Updated: Mar 23, 2019
That's quite an Opera House you have there, Astana. Not only an Opera House, but all kinds of grand buildings and monuments. Is this a mirage in the centre of Central Asia?
The new city of Astana is sometimes described as the grand vision of a giant ego, but it might just be a cleverly positioned Eurasian hub on the New Silk Road.
Astana became capital of the post-Soviet nation of Kazakhstan in 1997 and, at twenty, it is an ambitious project of strongman President Nazarbayev. Whatever your view about Kazakh politics – and let’s face it, politics in Central Asia has always been a rough game – Astana is an intriguing modern city, with some classic architecture and a sophisticated, affluent lifestyle that says it wants to be taken seriously, alongside more famous cities of Europe and Asia.
It is worth a visit to see oil-rich Kazakhstan at its modern best, a country that sits strategically on the “New Silk Road” in the heart of Central Asia and, as the ninth largest country on earth, not one to be ignored if you are interested in off the beaten track destinations.
It is resource-rich and, thanks to the (ahem) secure position of President Nazarbayev, it has enjoyed remarkable stability for the region that it is in.
As someone who used to live Australia’s capital of Canberra, I was surprised by Astana’s similarities to other planned cities and also by how it has learned the lessons of Canberra’s mistakes. Canberra was designed as a brand new capital for the new nation of Australia early in the twentieth century. It was designed to be decentralised, forcing people to commute long distances by car from isolated suburbs to shopping malls to government administration zones in landscaped gardens and parks, replete with monuments and geometric symbolism. It does at least have a lovely natural, Aussie "bush" setting, even if it lacks to this day any feeling of a city.
Whereas most of Canberra’a architecture is bleak and brutalist, the more recently-built Astana is surprisingly pleasing on the eye and feels more naturally city-like. Its modern buildings are of such quality that they might just stand the test of time. Its mock-classic buildings are, well, so classic that it is easy to forget they are brand new. The build is solid, with fine craftsmanship and the finest materials.
All that oil money has, in the last two decades of this young nation, funded a feast of architecture, attracting world famous names such as Norman Foster (who designed both the “Tent” shopping mall and the “Pyramid”).
There is the same geometric symbolism of a Canberra (or a Washington DC) but the distances are on a human scale. It is possible to walk around the city. Indeed, people do walk around the city. It has a density that creates a city vibe and cleverly designed public spaces that foster civic life.
The restaurants abound and they are very good. The local wine was very drinkable. The horse steaks though, I gave them a miss.
On my June visit the sun was shining and the sky was a brilliant blue. Families were entertaining their children in well shaded amusement parks and taking dips in the river.
I must say that I wasn’t too excited by Astana’s Expo 2017, the giant showcase built to celebrate the city’s 20th birthday. The Expo was on the theme of New Energy, which seems fitting, but the displays were far too complacent about Kazakhstan’s rich reserves of fossil fuels and had, as far as I could see, little evidence of actual renewable technologies in action, apart from sloganising exhibits. The buildings housing the yawn-inspiring national pavilions have, nevertheless, been designed for future adaptation.
Part of Kazakhstan’s 2030 vision is to diversify the economy away from a dependence on its oil and mineral resources, including the development of a services sector to take advantage of the nation’s strategic location between Europe and Asia. It’s a vision to be the Singapore of the Silk Road. So in 2018 the Expo site will be reborn as the Astana International Finance Centre. With plans to be a regional services hub, Kazakhstan is offering a 50 year tax holiday for investors and has even amended its constitution to allow the application of British common law in the designated Finance Centre.
As a post-Soviet state, Kazakhstan has inherited an over-reliance on the state and has a relatively under-developed private sector. That is all set to change, with an ambitious privatisation program over a five year period which government officials claim is designed with the highest standards of probity. Already international companies are active in Kazakhstan, bringing their technology and other expertise to take advantage of its resources and its location. Over a quarter of the oil industry is managed by Chinese firms. Watch this space, though, to be sure newly privatised assets don’t all end up in the hands of oligarchs like in other post-Soviet states.
Yet Kazakhstan insists it is different and has ambitions to stand out as a beacon of development in the region. Its capital city certainly sends that message loud and clear.