Astana construction boom rivals the Gulf

Kazakhstan government is pumping billions of dollars to transform its decade old capital despite poverty and lack of infrastructure in other parts of the nation.

New residential developments near Ishim River that runs through Astana.
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ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN // Probably no city on Earth has been transformed over the past decade as much as Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Until a decade ago, it was a nondescript provincial town called Akmola, one of a string of places that languished behind the country's largest city and longtime capital, Almaty, the leafy economic powerhouse in the far south. When, on the orders of the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, it took over as the seat of government and its name was changed to the Kazakh word for "capital", a construction boom began to rival even those seen in the Gulf. Reasons in favour of moving the capital to Astana included its more central location and larger Russian population - its selection was interpreted as a gesture of support to Russians, who left this vast central Asian country in droves after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. An Astana 10 campaign to mark the decade of change culminated with lavish celebrations this year, and anniversary billboards still dominate the city's roadsides. South of the Ishim River, which divides the new district from the old city to the north, huge gleaming oil company headquarters sit beside new residential towerblocks and leisure developments. The city's centrepiece is Nurzhol bulvar, a mostly pedestrianised two- kilometre street that features buildings created by some of the world's top architects. There is a new presidential palace, dozens of large houses for foreign ambassadors and imposing ministry buildings. In the centre sits the city's most recognisable symbol, the Bayterek monument, a tower topped by a golden ball. Further up lies the Palace of Peace and Harmony, a pyramid designed by Lord Foster, Britain's most successful architect, that promotes understanding between the world's religions. At the other end, builders are fashioning the Khan Shatyr or the khan's tent, another Foster creation. This see-through conical building will have an indoor beach, concert hall, shopping mall, canals and even a golf course. Farther out in the city, the building frenzy continues, with residential towerblocks going up by the dozen and villas being built in the hundreds. The cost of the transformation is as staggering as the buildings themselves. Reports have put the price at between $8 billion (Dh29bn) and $13bn, 30 per cent of which has come from the government. And what has taken place is just the beginning. Astana's population has already doubled to more than 600,000, but by 2030 is expected to have more than doubled again to 1.5 million, with building work set to continue to cope with the growth. A satellite town specialised in technology and research is on the drawing board. But not everyone - including some Astana residents - think a gleaming world city is the best thing for this central Asian nation to be spending its oil and gas revenues on. The disparity with some of the nation's other cities, which feature row upon row of unrenovated Soviet-era apartment blocks, is stark. Old people beg on the streets, since the value of many pensions are a fraction of what was enjoyed during Soviet times, while others make a living selling fruit or seeds in makeshift roadside stalls. About one in six people is said to live below the poverty line. While funds are pumped into Astana, much of the country's infrastructure is inadequate, with even main roads between major cities potholed and bumpy. According to Stephan, 26, an ethnic Russian computer programmer who declined to give his full name, Astana's development gives a false impression that living standards in the country as a whole have progressed. "This is just one city. If the government invested money in many cities it would be better. In other countries people don't know what Kazakhstan is - they only know Astana," he said. The capital city is "the face of the country" said Yermek Sadykov, 26, an ethnic Kazakh born and raised in Astana. "Because it's big and wonderful, people - the people from other countries who come here - are able to see Kazakhstan is a good country." "But the other cities need money too and I don't think all the money [should be spent] in Astana, but in other towns and other cities." Mr Nazarbayev, in charge since 1989, is unlikely to have to take into account the views of sceptics. In the last presidential election in 2005, he secured more than 90 per cent of the vote and opposition figures have in the past been barred from standing in polls.