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Central Asia was at the center of civilization as the crossroads of the Silk Road trading routes, when goods traversed the steppe on horseback 700 years ago in the time of Ghengis Khan. Since that time, the region has remained swathed in mystery to most foreigners. After trudging toward independence since the breakup of the Soviet Union, which replicated its imperial conquest up to the borders of Afghanistan and Persia, the five countries known collectively as “the Stans” floundered as sovereign countries. All led by former Soviet officials, these countries opted for the authoritarianism and demagoguery left behind as a Soviet legacy. Vast oil wealth coupled with political and religious instability has continued to shape the landscape there, but in the last decade, Kazakhstan has made a concerted effort to establish its capital city, Astana, as the region’s visually stunning new center of modernity and democracy.

Almaty, the Soviet-era capital of Kazakhstan. Source: Wikipedia

Nursultan Nazarbayev, a former high-level Communist Party leader and the current leader of Kazakhstan since its independence, is the mastermind and executor of Astana’s grand makeover as the capital of not only Kazakhstan, but of the entire region. The former capital, Almaty, is still the most populous city in the country, but in 1997, Nazarbayev shifted the political center to Astana, which at the time was a clean slate on the steppe, ripe for rapid development of infrastructure, architecture, and his own status as the father of modern-day Kazakhstan (Kazakhs call him “Papa“).

Astana’s cityscape is an homage to the glory of both the past and the future of Kazakhstan. Bizarrely beautiful buildings, many with no function beyond the aesthetic, decorate the skyline. Rowan Moore nicknamed Astana a space station, and indeed it looks like something out of Disney World’s Tomorrowland. Unambiguous style with influence from the proud nomadic horse-herder past of Kazakhstan makes the city seem almost farcical. The word “Astana” means “capital city” in the Kazakh language, leaving one to wonder how such a striking anomoly of a place can have such a nondescript name. Some say that Nazarbayev intentionally gave the city a generic name so that it would be named after him following his death.

The geometric structures in Astana’s downtown area recall UFOs from Saturday morning cartoons of our childhood, from the planet Quasar 14 in the year 253,146 AD. Countless journalists reporting on the oddities of the city have dubbed it “futuristic” and surely, it is. But underneath the glass facades and golden orbs hovering hundreds of feet in the air, a distinctly retro throwback to Soviet style underlies the design. It’s true that Soviet “style” was hardly stylish; the image of 60 story monoliths and squat communal apartments is a prevalent and accurate one. Less commonly understood is the overstated utilitarian, yet idealistic style that reflected the drive toward social progress and accomplishment. Astana’s ultramodern landscape is simultaneously reminiscent of the past and future.

Bayterek Tower. Image courtesy of user Martin Solli on

The newest addition in Astana is the Khan Shatyr, a shopping and entertainment complex shaped like a traditional yurt (a portable tent used by Central Asians on the steppe), housing shopping, restaurants, theater, and even an indoor beach. Opening in 2010, it seems to be a much-needed gathering place in a city that is overhauling its sterility. Another structure that symbolizes a historical aspect of Kazakhstan’s culture in a modern rendition is the Bayterek tower. The towering spire crowned with a gold globe emerging from a basket of metal spikes can’t be missed. It illustrates the legend of Samruk, a mythological bird that laid her golden egg filled with all of the mysteries of humanity in a tree. In the Bayterek, people can ascend the tower, reaching the golden egg, and accessing the observation deck at 97 meters, representing the capital’s establishment in 1997. The Ak Orda Presidential Palace is the administrative center of the capital and while stately columns and a White House-type rotunda portray the requisite importance, the stunning blue and gold cupola with the gold spire, the colors of the Kazakh national flag, audaciously display national pride in Kazakhstan, and perhaps more importantly, in President Nazarbayev. The Orwellian-sounding Palace of Peace and Reconciliation is a stone pyramid designed by Foster + Partners, the same architects that designed the Khan Shatyr. A convention center and opera hall, the pyramid boasts stained glass panels of doves in the apex. The cityscape of Astana has emerged so rapidly, but has managed to inject its new symbols of glory with themes of Kazakhstan’s past glory.

