In a recent interview with prominent journalist Sauytbek Abdrakhmanov, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev talked about the birth, formation and development of Astana and the capital’s 20th anniversary, which the country will celebrate in the coming days.
Our capital’s anniversary is approaching. It’s time to tell us about the unique history of Astana. How was this idea actually born?
I was sure from the very beginning that the relocation of the capital would play a huge role in strengthening Kazakhstan as a new independent state. Why?
On the one hand, the capital is just an administrative centre of a state. How can its transfer, relocation and even construction from scratch impact the strengthening of independence? Although, at the time there were a lot of people who held the same opinion. Why are there no people left who doubt the correctness of this decision today? Because our independence began to acquire a truly full-fledged character precisely after the adoption of this decision, after concrete steps to implement it were taken.
Actually, those who doubted my proposal were also partly correct. Why not? When we just gained independence, chaos was unravelling in our economy. That was the time when the inter-country economic ties that had developed over many years [within the former Soviet Union] were being torn apart, enterprises could not sell their products; as a result, in some places people did not even receive their salaries for six months straight.
It seemed that people who had suffered for 70 years from Communist ideology would not accept any ideology. It was a time when it was not about creative work, but mere existence, that was an acute problem; heads of families were left without work and women had to feed their families trading everywhere with big bags in their hands. Understandably, at the time when even construction of a residential house was considered a great event, let alone the construction of a city, the idea of relocating the capital was a surprise for everyone.
What was the main reason behind this idea?
As I said, the main sign of independence is the ability to decide your own destiny for yourself. The ability to conduct an independent policy, having the opportunities for this. Astana, built in the heart of Eurasia, is the independent choice of the Kazakh people. Astana is a bridge erected by the country into the future, a symbol of a new society. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we virtually started the construction of the new state with the construction of the new capital.
We understood that after Kazakhstan gained its independence, the new capital of the new state must meet the new requirements of our times. The intensification of international relations, the considerable expansion of financial, industrial and commercial ties within and outside the country, as well as the complication of the country’s governance, required an increase in the tasks of the capital and their improved quality. From this perspective, we began to look at [the former capital city of] Almaty differently.
First of all, we started thinking about whether the status of the new nation’s capital corresponded to the geopolitical position of the country and the high criteria put forward by the global situation. Machiavelli wrote about the expediency of locating a country’s capital in its centre. The newly gained independence let us see the many problems that could possibly occur because of Almaty’s location on the outskirts of the country, far from other regions of our vast homeland.
In addition to complex geopolitical reasons, every person knew that the city was located in a basin, which meant that every year the air was being heavily polluted, construction was hindered by the mountains, and there was no territory for further expansion. Frequent fogs in the airport area could put official visits by foreign leaders at risk. Over these years, we have witnessed how much Almaty has grown and without its unresolved environmental problems, it was difficult to imagine its further condition if it kept the status of the capital.
On the threshold of independence, we had to solve three problems. The first one was building an independent state; second, switching from a planned to a market economy and third, transitioning from totalitarianism to democracy. Solving each of these problems required tremendous effort. Moreover, at that time there were many people who were keen to test our young independence. That is why it was necessary to take concrete steps to strengthen our independence.
There was another reason why Almaty could not remain the capital of the new state. In the city that was formed for many years as the capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic, there was always an atmosphere of the tough policies of that time. Moreover, the very fact that the President’s and the government’s offices were located in the former building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party caused some unusual feelings from the psychological point of view. Almaty was unable to handle the new geopolitical role that it gained.
Jonathan Aitken, an English author who wrote a book about me, names other problems beyond Almaty’s territorial and environmental deficiencies, which are not particularly publicised. According to Aitken, Almaty in its style and content was a city of the Soviet system; many Kazakhs felt uncomfortable in it. Nevertheless, the decision to relocate the capital from Almaty was a real risk.
When did you finally decide to move the capital from Almaty?
There are 32 criteria used around the world for evaluating cities, especially those that are candidates for a capital. In early 1994, a special commission that I created considered the social and economic indicators and the many conditions, such as climate, terrain, seismic conditions, environment, engineering and transport infrastructure, communications, construction complex and labour resources and concluded that [the former] Akmola had more advantages than other cities.
What are those advantages?
