"Astana is faceless. It has nothing but pompous architecture," says one critic.
Kazakhstan will mark the 10th anniversary of its capital, Astana, on July 6, but the festivities are widely seen as nothing more than an elaborate birthday party for President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who turns 68 on that day.
Nazarbaev signed the decree making his birthday a national holiday only last month, but officials say preparations for the capital's 10th anniversary -- "The Day of Astana" -- started a year ago.
Kazakh state media are bragging about the distinguished guests Nazarbaev will be hosting for the celebration, including the presidents of Russia, Turkey, the Central Asian nations, the Caucasus nations, as well as Jordan’s King Abdullah.
"May this holiday give everyone joy and put everyone in a good mood," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in remarks delivered in Astana ahead of the official celebrations. "Astana's anniversary will set down another marker in her further development. I wish you joy, peace, and prosperity."
Reports also say celebrated singers from "far and wide," including U.S. pop star Whitney Houston, will perform in Astana, a financial center fueled by the oil boom that has come known to be known as the "Dubai of Central Asia." On a website
created especially for the occasion, the city boasts of Astana’s "futuristic architecture" and "unique design."
But there is a fly in the ointment.
Nazarbaev’s former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev, last week published his long-awaited book, "The Godfather in Law." And in a chapter about Astana, he claims Nazarbaev decided to move the capital to Astana from Almaty 10 years ago out of concerns for his personal security.
No "color revolutions" are possible here, Aliev claims, in a desert landscape where temperatures soar past 40 degrees Celsius in summer and minus 40 in winter. 'This Ungrateful Land'
Aliev also writes in his book, published on his website, that moving the capital to Astana was beneficial for the Nazarbaev administration’s alleged money-laundering schemes. He also argues that a huge part of the state budget has been used for the construction of apartments for government officials in Astana.
"Instead of grandeur, I saw only billions of [dollars] stolen from the people and buried in this ungrateful land," writes Aliev, who has lived in Austria since falling out of favor with Nazarbaev two years ago.
Aliev was tried in absentia this year in Kazakhstan and faces up to 40 years in prison for charges that include kidnapping. He says he's only guilty of announcing his plan to run for the presidency in 2012.
Opposition politicians reiterate many of Aliev’s allegations.
"The bulk of the [state] budget is buried in Astana," says Serikbolsin Abdildin, the leader of the Communist Party. "I say ‘buried’ because I have information that up to 70 percent of new buildings are empty. All of the new buildings are for the government only. Someone who cares about the people would not do that."
The Kazakh capital was moved from Almaty to Astana -- then known as Akmola, a city in the inhospitable steppe with fewer than 270,000 residents -- on December 10, 1997.
Astana10.com says it was a "sleepy" city with "terribly hot summers and awfully frosty winters."
Proponents of the decision reasoned it was geopolitical and necessitated by security. They believed Almaty was not safe, located too close to China and Uzbekistan. Akmola, on the other hand, was closer to Russia and lay in a part of the country where ethnic Russians made up more than half of the population at the time -- and posed a potential threat of separatism.Paid For By Oil
Nazarbaev has orchestrated enormous construction works in Astana and invited architects like Norman Foster and the late Kisho Kurokawa to design the buildings. Now home to nearly 700,000 people, Astana’s rapid development has been possible due to the country's abundant oil reserves.
Many of Nazarbaev’s political opponents, as well as ordinary citizens, have criticized the scale of the festivities being organized to celebrate the anniversary. Thirty new sites -- including fountains, squares, a stadium, a medical center, and tennis courts -- have opened in recent days.
Amirzhan Qosanov, deputy chairman of the opposition Social Democratic Party, says the celebrations are nothing but gross adulation of Nazarbaev.
"In general, this campaign devoted to the anniversary of Astana has a somewhat artificial meaning." Qosanov says. "Instead of celebrating the potential of our nation and of our people, we extol one person."
Sergei Duvanov, a prominent independent journalist, says the celebrations are an attempt by some politicians to curry favor with Nazarbaev, a former Soviet official and a self-proclaimed democrat who has ruled with an iron fist since before independence.
Astana, Duvanov says, has become a city mostly for the rich.
"As far as the external appearance is concerned, the capital city has no national character," he says. "[Other cities like] Almaty, Taraz, or Chymkent are much more distinctive. They have their own look. Astana is faceless. It has nothing but pompous architecture. It is a city of billboards. It’s been built not for ordinary people but for government officials, [the presidential] administration. It is meant to reflect the ambitious plan aimed to show how great it is to live in Kazakhstan."
The site was known as Akmolinsk in the 19th century when Siberian Cossacks founded it as a fortress. In 1961, it was renamed Tselinograd, located in the heart of "virgin lands" that Soviet leaders were so eager to develop. It became known as Akmola after Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It was renamed Astana when the capital was transferred there in 1997.'Foreman And Father'
The renaming may not be over.
At a June 4 session of the Kazakh parliament, deputy Sat Tokpakbaev proposed renaming the city "Nursultan" after Nazarbaev.
"He has been [the country’s] foreman and father. He has taken under control and supervised each building construction and each street," Tokpakbaev said.
He and others in parliament -- made up exclusively of pro-presidential Nur-Otan Party members -- argue that great cities like St. Petersburg and Washington are named after great statesmen.
Nazarbayev has rejected the proposal, however, saying that such a decision "is up to future generations."RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondents Yedige Magauin and Sultankhan Zhussip contributed to this report