Shatyry Entertainment Center at night. Image courtesy of user upyernoz on

In a relatively unknown region, landlocked Kazakhstan flourishes due to its wealth in oil, a resource imperative to the globalized industrial market that exists today. Oil production and export is an enormous part of its economy, and the rapid development of urban centers like Astana is financed by high demand and prices for the commodity. Nearly 60% of Kazakhstan’s exports is oil or oil products, and it has the 11th largest oil reserve in the world. Oil pipelines run the width of the country, connecting its supply to Russia, China, and Europe. With a diverse international demand for its product, Kazakhstan and Nazarbayev have found themselves walking a political tightrope. If they lean too far either way toward Europe or toward Russia and China, they will risk their trade partnership with the other faction. Although outsiders have criticized the government for pocketing oil revenue, it cannot be denied that Kazakhstan has drastically improved its business environment, luring in nearly $100 billion in foreign direct investment. Playing politics has no doubt fostered an environment for reforms to take root- in order to avoid the tumultuous relationship that Russia has with its energy sector clients, Kazakhstan has made inroads toward democratic conditions. Intended to assuage fears that Kazakhstan could mimic Russia’s strong-arming of its client countries, Nazarbayev has participated in multinational efforts to implement best practices, and even hosts the Astana Economic Forum annually since 2008, with participants like UNESCO and the Islamic Development Bank.

Unsurprisingly, infrastructural development is one of the most important industries in Kazakhstan, and as a planned city with proximity to Russia, China, and the Caspian sea, Astana is a hub for moving people and goods around the Eurasian continent. It seems that Nazarbayev is trying to resurrect the bustling economic activity of centuries past, when the Silk Road trade routes crisscrossed the steppe from the far East to Europe. The nomadic heritage of the Kazakh people, who traveled by horses bred for hunting and herding for centuries, paired with the vast expanse of the steppe have left Kazakhstan without a modern transport system until recently. Within the past few years, the government has undertaken several projects to link Kazakhstan to its trading partners in China, India, Russia, and Europe. New construction of railways and highways have become a major focus of the government in Astana. This $19 billion plan for modernization is likely to drastically increase accessibility and efficiency in moving people and goods to, from, and through Kazakhstan. The government’s aim to exploit its geopolitically strategic central location on the enormous Eurasian landmass will surely prove to be vital as foreign investment and business has begun pouring in for the energy sector, and as China continues to mass-produce manufactured goods for international consumption.

The capital Astana. Source: wikipedia

Although it’s not a stretch to consider Nursultan Nazarbayev a dictator- he has been in power since 1990, before the fall of the Soviet Union- undoubtedly Kazakhstan has made serious strides toward democracy. He was elected the first, and thusfar the only, president of independent Kazakhstan, Although Kyrgyzstan had a peaceful overthrow of their Soviet-era president in 2004, the Tulip Revolution, as it was known, soon devolved into corruption and failed reform. Kazakhstan has been the only country in Central Asia to enact measures aimed at democratic reform. Judicial reform, promoting more political parties’ participation in the Majlis (lower house of parliament), anti-corruption measures, and the development of a thriving middle class are all on the agenda as Kazakhstan finds itself engaging with an international community that criticized its authoritarian society. A benchmark of Astana’s successes was the 2010 Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a multilateral body focused on human rights, democracy, and peaceful conflict resolution. Considered a successful international leadership stint by experts, Astana became the focal point of many international issues in 2010, including frozen conflicts in the Caucasus and ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan. Although the election process and media freedom continue to be areas where reform is needed, Astana has shown its commitment to a more democratic Kazakhstan.

Astana may not have the rich history that often attracts throngs of tourists, but it is inevitable that people all over the world will be taking a closer look. Its unique and mythical architecture may one day have the appeal of Gaudi; the people passing through its transportation corridors may decide to stay a while; the wealth of opportunity in the energy sector and the rapidly improving business climate may entice drastic investment. Most of all, it is a politically and economically stable bastion in an unpredictable region where stability is worth more than gold. As the stylized capital of a relatively forward-thinking country, Astana has untapped potential, only 15 years after it sprung from the ground like oil.