A Capital Move for Kazakhs


About the nicest thing anyone can think to say about this evolving new capital is that the howling winds roaring in from the steppe 330 days a year sweep out pollution and replace it with dust.

There are also the advantages of swarms of mosquitoes in summer and minus-40-degree days in winter that compel civil servants to stay inside at their desks rather than lollygag outdoors, smoking and wasting the taxpayers’ money.

Boosters of the work-in-progress of moving the capital from the leafy metropolis of Almaty to this provincial backwater, whose recently restored Kazakh name means “white grave,” claim that Akmola is much handier to the main highway linking Europe with the Far East and to the historic Silk Road that also passes nearby. It seems to have escaped notice that few choose to drive between the hemispheres these days and that no caravans have come by for decades.

The unilateral decision by President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev to move the seat of political power 750 miles to this city formerly called Tselinograd--City of the Virgin Lands--is defended by underlings as an ingenious way to attract investment to the undeveloped interior and to escape the seismic hazards of Almaty.

“This has no political lining. There are no politics involved,” Nazarbayev insisted in an interview with Russia’s NTV last month. “The move is a purely practical matter.”


But the Kazakh president’s real aim, according to a broad array of analysts, is not so much to draw investment northward as to lure Kazakhs to a region now dominated by Russians who settled here during the more than 70 years that Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet empire. It will cost upward of $500 million and disrupt the lives of thousands, but Nazarbayev has made the move a priority to underscore his country’s 6-year-old independence--and, many say, to create a flashy monument to his rule.

“In Kazakhstan, very little is logical these days,” says Pyotr Svoik, a leader of the Azamat movement, the primary opposition voice to the omnipotent Nazarbayev. “We have a regime based on personality, not the interests of the people, and in such a government, two capitals are considered better than one, and maybe three would be even nicer.”

From the lowliest civil servant to the big-oil magnates ensconced in the old capital to the dozens of foreign diplomats who established embassies in Almaty, the move has been denounced as a costly show of autocracy and nationalism more likely to induce administrative confusion than a thriving new power center on the barren steppe.

Nevertheless, by presidential edict, the capital of this Central Asian country officially changes Saturday come hell or high water, and some joke that newcomers are best advised to expect both.

“No one is forcing anyone to relocate. Government service is not the same as slavery,” says Farid Galimov, chairman of the State Commission on Movement of the Capital, one of the few Cabinet-level offices already at work in Akmola. “Anyone who wishes to stay in Almaty can do so if he wants to find other work.”

A City Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

To say that Akmola is not ready for prime time would be an understatement. At the main hotel taking in foreign travelers, the grubby Soviet-era Intourist, the sole charm seems to be the accommodating staff members who come to each guest’s door with a lighted candle when the erratic power goes out for an hour or so about 7 each evening.

The airport, though duly renovated, is a study in chaos, with hundreds stranded by the daily shufflings of flights by the Kazakh Air company that runs sputtering Yakovlev-40 prop planes among half a dozen widely scattered industrial centers. On one recent Tuesday, three of five flights to Almaty were canceled without explanation; of the two that did take off, one left Akmola 10 hours behind schedule, the other five.

“Our transportation facilities are far from meeting international standards,” concedes Roustem Zhoulamanov, a professor of economics and vice president of the Institute for Development of Kazakhstan, a government-supported think tank in Almaty. He also worries about a “loss of effectiveness” of a leadership with one foot in Almaty and the other here.

Housing is another problem, despite the plethora of empty homes left behind by Volga Germans exiled here by dictator Josef Stalin during World War II and Russians who have repatriated to their ancestral homelands since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The crude dwellings thrown up in haste during late Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands program in the 1960s lack both kitchens and bathrooms, as the Communist development plan envisioned laborers taking all meals in cafeterias and washing at communal baths.

That earlier model for creating an agricultural stronghold proved overly ambitious, and many fear that the latest development plan suffers the same flaw of gigantism.

A general plan for Akmola commissioned by the president calls for construction of a city for 1 million, anticipating the eventual relocation of international business and diplomacy from Almaty, home to 1.2 million. Akmola claims 270,000 residents at present, although even that seems exaggerated in the sleepy dirt lots surrounding half-empty apartment blocks and streets with virtually no traffic. The blueprint for developing Akmola remains unfinished, and chief architectural designer Nurbek Auzhanov says the final version will be ready for presidential endorsement only a year from now.

“Germany has already invested years in preparing for its move of capitals, and, let’s face it, Germany is a country with considerably better means than Kazakhstan,” says Auzhanov, whose architectural company, Ak Orda, studied the experiences of other countries that moved their seats of government. “The biggest criticism in the case of Brasilia was that it was built too quickly. In Akmola, we are seeing even greater haste.”

