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30 Years Since Capital Decision, Astana A Magnet For Kazakhstan's Transplants

The Akorda (center, with blue dome and golden spire), the official residence of the president, stands out at night amid Astana's skyline.
The Akorda (center, with blue dome and golden spire), the official residence of the president, stands out at night amid Astana's skyline.

ASTANA -- Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev says Astana is "an important center of our geopolitical region," while Russian urbanist and blogger Ilya Varlamov calls it "an awful city, unadapted to [human] life."

But for close to 1.5 million people -- mostly originating from other parts of Kazakhstan -- the country's capital, Astana, is home.

So why do they come to a monolithic city that was largely created just 30 years ago? And could they ever see themselves leaving it?

No To Nur-Sultan

Astana has many different anniversaries.

But this past weekend's was an important one, marking 30 years since then-President Nursultan Nazarbaev got the ball rolling on the transfer of the national capital to a provincial town founded in 1830 called Akmola.

Nazarbaev presented the proposal to lawmakers at a session of the Supreme Soviet in the then-capital, Almaty, on July 6, 1994.

It was duly accepted, although not without some resistance as well as chatter in Russia, where the decision was viewed as an effort to counter Moscow's potential sway over Russian-speaking populations living on Kazakhstan's side of the world's longest continuous land border.

The move to make Astana the capital was finalized three years later, and in the years that followed the city has borne the first president's stamp, even marking its birthday on the same day as his, July 6.

But it seems to be outgrowing its creator.

This fall will mark the second anniversary of Astana being called Astana again, after the country's worst-ever political unrest at the beginning of 2022 played its part in prompting a officials to dump the name Nur-Sultan -- which was given in honor of Nazarbaev.

That 2019 rebranding was one that Toqaev himself proposed to glorify the man he was stepping up to replace -- only to approve the de-naming of it three years later when Nazarbaev fell deeply out of favor. (Unsurprisingly, the Kazakh capital has the Guinness World Record for the capital city with the most name changes in modern times).

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) and his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) and his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)

And if in 2019 Toqaev marked Astana's official holiday by praising it as the "vivid embodiment of the successes of Kazakhstan" and a product of the "will and determination" of his veteran mentor, this year he left the congratulations to Mayor Jenis Qasymbek, who avoided any mention of the city's now 84-year-old architect-in-chief.

Rinat Balgabaev, a filmmaker and communications specialist known for his online satirical humor, was among the many residents of the capital celebrating Astana's rechristening in 2022, as well as the more general dilution of the former strongman's cult of personality.

"It drove me mad every time I saw [Nur-Sultan] on an official document," recalled Balgabaev, who arrived in Astana from the northern city of Pavlodar more than a decade ago to represent an Almaty-based advertising agency that he had been working for remotely.

"I couldn't bring myself to write it. If officials that I met ever asked me for suggestions for changes to the city, I'd say: Change the name back [to Astana]," he said.

Rinat Balgabaev
Rinat Balgabaev

The 38-year-old says he still has issues with a city he says "looks beautiful from above" but is "inhumane," uncomfortable for pedestrians, and badly maintained.

Yet Balgabaev also argues that it enjoys advantages over Almaty, a city that is set against beautiful mountain scenery but is plagued by heavy smog in the winter months and faces a greater risk of earthquakes.

"In Astana there are more work opportunities. In Almaty every niche is taken," he said. "Almaty is still a great place to visit and enjoy cafe culture. But people here keep their word more. For instance, I made a film about drug addiction. In Almaty, it was difficult to get people to arrive for interviews on the right day, and that costs me money. In Astana, even the addicts arrived not a minute late."

Moreover, while Astana has traditionally been a void of political activism compared to its storied rival, Balgabaev says there is now growing civic activism as regards housing and municipal services.

"People became much more active after they called the city Nur-Sultan," Balgabaev said, citing increased turnouts for demonstrations on International Women's Day as yet another example.

Looking After The 'House Of Journalists'

Roza Aldabekova was born more than 1,600 kilometers from Astana in the town of Maaqtaral, near the Kazakh border with Uzbekistan.

She moved north with her two children in 2006, some years after her first husband died from a heart attack.

Hailing from a hot, cotton-growing region, Aldabekova found the climate in the world's second-coldest capital -- behind only Mongolia's Ulan Bator -- difficult to handle at first.

Downtown Astana (file photo)
Downtown Astana (file photo)

"Frosts of minus 40 degrees Celsius! And windstorms like in horror movies!" she laughed. "But I got used to it eventually. Now we can see the city is improving. It is becoming greener, like [cities] in the south. The trees that were planted are tall. People come here from all over [Kazakhstan] to work, but that is as it should be. It is our capital!"

