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."

Astana is widely recognized as a pet project of President Nazarbayev, who has closely overseen the city's development process. In an interview with CNN, former British politician Jonathan Aitken, who wrote a 2012 biography of Nazarbayev, described Kazakhstan's capital city as the personal creation of the president. "Just as Versailles and parts of Paris were all created by one man's vision, so too was Astana," he said. The president's involvement with the city's design was so detailed that one of the skyline's most recognizable monuments, the Bayterek Tower, was built based on a sketch that Nazarbayev drew on a napkin, said Chikanayev. The president's handprint literally overlooks the city; at the top of the tower, visitors can place their hands in a gold cast of the Navarbayev's hand, which is said to bring good luck.

"He loves this city as his child," added Chikanayev, who is also the Deputy Director of the Astana branch of the Kazakh Scientific Research and Design Institute of Construction and Architecture. Chikanayev defended the decision to build up the capital city, arguing that the cost of gleaming Astana and the social problems of Kazakhstan's more grim cities, such as Ust-Kamenogorsk, are two separate issues.

"Many things in Astana were built by private investors, not the government," he said, citing Astana's Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, which boasts an indoor roller coaster, beach resort, and shopping center. "So if some people think that money needs to be redirected to Ust-Kamenogorsk, they should talk to investors."

But human rights activist Zhovits and others point out that Astana was built specifically for the government, and that a huge proportion of its buildings and citizens are affiliated in some capacity with the state, which has a spotty record of financial transparency. In 2002, authorities admitted that $1 billion of state oil revenues had been deposited in a secret Swiss bank account under President Nazarbayev's name, but insisted that the money had been used exclusively for the benefit of Kazakhstan. (The Almaty-based newspaper that first reported the existence of the secret account, Respublika, was sent a decapitated dog carcass with a note pinned to its body that read, "There will be no next time.") Nazarbayev later ordered that the money from the Swiss account be diverted into a special fund with one specific purpose -- the continued development of Astana.

"There are cities in Kazakhstan without electricity, where people leave their ovens on in winter because they don't have heat," said Zhovtis. "When I see Astana, with pyramids in the middle of the steppe, it looks like a combination of Kafka and Orwell in one place."

Reporting for this story was sponsored by the International Reporting Project (IRP).