Lessons From Brazil’s Mistakes

Nazarbayev’s quest to move the seat of power to the underdeveloped inner depths is a carbon copy of former Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek’s 1957 decision to create Brasilia to draw growth from overcrowded Rio de Janeiro, the former capital.

Auzhanov suggests that Nazarbayev might be wise to learn from the mistakes of Brasilia rather than repeat them. “Kubitschek ran for a second term as president and lost,” he notes.

Most of the materials for the cream-colored steel and mirrored-glass office towers rising in the Akmola government quarter had to be imported, and many of the construction crews are also foreign because the frantic building pace has overwhelmed the local industry.

The Kazakh Supreme Court has already been moved here, as have the Justice and Construction ministries. The presidential apparatus, the Kazakh parliament and a handful of other ministries are due to set up shop by Saturday.

But back in Almaty, a thriving city known during the Soviet era as Alma-Ata, there is little sign of an exodus in the making.

“Our position is that we are going to wait and see that the [Kazakh] government is actually there and operating before we consider moving. We aren’t going to rush,” says U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Michelle Logsdon, noting that the deadline for the capital move has been pushed back and forward repeatedly. On Wednesday, a December target date was moved up to this Saturday, after weather forecasters predicted that El Nino will bring the Kazakhs a nastier-than-usual winter.

Many of the ministries and government offices also are finding excuses to procrastinate or maintain a sizable rear guard in Almaty, where the intellectual and financial capital of the country is vested.

“All moves are stressful, even from one apartment to another,” says Foreign Ministry department head Mikhail Litvinov. “There are a lot of civil servants whose spouses have jobs in Almaty who will now have to decide between their careers and their families.”

Some government operations have been given until June to relocate, largely because Akmola is not yet able to accommodate the influx of an estimated 10,000 government workers and family members.

Galimov and his deputy on the moving commission, Adelbeg Dzhaksibekov, brush off the expense and dislocation imposed on foreign governments by the move.

“This is our internal matter,” says Dzhaksibekov, noting that foreign businesspeople and diplomats refrained from kicking up a similar fuss over the German government’s decision to gradually move its capital from Bonn to Berlin.

“Akmola is surrounded by open steppe, so it can expand and grow as needed,” Dzhaksibekov says. “Almaty has already exceeded its logical limits and is now ecologically overwhelmed.”

True, air pollution occasionally accumulates in the verdant cradle between the towering Tien Shan mountains that form a scenic backdrop to Almaty, where earthquake risks have discouraged construction of the prefabricated high-rises that blight most Soviet-era cities. But the air in Akmola is hardly an improvement, with incessant swirls of dust blasting through the streets.

While those in Almaty pressured to relocate are widely resistant--a recent poll of capital residents showed only 5% willing to move--the transfer is greeted with more enthusiasm here. Mayor Amanzhol Bulekayev, a former taxi driver, unabashedly relishes the employment boom in his city.

“For us there are only positive influences,” the mayor says. “Construction companies have so much work they can’t keep up with it, and people from the outlying areas, where industry has been shut down and young people are idle, are flocking to our city to take jobs.”

Those recently rescued from joblessness, such as 25-year-old laborer Miran Samdibayev, confirm that the government relocation has been personally rewarding.

“I wasn’t paid at my factory for the past six months, and now I have a good income,” says Samdibayev, one of hundreds hired from the provinces in the breakneck drive to finish the new parliament office building.

Akmola has been designated by the Kazakh government as a “special economic zone,” with tax breaks and privileges for foreign investors. But aside from a 25-story hotel under construction by a Turkish company and the government building projects, few others are in progress.

New housing is a priority, Bulekayev says, noting that 2,000 apartment units are to be built by the end of this year and 4,000 are planned for 1998. He predicts that Akmola’s population will nearly double to more than 500,000 over the next decade.

The mayor says he has no fear of environmental damage to Akmola from rapid population growth, an increase in traffic and the construction boom.

“Of the 365 days in a year, only 30 to 35 are not exceptionally windy,” he says proudly of the almost daily gales. “If exhaust and pollutants increase, they will quickly be blown away.”


On the Move

Kazakhstan is relocating its capital from the verdant metropolis of Almaty to the blustery backwater of Akmola.


Current Capital: Almaty, formerly Alma-Ata

New Capital: Akmola, formerly Tselinograd

Area: 1,086,920 square miles

Population: 16.7 million

Ethnicity: 50% Kazakh, 33% Russian, 27% Others

GNP per capita (1996): $1,310

Unemployment: 12%

Sources: World Bank, Institute for Development of Kazakhstan