The main advantage is that Akmola’s location can be considered the centre of the country; it is located near the large economic regions that determine the development of the nation’s economy. Another advantage is the nodal intersection of many roads. Among the advantages were also the city’s small size and population; that is, the many opportunities for construction and, accordingly, for demographic growth. Even in the very centre of the city, about 30 hectares of the territory was built up with old one-story houses. In the future, all these houses could be demolished and new construction could be conducted.
The fact that Akmola, the former Tselinograd, did not develop at a proper pace turned out to be an advantage in the long run?
On the one hand, you can say so. Another of Akmola’s features that I liked was its location on the bank of the Yessil River. A river gives a city a peculiar beauty. We were convinced that in terms of drinking water and technical water, there would be no difficulties. The city’s transport infrastructure was well-developed. Plus the air of Saryarka! From the ecological point of view, Akmola’s advantages were unquestionable.
Another positive aspect of the city was that construction here was twice as cheap as in Almaty. After discussing all this and making comprehensive calculations, we eventually determined Akmola as the location of the future capital.
Of course, what colossal work it was to make a capital from Akmola, a provincial city which is covered in snow in winter, full of mosquitos in summer, suffers from impassable mud in autumn and from potholes and pits on the roads in spring.
The most difficult thing was to find the source of funding for the construction of a new capital. If there was money, the work would start. I had to use all my authority. A certain amount of money was collected by creating the Akmola free economic zone. The material reserves left from the Soviet Union were also involved. These reserves were considerable; they consisted of alloys of metals and iron and building materials. Only a part of it that was necessary for Kazakhstan was left untouched; the rest was sold and the proceeds of $20 million were invested in the capital’s fund. And in general, we tried to build a capital without burdening the budget. We strictly monitored that every tenge was taken into account and there was no unnecessary expenditure.
The main source of construction financing in Akmola was investment. We obtained interest-free loans from foreign investors for a period of 10 years. In addition, many facilities were built with grants and non-compensatory investments. For instance, the Akorda (presidential palace) was constructed with the grant from the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development in the amount of $22 million. The Nur Astana Mosque was constructed with the grant from the state of Qatar worth $15 million. There are many such buildings. Grants and loans from Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries flowed in. Many of these funds were given as a gift to the country, the President of the country.
Our citizens showed a glorious example, too. When I arrived here, I gathered the businesspersons of Akmola and talked to them openly, saying that they were doing a good job in construction and asked them to help and make a present to the city. I asked Askar Mamin to return the Moscow Hotel he had previously bought to the state. He turned out to be a good fellow and returned it without any words. Later, we placed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in this building. Other businesspersons did the same. A dozen owners gave away their cottages, where officials and representatives of the intelligentsia were settled.
There was simply no other way out. There were very few good buildings in the city and practically no entertainment facilities.
Was the city called Astana by that time?
When there was little time left before the capital official presentation, I signed a decree renaming the city to Astana. We wanted the essence and the name of the new capital to be new. Through this, we wanted to make it clear that we were not only changing the capital, but building it anew, and in general, had started building a new state.
For a long time, we had been thinking about the new name of the capital. And then one day, at about two o’clock in the morning, the word “Astana” came like lightning. We liked it immediately. Why not? The word pleases the ear; it is laconic, even melodic. It sounds smooth in all languages and is written without any distortion. The content is precise and clear. Astana! What I immediately liked about it was that the word itself always reminds [one] of statehood. Whenever you say Astana, thoughts about the country, the nation, the people and the state immediately come to mind. Isn’t the concept of Astana common to all of them? Isn’t it great that the name of the city reminds [one] about statehood?! Today, people have gotten used to hearing and seeing this name and Astana managed to join the ranks of names which are firmly entrenched in the global geopolitics. Now, it is already well known that Astana is translated from Kazakh as “capital.”
The competition announced for Astana’s plan attracted great interest among the urban development centres of the world. After all, for an architect, planning a new city in the open steppe is a great opportunity for a flight of imagination and for inspirational openings.
More than 50 projects from Australia, Bulgaria, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Russia, the USA and other countries were submitted for the competition. Of these, 27 projects were selected for consideration at the competition. The winning project’s author was outstanding contemporary architect Kisho Kurokawa. He proposed an original project called The Principle of Life and won the contest. My wish was that the city not be an inanimate object, but forms as a living organism and is linked to a human and the environment at any moment.
