ASTANA (Reuters) - If there is one thing Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev cherishes as part of his legacy, it is the gold-plated extravagance of his new capital, Astana.
Tucked away in the empty heartland of Eurasia, Astana was little more than a windswept provincial town a decade ago when Nazarbayev declared it the capital of his vast oil-rich state.
Now, with its grandiose, if somewhat surreal, skyline dominating a barren landscape, Astana stands as a monument to Nazarbayev’s two-decade rule in the former Soviet state.
With gold-tinted tower blocks, oddly shaped skyscrapers and a giant pyramid with an opera house in the basement, Astana also offers a peek into what a country can do with billions of dollars of new-found oil wealth.
In power since 1989, Nazarbayev dreamt up Astana’s creation — Kazakhstan’s answer to Dubai and Brasilia — in 1994 as a symbol of Kazakhstan’s independence and a way to give a sense of national identity to his people.
Like other nations born out of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan endured years of post-Soviet chaos in the 1990s but its economy is now booming thanks to billions of dollars of foreign investment.
Five times the size of France but populated by only 16 million people, it wants to copy the experience of Gulf Arab states that have grown rich on the back of oil since the 1970s.
It is also at the centre of global oil diplomacy as Europe courts it as an alternative to Russian energy supplies.
Nazarbayev, however, has been criticized by rights groups for tolerating little dissent and backsliding on democracy.
This week, he is unlikely to hear any critical voices: he is at the centre of lavish festivities being held to mark the city’s 10th anniversary with the culmination on July 6 conveniently coinciding with his own, 68th, birthday.
Over $12 billion has been invested in Astana, which is growing fast in line with a master-plan laid out by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa.
And, it seems, some of Astana’s once-skeptical residents have finally come to terms with their city’s flashy image.
A walk around Astana, once a tiny outpost founded by Russian troops, reveals a city of magnificent proportions, with some of its austere, glass-and-marble buildings and abstract statues harking back to the brutal grandeur of Stalinist architecture.
“Behind his back we call (Nazarbayev) the chief architect of Astana,” said Bair Dosmambetov, a senior official who oversees Astana’s construction. “We always seek his advice.”
The official hero worship is also explicit.
“Goal: position the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan as a leader of global proportions,” stated the official Astana website, explaining the gist of week-long celebrations that include massive theatrical shows and concerts.
Somewhat mystifyingly, it also lists the “sacralization of the capital” as another key goal. The official cost of celebrations has not been made public.
Kazakhstan’s military march-style anthem, its lyrics co-authored by Nazarbayev, blared across Astana and scores of people waving blue-and-yellow national flags strolled through its streets as the festivities started.
At one event, a flag-raising ceremony attended by Nazarbayev, a crowd cheered and chanted “Kazakhstan! Kazakhstan!” as the president spoke.
“We’ve lived through many challenges,” he said. “One of the challenges was to build a new country ... Our country has become respectable. Astana has become the centre of Eurasia.”
But away from the rallies and speeches, there was little cause for celebration in Astana’s poorer districts where people have yet to see the benefits of oil wealth, like millions of others outside Astana and the old capital, Almaty.
Spiralling food inflation is threatening to undo the gains built up through economic expansion of around 10 percent a year since 2000 in a country where around one quarter of the population still lives in poverty, according to U.N. figures.
In one district, dotted by crumbling huts and bisected by a rough dirt track, people said their only source of water was a rusty metal pipe sticking out of the ground.
“This celebration isn’t for us but for the elite,” said Gulzhamal as she collected water from the pipe. Like many people who criticize the government, she refused to give her surname.
“We have to solve our own problems, figure out how to buy bread, how to buy clothes for our children, how to support them. We simply have no time for celebration.”
Some have compared Nazarbayev to Turkey’s first President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara in 1923. Some have dubbed Astana the Brasilia of the Kazakh steppe, referring to Brazil’s capital since 1960.
But, unpleasantly cold in winter and swarming with mosquitoes in summer, Astana has yet to win many hearts among expatriates and diplomats who have mostly stayed in leafy Almaty in the foothills of the Tien-Shan mountains.
“A lot of people didn’t want to come here,” said Spencer Oliver, a senior official from Europe’s main rights watchdog who has visited Kazakhstan many times. “It’s not uncommon. I mean, nobody wanted to leave Rio to go to Brasilia, I can tell you.”
Over past years, Nazarbayev has politely refused offers from his officials to rename the 600,000-strong new city Nursultan, saying it was inappropriate while he was alive.
But he has continued to bask in lavish praise.
“Without any doubt, the driving force behind this success is one epic figure — the head of state, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and his political will,” said Akhmetzhan Yesimov, Almaty’s mayor.
In the centre of Astana, there is a blatant monument to Nazarbayev — the Museum of the First President which showcases personal items ranging from his diploma to a pack of golf balls given to him by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
“His parents were very hard-working. The president studied very well at school,” says Akmaral Karmanova, a museum guide.
“I saw him once. He visited our museum. It was his decision to open it so people could come and see it.”