Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 115

The events and guests chosen to mark the official presentation of Kazakhstan’s new capital epitomized the country’s geopolitical dilemmas. Two events were particularly striking: the summit of Turkic-speaking states on June 9 and the opening ceremony on June 10. Behind the pomp and ceremony, both occasions revealed a young state struggling to establish a new identity.

Attended by the presidents of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and the chairman of Turkmenistan’s parliament, the Turkic summit exemplified the ambiguity surrounding Kazakhstan’s place in the world and the desire of the country’s leadership to distance itself from Russia, the erstwhile imperial power. (Panorama [Almaty], June 12) Nazarbaev used the occasion to celebrate the hard-won unity and independence of the Turkic-speaking countries in the face of what he said was “often ruthless suppression in the 20th century.” (Delovaya nedelya [Almaty], June 11] The recent summit of the Economic Corporation Organization in Almaty, he said, exemplified that unity. In reality, Kazakhstan has not limited itself to Turkic-speaking countries, but seeks various export alternatives. Although the summit served to differentiate Kazakhstan’s cultural roots from Russia’s, the President’s Press Secretariat stressed that the summit’s main significance was symbolic. (Itar-Tass, June 9) And while Nazarbaev lost no opportunity to underscore how far his country has moved from its colonial past, the president was careful not to give offense to powerful neighbors. Russia and China were both represented at the June 10 festivities by high-ranking officials, and Ukraine’s President Leonid Kuchma attended in person.

The opening ceremony on June 10 also underlined the tensions between past and present that are complicating Kazakhstan’s efforts to build a new nation. Astana would gain legitimacy if it could boast historical importance. However, it was founded in 1832 as Akmolinsk–an outpost of the Russian empire–and was renamed Tselinograd [City of the Virgin Lands] by Khrushchev in 1961. The city was therefore a Russian and Soviet creation before its reincarnation as Kazakhstan’s new capital. At the opening ceremony, Nazarbaev unveiled a statue dedicated to “those great heroes who in the bleak years spared no effort to defend their homeland [Kazakhstan].” (Russian agencies, June 10) Astana’s status as a modern city without a usable history is itself a symbol of the difficulties Kazakhstan faces as it strives to build a strong state with a self-confident population.–SC

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