Every evening in Astana, when the welders arrive at the construction site across the street for their night shift, Vassily Lestyev realizes that he has already lost his battle. His living room becomes bathed in pale blue light and the din from the jackhammers is even louder than it is during the day.
A new hotel is being built next door to Lestyev's mud cottage, and its concrete skeleton is only eight meters (about 25 feet) from Kossygin Street 8 -- Lestyev's address. His house's days are numbered. The water has already been shut off, and since bulldozers began traveling through his front yard, thumb-wide cracks have appeared in the walls.
Lestyev is 80. He wears a worn sweater and blue jogging pants, and he can barely walk still. His 86-year-old wife is braising onions on their coal-fired stove. The couple built the little house with their own hands, but now a letter from the district court sits on the table, demanding that they vacate the premises "within one week." If they fail to comply they will be forcibly removed. "In this case," the letter reads, "we will assume no responsibility for your belongings."
The drone and hiss and bang of construction can be heard on every street corner in Astana, now that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has declared this Cossack settlement 970 kilometers (603 miles) north of the former capital Almaty the country's new capital. The decision has transformed this once-sleepy little town into a pulsating city, and yet the boom has divided its inhabitants into two classes. The Lestyevs are clearly among the losers.
Yury Braun, on the other hand, is a winner. Braun, a Kazakh businessman who bears a resemblance to French character actor Lino Ventura, is well-fed and unashamedly sports a tan from his recent nine-day vacation in the United Arab Emirates.
Braun sits in his office on Auesov Street, drinking green tea, visibly pleased. His various businesses -- the large restaurant downstairs, the adjacent hotel, a bakery and a shop at the street level -- are thriving. One hundred and twenty-five employees keep his small realm humming along. As well it should: It's in an excellent location in Astana, and its 50-year-old owner is a man who says he always knew that things would "take a turn for the better one day" in this small town on the Kazakh steppes.
Braun is of German descent. Astana, formerly known as Zelinograd, was still a "German" city only a decade and a half ago, populated mainly by the descendants of Volga Germans former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had banned to the wilds of Central Asia.
But when the Soviet empire collapsed, when the area's big agricultural machine factories were shut down and the surrounding wheat fields were no longer tilled, most Germans packed their belongings and moved to the West -- back to the German "Reich." Suddenly the region, which former Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev had envisioned as the country's breadbasket, but which ultimately proved to be far less productive than expected, was abandoned by many of its residents.
Braun decided to stay. A construction engineer by trade, he used the "bit of money" he had made in a goldmine to buy the building he now owns on Auesov Street. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited Braun's restaurant, "Yegorkino," six times and, as Braun says, "he liked our food." He proudly displays photos showing him posing with the president. And now, miracle of miracles, he has suddenly come into a new piece of property where he plans to build a second hotel that will include a billiards club. The new building will stand on the left bank of the Ishim River, where construction on Nazarbayev's new presidential palace is already complete. It's a prime location, sure to be extremely valuable in a few years time.
Braun's and Lestyev's stories are only two of the many tales of success and failure, of the haves and have-nots, in this remote Kazakh Klondike on a bleak plain halfway between the Russian south and the Chinese border. But unlike the American West 110 years ago, Astana's boom is not fuelled by a gold rush so much as by the iron will of a despotic ruler.
"Palace of Peace and Harmony"
The Bayterek Tower, or "Tree of Life," a large glass sphere perched at the top of a 100-meter (328-foot) metal shaft that looks a bit like the FIFA World Cup trophy, embodies the fierce resolve with which Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's last Communist leader and re-elected for a fourth term last year with 91 percent of the votes, is stamping his new capital into the vast emptiness of the Central Asian steppes.
The tower forms the center of a monumental axis running straight through the government district that links the country's new centers of power. At the western end of this axis stand the headquarters of the partially state-owned oil and gas companies, linked by a triumphal arch, and the eastern end is marked by "Ak Orda," the presidential residence, a white marble and granite structure crowned by a sky-blue dome. The celebrated architect Norman Foster designed a 62-meter (203-foot) glass pyramid, the "Palace of Peace and Harmony," that now stands in the park behind Nazarbayev's new palace.
Other symbols of the Nazarbayev realm straddle the axis, including the high-rises that will house the country's parliament and senate, the supreme court building, a national archive building shaped like a giant egg and the "Transport Tower" with its gold-tinted glass façade. Behind these structures lies the diplomatic quarter, a collection of red-roofed miniature mansions lined up in the landscape like rows of obedient soldiers, a convenient stone's throw from the presidential palace. The cupolas of what is now Kazakhstan's largest mosque and, farther back, the towers of the "Triumph" Palace -- a perfect replica of a Moscow behemoth from the days of Josef Stalin -- glint in the sunlight on the other side of this avenue.
Pile drivers drone in the midst of this collection of ornate towers and minarets, voluptuous facades and onion-shaped roofs. But what is missing are the people. The new Astana is an artificial creation, a cross between Moscow and Las Vegas, between the high-tech of modern-day Wolfsburg (Volkswagen's headquarters in Germany) and an aging factory town, a cocktail of Eurasian modernity and Soviet confectionary. Critics have disparaged the new city for everything from its "Arabian Nights" pretensions to its "fantasies of power cast in concrete."
