Kazak Capital Astana: Progress Amid Isolation
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Here's a geography question: Name a country that was once a nuclear power and is now a major oil exporter with a capital whose name translates to `capital.' The answer is Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia and one that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says could be a regional leader. NPR's Michele Kelemen spent a night in Astana and has this postcard.
MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:
Smack in the middle of the Kazakh steppe, there's a city of casinos, with a giant mosque and dozens of apartment buildings under construction, including a replica of one of those huge Stalinist wedding cake buildings from Moscow. The big disappointment of a midnight drive around town was that the centerpiece of this oil boomtown was closed.
MIRAT(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
KELEMEN: Mirat, the night watchman, stands at the base of a 340-foot tower, which looks like fireworks with glittering lights that change from green to white. Not only is there a rotating cafe in the egg-shaped ball on the top of this so-called Tree of Life, he says there's also a golden handprint of President Narsultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan's only post-Soviet president is everywhere in Astana. Walk into the new university and look at a painting of Kazakhstan's influential leaders and thinkers, and you'll see Nazarbayev on horseback right in the middle. Students at the university say they love him.
Ms. DONNA IMBRAMBAYAVA(ph): He's very wisdom. He always thinks about students. He take cares of us.
KELEMEN: Eighteen-year-old Donna Imbrambayava grew up in Astana and remembers when it was a small, provincial, Soviet-style town, before it became Kazakhstan's capital. She likes the new style and the extravagant Tree of Life.
Ms. IMBRAMBAYAVA: It's a symbol of us, of a new Astana, of our capital; symbol of...
Unidentified Man: Nazarbayev.
Ms. IMBRAMBAYAVA: ...our...
Unidentified Woman #1: Future.
Unidentified Woman #2: Nazarbayev.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. IMBRAMBAYAVA: ...and our independence.
KELEMEN: When her classmates say it's really a symbol of Nazarbayev, she just chuckles.
US officials also shrug off the cult of personality, saying it's not nearly as strong as in nearby Turkmenistan. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has known Nazarbayev for two decades, first when she was in George Bush, the father's, White House and Nazarbayev was in the Soviet Politburo; and later, from her days working with Chevron on oil deals in Kazakhstan. She told students at the university she's impressed by what their leader has accomplished, on the economic front at least.
(Soundbite of speech)
Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): This university, like the city of Astana itself, is a source of great pride for Kazakhstanis and a gleaming symbol of progress for all of Central Asia.
KELEMEN: Gleaming it is, thanks to Kazakhstan's huge oil reserves. The oil boom has also ensured Nazarbayev's hold on power, as he increases pensions and scholarships ahead of December's presidential elections. Michele Kelemen, NPR News.
ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.