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Kazakhstan: Waiting For Nazarbayev In His New Capital

Akmola, Kazakhstan; 14 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The world may not yet believe it, but on the wind-blown, dirt-strewn streets of Akmola, this is no time for doubters. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev arrives here at the end of October to take control of his new capital city and this bleak outpost in the middle of the great Eurasian steppe is racing to meet the deadline.

It isn't the first time Akmola has had a brush with greatness. In the 1950s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev renamed the city Tselinograd, or Virgin Lands City, and made it the center of his campaign to turn Kazakhstan's steppes into oceans of wheat fields. The effort soon failed, when the thin topsoil was blown away by erosion. Khrushchev was deposed, the plan called hare-brained, and the city's people forgotten. The Soviet Union moved onto other grand projects.

Now, Tselinograd, known once again as Akmola, has been rescued from obscurity by Kazakhstan's leader, who has decreed that the country's capital should be moved here, and moved fast.

Up to now, Akmola's name was commonly translated as "White Grave." Now, a new official interpretation has been found. Government historians say Akmola actually means "Abundance of White" which is to say, dairy products. Akmola, President Nazarbayev has decreed, was and will once again be a "land of plenty."

Among the official reasons cited for abandoning cosmopolitan Almaty, in Kazakhstan's south-east corner, are the city's susceptibility to earthquakes and its proximity to the Chinese border. President Nazarbayev also says that relocating government institutions to Akmola will give an economic boost to northern regions and help spread wealth more evenly around the country.

But the primary reason, officials acknowledge privately, is political and much more simple. Having presided over Kazakhstan's drive to independence, Nazarbayev now wants to resettle the northern regions of his country with ethnic Kazakhs, reversing a more than century-long campaign of Russian colonization. At last count, ethnic Kazakhs made up barely more than 30 percent of Akmola's population, but since the start of the year, their numbers have once again begun to grow.

A slightly more than two-hour flight or 20-hour train ride across a sun-baked, Martian landscape separates Akmola from verdant Almaty. When he arrives, President Nazarbayev's Lear jet will touch down on Akmola airport's newly resurfaced runway. For now, Air Kazakhstan's rickety propeller planes land in a dirt field next to the crop dusters, carefully avoiding the strip where the asphalt is drying.

There may be no hot water and occasionally no electricity in Akmola, but in the best Soviet tradition, legions of foreign engineers and local workers have been commandeered to the city, with orders to transform it into a worthy seat of government within a matter of months.

Blow-torches sparkle through the night on the main square, as crews toil around-the-clock to finish the 20-storey glass and steel skyscraper that is to be Kazakhstan's new parliament. It, and the equally futuristic presidential palace being completed a few meters away have been contracted out to the Swiss firm Mobetex.

The price tag is a closely guarded secret. Kazakh Oil's Turkish-built headquarters rise on the other side of the square, while a couple of hundred meters away, Akmola's main theater and concert hall is being completely gutted and renovated by a consortium of Czech contractors. Word on the site is that Nazarbayev's presidential loge is to be transported up from Almaty and re-installed, piece-by-piece, in the completed theater.

Along Akmola's main street, formerly known as Virgin Workers' Prospekt, and now renamed Republic Prospekt, workers are covering the pock-marked concrete apartment blocks with new plastic siding. The rutted sidewalks along a two-kilometer stretch where Nazarbayev's motorcade will pass, have been torn up, to be replaced by cobblestones.

All this, say local officials, is just the first phase of an architectural master plan that will transform Akmola into a city of the future, with superhighways, industrial parks, vast housing complexes and even an artificial island in the swampy-Ishim river for the new presidential residence.

Where will the money come from and how much has it all cost so far? Presidential architect Serik Rustambekov estimates spending so far this year at $300 million. He conducts interviews inside a mini-van. Rustambekov's own offices, like most official buildings in the city are in the process of being built. But, he says, all money is coming from "non-budgetary sources."

The governor of Akmola region, Zhanybek Karibzhanov, concurs. Sitting in one of the few completed offices in town, he emphasizes that "not one penny of the state budget is being spent on Akmola's reconstruction." He points to Akmola's new special economic status, which provides incentives for investors, especially construction firms.

But Karibzhanov, who himself arrived in July as a Nazarbayev's appointee, refuses to provide any more concrete details. Asked whether any foreign investors have established themselves in the city for good, he cannot answer. But he asserts that they will.

City mayor Amanzhol Bolekbayev is equally cagey. He spends most of his time shuttling between construction sites, making sure visible progress is being attained before the president's visit. But he insists that the new construction is not taking away any resources from regular city spending. Bolekbayev says there are no conflicts with the central administration over where Akmola's funds should be allocated.

Off-the-record, residents tell of sudden evictions, coerced labor, and a rapid jump in prices. They mention the lack of any environmental impact studies and talk of the country's oil profits being siphoned off to realize Nazarbayev's costly new vision. But all that is unimportant. They weren't asked their opinion.

"What the government thinks is what we think," one woman walking by the new parliament told RFE/RL. "All there is left for us to do is to obey. Our wishes and voices don't reach them."

Never mind that only the main streets are being resurfaced and in the outlying districts where most people live, there are unpaved roads with potholes big enough to swallow cars, no streetlights and even no gas for cooking.

The president won't go there. And he wouldn't be advised to wander into the side streets just two blocks away from his palace, where wooden houses and shabby apartment buildings sink crookedly into the swampy ground, like the huge heating pipes that snake around them.

Six ministries have already been moved to the steppes and a steady trickle of ambitious young people has started to beat a path to Akmola. But convincing foreign companies and embassies to relocate from Almaty will be harder to do. There, doubts remain strong and some dub Akmola "the new Brasilia," drawing comparisons to Brazil's artificially-created capital, which has become synonymous with central-planning gone wrong. Everyone is waiting to see if Nazarbayev will stay through the merciless northern winter, or abandon his pet project, much as Khrushchev was forced to do.

If he stays, then this is a country where everyone else will soon have to follow.

(This article is one of a six-part series on Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. See photo essay: Kazakhstan Carves A New Capital)