Czar Peter the Great, in a move to open up Russia to Europe, had his new capital, St. Petersburg, built in the swamps on the Gulf of Finland. Oscar Niemeyer envisioned his Brasilia as a model capital city, the Australian capital Canberra is the result of a dispute between Sydney and Melbourne, and the new Burmese capital, Naypyidaw, was conceived as a remote haven for the country's paranoid military junta.
Two billion dollars a year
But Astana? "I too was surprised by the decision to move the capital," admits Amanshol Chikanayev. Chikanayev, Nazarbayev's first chief architect, now serves as the president's advisor on urban planning issues. In his office behind the new city hall, the professor sits among models and cabinets filled with drawings and discusses the presumed reasons behind his president's decision to build a new capital for the world's ninth-largest country, a gargantuan effort that will cost the state $2 billion a year for many years to come.
The location of the current capital, Almaty, directly on the country's southern border and in close proximity to China, was "a dead-end economically," says Chikanayev. It also posed a security risk to the government, because ethnic Kazakhs were a minority to the ethnic Russian majority after the country declared its independence in 1991, with half the country remaining uncomfortably exposed to its bigger neighbor to the north. Finally, says Chikanayev, Nazarbayev believed that the best way to align his then economically troubled country with the West was to separate himself and his government from the powerful business clans in Almaty.
Success has apparently proved Nazarbayev right. Kazakhstan has boomed since it managed to gain control over its own natural resources, including oil, natural gas, uranium and gold. It has already set aside $13 billion in reserves, is sending its own satellites into space and, with $40 billion in foreign direct investment, is, with the exception of the Baltic states, the biggest per capita recipient of foreign capital among the states of the former Soviet Union.
This former realm of nomadic herders now has a power and natural gas grid, a comprehensive secondary education system, a modern banking network and private pension funds -- the stuff of dreams for many in Kazakhstan's larger neighbor to the north, Russia. Indeed, the Kazakhs have plenty of reasons for complaining that the new comedy "Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," which has made Kazakhstan a laughing stock the world over, paints a completely misleading picture of their thriving country.
The president is also convinced that Kazakhstan is well on its way to making the transition to one of the world's most successful countries. Nazarbayev has made it clear that he has plans to turn his country into one of the "50 most prosperous countries in the world" by 2030, and that it will be the world's fifth-largest oil exporter even sooner and, implicitly, the dominant power in the Central Asian region.
Fat spiders in a web
The energy-hungry West, eager to share in the wealth of the Kazakhs, has been more than willing to turn a blind eye to Nazarbayev's authoritarian style, to the country's lack of free elections, to the murders of members of the opposition and to nepotism within the presidential clan. Indeed, Nazarbayev's daughters and sons-in-law are comfortably ensconced in the oil and construction business, and in the media sector, like fat spiders in a web.
Of course, Almaty was in an uproar when the president made it clear that his cabinet minister, foreign ambassadors, international airlines and even the national circus would have no choice but to pack up and move -- to a provincial town that is now second only to the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator as the world's most frigid capital, a place that is still blanketed in snow by the time the almond trees are blooming in Almaty. Astana, says an offended citizen of the former capital, "doesn't even have sidewalks, and every brick, every gutter has to be brought in from someplace else."
But 60-year-old Chikanayev, the architect, sees Astana's innocence as its greatest opportunity. He believes that the city will become a symbol for a country on the verge of reinventing itself. "We will not revive the manufacturing industries of the Soviet era," says Chikanayev, "and in addition to selling raw materials, we also intend to take advantage of our intellectual potential." Astana, he believes, represents Kazakhstan's departure from the past.
Oddly enough, the man making these rosy predictions is someone who came of age under communism and whose suit looks as though it too may have originated in that era. But for Chikanayev, the son of a wealthy Kazakh cattle rancher, the new city is also a form of compensation for past injustices. The Soviets "de-Kulaked" (the term Kulak refers to those who were wealthy farmers or peasants during the Russian empire and were later persecuted by the Soviets) his father in the 1920s and drove him into the forests of the Ural Mountains. Chikanayev was born in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. Up to 2 million Kazakhs lost their lives at the time, and the Chikanayevs only managed to return to their homeland 30 years later.
And now, says Chikanayev, the Kazakhs have finally regained their sovereignty. He has plans to entice fellow Kazakhs from the former Soviet biological weapons research center on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea to return to Astana. Indeed, if Chikanayev has his way, "those people who are valuable to us" will return home, including experts from the former weapons industry, Kazakh mathematicians and computer specialists who have been doing their research in Russia. He hopes to see Astana develop into a "high-tech city," and to convince as many qualified people as possible to settle in the new capital he is currently redesigning the city's master plan by preeminent Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa who, according to Chikanayev, saw Astana as nothing but "an attractive façade."