When Aldabekova arrived in Astana, the House of Journalists -- a building opposite Kazakhstan's presidential administration that houses the offices of several media outlets -- was still being built.

But she and a man who became her second husband looked after it together for nearly two decades, with her husband working there as a security guard and Aldabekova -- a biologist by education -- working as its cleaner and gardener in the warmer months.

"He is from the north and I am from the south, but we are identically Kazakh. He was born in Yermentau, about 120 kilometers from here, in the area where our national hero Bogenbai Batyr is from," Aldabekova said proudly of her now-retired husband.

The pair have no children together but Aldabekova's husband had three from a previous marriage.

"We are one big family together," said Aldabekova. "Just like here, at the House of Journalists."

Although the cost of living has increased in the city recently, "while we have health we'll find money," she said.

Roza Adalbekova
Roza Adalbekova

City Of Officials?

The official switch of the capital in 1997 reduced demographic pressure on Almaty -- a city still growing by about 60,000 people per year.

But internal migration to the town that was called Tselinograd in Soviet times occurred gradually at first as the infrastructure tried to keep pace with the growth.

One demographic that had little choice over whether to make the move to the new capital was state officials, since very few federal institutions stayed in their offices in Almaty.

In 2014, according to data from the private news agency, one in 66 people in Astana was a state official, compared to one in 175 in the country as a whole and one in 335 people in Almaty.

Yet at certain times in the mornings and evenings on the "left bank" of the Ishim River that divides Astana, the city can feel like one made for officials, who can be seen hurrying in blue suits near super-modern buildings with nicknames like "the lighter" and "the beer cans."

Issatay Minuarov
Issatay Minuarov

Issatay Minuarov, 31, the young head of social research for Kazakhstan's Samruk Kazyna sovereign wealth fund, said he first visited Astana in 1999 from Karaganda, a city some two hours away where he was attending school.

Although there was an excitement about the city, "there were only a couple of places that could be deemed entertainment venues at that time," he said.

Minuarov moved to the city in 2010 to study sociology at a university before completing his masters in the same subject at Manchester University in Britain. He then returned to the capital, which he now sees as "a home for me and my future children."

"The stereotype of Astana as an administrative city of white-collar workers is no longer accurate," he said. "The face of the city is changing. It is no longer a city of 700,000 where you might be surprised to bump into a compatriot from your hometown. Now it is somewhere that everyone is trying to move to…[because] the labor market in Astana is expanding rapidly and wages are higher than in most of Kazakhstan. But the cost of living is still significantly cheaper than in Almaty," Minuarov added, noting that migration to the city from other Central Asian countries is also increasing.

"This has a positive effect on the quality of services. If you know the chef in a pilaf restaurant is from Uzbekistan, you can expect it to be good."

The Waiting Game

Sundet, a taxi driver from the village of Qaraultobe in the south-central Qyzylorda Province, had a quick response when asked what he would change about the city he has lived in since 2013.

"They repair the roads every year," the 40-something man who didn't want to give his last name, complained. "I think it is because of corruption during tenders. They should [also] invest more money to build houses faster instead of holding public events and spending so much on government buildings."

The availability of housing is a very pressing issue in Astana.

Sundet, his wife, and six children -- another is on the way -- have been waiting for government housing for large families since he came to the city seven years ago.

He now hopes they have reached the final years of the very long wait.

A move to state-provided-housing should mean a reduction in his monthly housing payments, which are 150,000 tenge (more than $300) from a monthly salary of some 300,000 tenge (around $600).

"I can't say that we have started to live better. You start to earn more but then food starts to cost more," said Sundet, who has also worked as a long-distance truck driver in Europe and is looking to go back there for seasonal work.

Sundet in his taxi
Sundet in his taxi

Sundet returns to Qyzlorda Province once a year. While his wife and children take the train, he drives, taking passengers and parcels using the InDrive ride-sharing service to try to help cover the family's transportation costs.

He finds people in Qyzlorda more friendly than in Astana, where "everything is about cars and money." But has no plans to return to the region.

Astana's winters are no longer as cruel as they once were, he said, adding that he doesn't look back.

"To speak honestly about my path, it has been a hard one. Many of my closest relatives have passed away and we have few people that we can rely on," Sundet told RFE/RL. "But I am thankful to Allah. He has created these difficulties for me but he has also given me the strength to overcome them."

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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