Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 237

The northern city of Akmola officially became the new capital of Kazakhstan on December 10, replacing Almaty in that role. Media reporting on the move has tended to focus on its logistical difficulties, the human hardships of relocating to an underdeveloped zone of harsh climate, and the high costs of building up a new capital in an impoverished country that has barely begun cashing in on its mineral resources. The actual reasons behind the move have received less attention. Nor could the authorities have been fully candid in explaining the main motivation for selecting Akmola. That main motivation is political: it stems from the need to address the distorted pattern of ethnic settlement in the country and to enhance the government’s presence in the northern region.

Settled by Russians since Tsarist times, that region received during the 1950s and 1960s a massive population influx from the Russian Federation in connection with the campaign to open up the Virgin Lands. The region’s Kazakh population for its part suffered massive losses during the earlier Soviet collectivization campaign. Today’s Kazakh leadership must reckon with the potentially destabilizing consequences of the concentration of ethnic Russian population in a region directly adjacent to the Russian Federation. Some groups — including Cossack ones — in the region and in Russia have in recent years attempted to spark an irredentist movement in northern Kazakhstan. The great majority of the local Russian population has not responded to such calls, and most of the region’s Russian nomenklatura has behaved loyally toward the central government. Nevertheless, the situation is vulnerable to external manipulation, and further developments are seen to depend in no small measure on the political evolution of Russia.

Further reasons for moving of the capital include: Almaty’s eccentric location in the southeastern corner of the immense country; its proximity to the Chinese border, whereas Akmola is located safely away from the Russian border; extreme crowding in Almaty and lack of expansion room in that narrow valley; and almost intractable ecological problems in the old capital. The government has cautiously chosen to emphasize these factors rather than its long-term political considerations.

Akmola (meaning "White Tomb" in Kazakh) was turned in 1830 into a Russian fort and later a settlement under the name of Akmolinsk. The town was renamed Tselinograd (meaning "Virgin Lands City" in Russian) in 1961, and was given back its Kazakh name in 1994. Its current population of some 300,000 is mostly Russian, with only 27 percent ethnic Kazakhs. (Russian agencies, December 10) The move of the capital is bound to equalize that imbalance and also to ripple into the surrounding countryside. President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed in 1995 the decree on moving the capital to Akmola and has since pressed the state bureaucracy to accelerate the move.

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