It took fewer than 20 years for Astana to emerge from the Kazakh steppe as the symbol of a modern, independent Kazakhstan, realising the vision of president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was in power when the city was awarded capital status, and remains there to this day.

Once a small, wind-battered town on the bank of the Ishim river, former Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev placed it at the centre of his ‘Virgin Lands’ campaign – a huge push to grow wheat and other crops across millions of hectares of uncultivated land in northern Kazakhstan and western Siberia in the 1950s and 1960s – and renamed it Tselinograd, literally ‘the city of the virgin land’.

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Mr Nazarbayev had other plans, however, and five years after Kazakhstan gained independence from Moscow in 1991, he made it capital city and renamed it Astana, which simply means ‘capital’ in Kazakh. This was done at the expense of Mr Nazarbayev’s home town, Almaty, which had historically been the country’s cultural, political and business centre.

A bold decision

Mr Nazarbayev’s vision for a new, dynamic capital has plenty of critics, however, many of them comparing the decision to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s decision in 1923 to move Turkey’s capital to Ankara, then a mostly unknown town in the middle of the country, from Istanbul, which had held the reins of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires for centuries. Yet Astana has quickly justified its capital status as authorities have worked to improve its infrastructure, services and living conditions. The authorities even planted a ‘green belt’ around the city to shield its citizens from the cold winds blowing in from the Kazakh steppe. As a result, the city has experienced a demographic boom since 1997, which in turn has led to an increase in investment in Astana. 

“Ten years ago nobody wanted to live here because of the cold and wind,” says Kanat Issabekov, the deputy head of Astana’s special economic zone (SEZ). “The city has dramatically improved over the years and, today, thousands of people move to Astana every year.”

Astana’s population has grown threefold since 1997 to 835,000. Generous public investment and government incentives to real estate developers prompted a quick development of the new city centre on the western bank of the Ishim river. Today, Astana’s skyline features, among dozens of new skyscrapers, a tent-shaped shopping mall designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster, a spiky residential tower inspired by Moscow’s grand Seven Sisters buildings; and the iconic Bayterek tower, reputed to have been originally sketched by Mr Nazarbayev. Overall, accumulated investment in the city reached a total of $25.6bn between 1997 and 2013, according to government figures.

The long game

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Mr Nazarbayev’s long-term plan is to make Astana “the business, cultural and scientific centre of Eurasia, attracting researchers, students, businessmen and tourists from all over the region” as part of the Nurly Zhol programme, a $9bn countrywide investment programme launched in 2014.

This plan received a boost when the city was chosen to host the 2017 International Expo, a smaller format of the World Expo. There is palpable excitement about the event throughout Astana.

“Expo will bring up to 3 million tourists, in just three months, to our capital,” says Ilyas Zhangaskin, the head of Astana’s SEZ. “They will not only visit the Expo site, but also will spend several days visiting other cultural events. There will be more than 3000 events happening within this 90-day period.”

Despite a corruption scandal in June that forced out the chairman of the state company in charge of running Expo, works at the event site continue at a steady pace and are slated for completion by the end of 2016. Around the Expo site new residential and commercial developments are springing up to serve those moving to Astana.

Astana features among the biggest construction markets within the Commonwealth of Independent States, worth some $2bn per year, according to Abdullin Tasbolat, vice-president of development at BI Group, a local construction company and one of Expo’s major contractors. “Astana is a fast-growing city with a population growth of 4% to 5% per year,” he says – a major boon to the building industry.

Strong connections

Kazakh authorities are aiming to make the most of Astana’s favourable geographical location to turn it into a key logistics hub at the heart of the country. “The Nurly Zhol programme entails infrastructural road developments around the country and one of its main aspects is Astana’s place as the capital and the centre of the country,” says Astana deputy mayor Nurali Aliyev. “There is going to be a big system for the highways... with connections with all the other parts of the region, including a six-lane highway from China to eastern Europe. This will of course [have a beneficial] impact on the [Kazakh] economy, as well as [Astana’s].”

The authorities’ overall goal is to make Kazakhstan, with Astana at its heart, a logistics hub offering overland connections between China and Europe, significantly reducing existing transport times. It currently takes about 27 days for an overland round trip from Shanghai to Germany, against 38 days with shipping, according to figures from Dubai-based port operator DP World. Costs reach about $15,000 per container for road transport through Kazakhstan, against $2910 per container for sea shipping.

The Nurly Zhol programme will bring an upgrade in road connections between Astana and other major Kazakh cities such as Almaty, Ust-Kamenogorsk and Ato. Astana’s international airport will also be upgraded to reach a maximum capacity of 7.1 million passengers a year by 2017, up from the current 3.5 million. These new and better connections will work in favour of the Astana SEZ, which is one of 10 operating throughout the country.

Dissenting voices

Astana’s vision of grandeur has attracted people and investments, but has not been short of critics. “The original idea for Astana was that it would be a city of 600,000 to 700,000 people that serves purely administrative functions. It was meant to be like Washington, DC, not what it has become today,” says Aydos Sarym, an Almaty-based political analyst.

“It is no secret that Astana’s infrastructural, climatic and geographical barriers make it a more expensive city to build in, to expand in and develop. The focus on Astana is blocking off a lot of the regions in Kazakhstan from getting properly developed.”

Yet Mr Nazarbayev has repeatedly stated that Astana is his brainchild, and that the city’s success is a personal issue to him – even the city’s anniversary, July 6, coincides with his birthday. But even though the vision supporting some of Astana’s more ambitious projects is still blurred – as is the case with the new Astana International Financial Centre, which will settle in the Expo site once the event is over and bring a mass relocation of the country’s financial industry from Almaty – the city’s ongoing development process seems irreversible.