Castles in the Steppe: Who Benefits from Kazakhstan's Gleaming New Buildings?

The central Asian nation is pouring billions into a new capital, Astana, for the upcoming Expo. But in a land where many live in poverty, critics say it's a waste.
The looming Baiterek (C) monument in downtown Astana (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

ASTANA, Kazakhstan--As the government of Kazakhstan continues to pour money into development of its capital, Astana, in preparation for the 2017 Expo, or world's fair, concerns remain about whether the lavish city is a valuable investment in Kazakhstan's future--or simply a very expensive pet project for the president of a country plagued by social and environmental crises.

According to estimates, which vary wildly, Astana has cost the state between $10 and $30 billion, and the forthcoming exposition has only spurred additional construction and expense. The city already includes a 395,251 square foot presidential palace (which is roughly eight times bigger than the 54,900 square foot White House) and a $58 million pyramid-shaped "Palace of Peace and Reconciliation." In the industrial city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, meanwhile, contamination from nearby factories is so extreme that in summer, local children are reportedly told not to play outside.

"Astana and the rest of Kazakhstan are two different worlds," said Yevgeniy Zhovtis, the director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law. "The president is like a child playing with building blocks, except there is no limit to the money he can spend on his city. Astana is his toy."

The preparations for Expo-2017 include new development projects throughout the city, including a high-speed light rail and a luxury bus network. Hosting the international exposition (which has the theme "Future Energy") will cost Kazakhstan an estimated $1.5 billion, according to the Executive Secretary of the Kazakh Foreign Ministry and Expo-2017 commissioner Rapil Zhoshybayev. He added that the state did not expect to profit from the venture. "There is not much financial profit from this project," Zhoshybayev said in a statement to Kazakhstan-based publication Tengri News. "It is almost equal to the costs." He emphasized, however, that the exposition would increase the city's infrastructure, technology, and reputation, calling the venture a "big image project for Kazakhstan."

Astana has been the capital of Kazakhstan since 1997, when President Nursultan Nazarbayev moved the government away from its previous base in Almaty, the country's largest city. Since then, Astana's population has more than doubled to almost 800,000 -- a rapid increase that is a source of pride for the city's architects. "Only ten years ago, Astana was just an insignificant provincial town," said Amanzhol Chikanayev, one of the chief architects involved with city planning. "And now it's already being compared to Las Vegas." Despite the population boom, however, some critics maintain that the construction projects have been excessive: Astana's Central Concert Hall, for example, is one of the largest in the world, with a seating capacity of 3,500. Yevgeniy Zhovtis and others have pointed out that the even Astana's location has added to its enormous cost.

"In the middle of the steppe, there is nothing there to protect the city from wind or weather," said Zhovtis. "It's too hot in the summer, and too cold in the winter. So can you imagine how much it costs to heat and cool those government buildings with huge rooms and high ceilings? That money is coming from our budget, and it could have been used for our welfare."

Presented by

Jillian Keenan

Jillian Keenan is a freelance writer in New York City. 

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