The most important thing is that the urban infrastructure is formed in a modern way. When the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) summit was held in Astana in 2010, the city proved that in a short period of time it had headed for perfection. It was not easy to receive delegations from 55 countries, provide services to thousands of people and solve complex problems of services, logistics and security. All this is difficult even for capitals with centuries of history and established traditions. Our elorda (another word for “capital” in Kazakh) passed this exam successfully.
Astana hosted the Winter Asian Games and the EXPO 2017 international specialised exhibition at a high level.
If we had not built a city like Astana, we would have hardly competed with many strong European countries and won the right to host the expo international exhibition. The 161 countries that voted for Astana were surprised to see the beautiful city we built at such a difficult time; they were imbued with sympathy and respect and praised it. For more than a century and a half, the expo took place mainly in countries with huge economic potential. Thanks to Astana, our country has now become one of them.
I believed that EXPO 2017 would become another golden page of our history. And it did. Eighty countries participated and presented their exhibits on new energy. This is a wealth of knowledge for us. Millions and millions of people visited the exhibition. It was a holiday for all for 90 days – all summer. The whole world once again recognised Kazakhstan and Astana. When, where could such a thing happen in the steppe? It happened thanks to Astana. It happened because the world believes in us for our peaceful policy, for our unity, for the fact that we were able to build a new Kazakhstan and a new Astana, its capital, in a fantastically short time.
The city hosted the exhibition more than adequately. Astana coped with this truly grandiose task. A unique exhibition centre was built which surprised everyone with both the scope and the architectural solution. We have built new hotels, a new international airport and a new railway station in a relatively short period. EXPO 2017 was recognised as one of the best in the history of holding international specialised exhibitions.
We perceive the approaching 20th anniversary of the city as a kind of historic milestone. In this regard, how would you, on the eve of the remarkable anniversary of the main city of the state, sum up your thoughts about Astana?
Astana is built as a city that meets modern standards. That is why it managed to turn into one of the major centres of international cooperation in Eurasia. Its pace of development pleases the eye, causes satisfaction, even admiration from any angle. The city plays a special role in rising the patriotic spirit of our citizens. Astana has become the locomotive of the development of the whole country.
Regional centres are becoming more beautiful, trying to be like Astana. Under its influence, the country is being renewed and human resources are developing. Many people came to this city, found a job they like, got an education, mastered new specialties and successfully started their own businesses. Astana gave a second life to people, stirred them and inspired them to make new achievements. Astana itself, with every building built in it, is the property of the whole people.
Most importantly, I am grateful to the people for supporting this project from the very beginning and inspiring me with its unity, national cohesion and responsibility for the state during all this time. I am eternally grateful to all my comrades and colleagues for not just supporting me, but always being there for me, for facing a very serious matter with a pure soul and for building Astana with me.
Whenever I recall that this issue was raised in a difficult time for the country’s destiny, the feeling of gratitude increases dramatically.
Whatever I did, I did relying on our worthy people. Our people immediately realised the importance of this initiative for the country’s future destiny. Both old and young, all as one, our people supported our undertaking and moved as part of this great nomadic relocation. Being exposed to the strong winds of Saryarka and the burning rays of the steppe sun, freezing in the winter cold, soaking in the rain in summer, our people worked selflessly, erecting the building of statehood, laying out its bricks, kneading mortar, building the walls and covering the roof…
Thanks to this national labour feat, today we have an amazing city called Astana, known to near and far abroad, equally appreciated by the West and the East; a city that turned into the heart of the Motherland, the pillar of independence, thanks to which we occupy a decent place in the civilised world. We set ourselves an ambitious goal to join the 30 most developed countries in the world.
I believe this goal will be achieved at the scheduled time. The Kazakh people who have erected such a fabulous city as Astana in several years, who have accomplished this feat, are capable of this. By preserving the independence and the unity of our country, we will rise to even greater heights. Astana in its 20 years is absolutely a mature city. The city has everything that should be in a capital. Now this mature, but young batyr (strong and brave hero) will make its successful steps into the future itself.
Astana is the pride of the state, the great accomplishment of the people and the embodiment of the centuries-old dream of our ancestors.