing new challenges.

But Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev saw that the new capital would help, not hinder, the young country’s progress and the effort, risk and investment would pay off both domestically and internationally. Twenty years on, his judgement has been proved absolutely right.

Astana, a capital in reach of all regions, has helped bring the country closer together. It has become a symbol of Kazakhstan’s ambition both for its citizens and its global partners. Internationally, it has raised the country’s profile while, domestically, it has become a new and powerful engine for the national economy.

And while the cost of a stunning new capital rising out of the steppes has been large, it is also financially paying off as predicted. Astana’s Akim (Mayor) Asset Issekeshev revealed last month that Astana is now self-sustaining with its fast-growing economy enabling it to pay back in tax revenues far more than it received in public investment. As the title of one of the main planning documents forecast, Astana’s prosperity is also Kazakhstan’s.

The statistics are impressive. The population has tripled over the last 20 years to more than one million. Well over 1,000 new apartment blocks have been built to house the fast-expanding city’s residents. They work not just in the government departments and national offices of the country’s major organisations, which have all been successfully transferred here, but increasingly in a powerful and diversified economy.

Over the last twenty years, the local economy has been utterly transformed with industrial production increasing 30 fold. The deliberate focus on helping small and medium-sized firms set up and grow has proved a remarkable success. They now employ more than 60 percent of the workforce and are responsible for a fifth of all the output from this sector nationally. As SMEs, which in Kazakhstan, as across the world, will drive prosperity and economic strength in the decades ahead, this is hugely encouraging.

Investment in Astana’s future increasingly comes from the private sector. Mayor Issekeshev revealed there are currently 60 separate projects underway amounting to more than $3 billion. More than 30 international companies are involved as partners. They see how ideally Kazakhstan is positioned as the bridge between East and West and view Astana as the hub of a region with exciting potential.

But this barrage of facts and figures alone do not do justice to the scale of the vision and the size of the achievement. To grasp this, it is almost necessary to have seen the modest town of Tselinograd, which was here before. The idea of it hosting a successful global event like EXPO or becoming an increasingly important centre for international talks would have, rightly, been regarded as fanciful.

You also get a better understanding of what has been achieved when you arrive in Astana by car or train and catch a first glimpse of the skyline as it first emerges from across the steppe and see the skyscrapers and city grow as you get closer. It helps explain the comparison with Dubai and Singapore, which have both established their own unique place in the world.

It is a skyline, which has been shaped by many of the world’s most renowned architects. But creating a new city, like designing and constructing a breath-taking building, requires more than inspiration. Vision had to be coupled with detailed planning and delivery. Astana stands as testimony to how hard many people have worked to get this right.

Starting from almost scratch, of course, enables a city to be developed to the needs of today and tomorrow. Those, for example, who complain about Astana’s traffic have either never driven in capital cities like London, which grew up centuries before the automobile had been invented, or forgotten what a nightmare it is to get around.

What can’t be designed, of course, is the character, which develops as a city, such as London, Paris, Rome or Almaty, grows organically over centuries. But Astana’s secret weapon is its overwhelmingly young population. They come to study at our prestigious universities or are attracted by the opportunities to build a career or start a business. It is these bright, fearless young people who are increasingly putting their own stamp on the city. It is perhaps the main reason to be confident that Astana’s next 20 years will be as exciting and successful as the first two decades.