Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 115

Kazakhstan’s new capital, Astana, was formally presented on June 10 to an audience of 1,500 foreign dignitaries and guests, but discussion continues over the motives for the move. Local observers question the choice of Astana, in terms of both its central location and the qualities of the city itself.

Echoing remarks made by President Nursultan Nazarbaev when he first proposed relocating to Astana in 1994, a recent government statement lists eight reasons for the move: 1) Astana’s central location, 2) its political and social stability, 3) its relatively clean environment and space for expansion, 4) its industrial potential, 5) new opportunities for the construction sector in rebuilding Astana, 6) its location at a transport and telecommunications crossroads, 7) its highly qualified work force and 8) its blossoming private sector.

In reality, out of Kazakhstan’s fifteen regions, Astana ranks only tenth in terms of industrial output. Qaraghandy Region, for example, is more highly industrialized, just as centrally located and has equally good transport links. And, if Astana’s labor force is as highly qualified as the government claims, why was it necessary to relocate 3,500 officials from Almaty? Finally, government statistics suggest that the private sector is less highly developed in Astana than in many other regions. (Focus Central Asia [Almaty], May 29 and 30)

The political arguments are more persuasive. Most commentators agree that the move was made in order to exploit Astana’s proximity to the Russian-dominated regions of the north of the country which, the government fears, might at some future date try to secede to Russia. The government is also believed to hope that relocation will induce ethnic Kazakhs to move from the Kazakh-dominated south to the north, gradually ensuring an even ethnic balance throughout the country. Other commentators contend that the move was motivated primarily by President Nazarbaev’s desire to offer opportunities of national political office to ethnic Kazakhs other than those from the south, who dominate the political scene in Almaty. The move is thought to serve the President’s political ambitions by allowing Nazarbaev to ensure that only loyal officials move to the new capital, where they will be in place for the presidential election campaign of 2000. In this context, Astana’s lack of strong industrial or business networks is believed to offer a clean slate on which the President can consolidate his power.–SC