But to achieve that goal the city will need many more high-rises to house the "800,000 people who will live here by 2030." The new capital's population has already reached 500,000, which explains the astonishing pace of construction in Astana's old section. While the long-time residents of neighborhoods that are gradually giving way to bulldozers fight to gain what they feel is fair compensation, and while retirees complain about the loss of their now-flattened vegetable gardens and about the outrageous prices in new restaurants, the spirit of the "New Kazakhs," nicknamed the "Kasanovas," already dominates the capital's new thoroughfares. Astana's urban planners have concealed Khrushchev's pre-fabricated concrete high-rises behind white façades, creating space for pubs and nightclubs on their ground floors. Developers advertise a "new sense of life" for those who buy their condominiums, and banks like Texaka are offering "fast money" to those willing to pay 12 percent interest. A horn-honking avalanche of Western-made cars coated in cement dust constantly surges past rows of billboards hawking these and other services to Astana's new residents.
Though just completed, the 459 "Elite" and "Deluxe" condominiums in the "Triumph" Palace behind the "Astana Tower" are already sold out, at a price per square meter of about €1,300. The sum is roughly the equivalent of a Kazakh teacher's average annual salary -- nevertheless "every second customer paid in cash," says Shanar Ainabulatova, the deputy director of Basis-A, the developer of Astana's new high-rise residences. Almaty may be turning up its nose at its rival Astana, but its citizens have had no qualms about investing their money in the new capital.
Basis-A's next project is an entire urban neighborhood that will be called "Romance" and will feature replicas of 19th-century European architecture. "The refined style of the English, the chic of the French and the airiness of the Italians," says Ainabulatova as she flips through a glossy brochure. The images depict a Kazakh Disneyland, but what they fail to show is a sense of proportionality and good taste. Indeed, megalomania is the name of the game in Astana. The footprint of the new finance ministry, which sits across the street from the glass-enclosed headquarters of the KNB, Kazakhstan's national intelligence agency, was designed in the shape of a dollar sign. An expert reveals that Foster's pyramid, which will house a conference center and opera house, will consume as much electricity as a "small German city."
Nazarbayev is about as unconcerned about this ostentation as he is about the inroads the construction industry is making in Astana, which has been flooded with an army of Swiss and Italians, Kuwaitis and Jordanians. The Sheikh of Qatar donated the money for the new mosque. The Saudi Binladin Group, under the cover of a company called "KazArabInvest," built a cardiological center and is now constructing four 20-story towers. The South Korean Highvill Corporation is building an entire district complete with 600,000 square meters (6.45 million square feet) of residential space.
But none of this can hold a candle to the omnipresence of the Turks, who built the mosque and the pyramid. "They buy up property as if they were on a production line, use subcontractors and then sell the finished product," says one city official. According to the official, it is common knowledge that the Turks pour concrete at minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit) and that their projects have the highest rate of deadly accidents. He points to the skeleton of a giant residential development that will likely have to be torn down before long. Astana is full of "temporary architecture" that will hardly last 20 years, warns Tsubokura Takashi, an assistant to Japanese urban planner Kurokawa.
Where are the Germans?
Andreas Seewalt, a businessman who runs a small trading company in an abandoned combine harvester factory, says that the Turks "are not popular among ordinary Kazakhs. But the higher-ups are under the fairy tale impression that the Turks rebuilt all of Germany after the war. And Germany has a solid reputation here."
Oddly enough, Germans are almost nowhere to be found in Astana. Lufthansa yielded to pressure from the Kazakhs and now offers two flights a week to the new capital. Industrial giant ThyssenKrupp supplies escalators for the Turkish-built high-rises. Wirtgen, a German company specializing in road construction and maintenance equipment, is providing asphalt technology; a Berlin company was involved in the construction of the presidential palace and even the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid a visit to Astana last week. But German firms have been loath to submit direct bids for development contracts. "It's the usual situation here," says Seewalt, "the Germans want German prices and government guarantees, but neither of those two things is an option here. If you want to get involved in this giant Astana project, you have to get the right people on your side first -- and that's too much work for the Germans."
Seewalt is familiar with both worlds. He is 43, and like hotelier Yury Braun, he was born, he is a Kazakh of German origin. He studied electrical engineering and emigrated to Bavaria with his parents in 1992. But when his businesses failed there he returned to Kazakhstan with four trucks loaded with German paint. He is undaunted by challenges for which he is in fact unqualified, and he knows how to deal with the city's powerbrokers. The approach paid off when he was awarded a slice of Astana's construction boom, a contract to install the siding on the new circus arena, which crouches like some UFO between the city's old and new sections. Friends in Germany helped Seewalt recruit professionals and track down the necessary material. His next project is a €10 million contract to install a glass façade on the railroad administration's 182-meter (597-foot) office tower.
But city planners and local businesspeople alike are still waiting for the "real" Germans, especially those who are undaunted by the risks of investing in Astana. Perhaps in anticipation, someone has even opened a German-style beer garden, where classic German beer brands like Weihenstephan and Franziskaner are on tap and Bavarian sausages on the menu. The clientele -- all Kazakhs -- drink German beer and listen to German drinking songs. But there's no one there who can translate the lyrics.