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Astana: A City Analysis and Future Development

Samantha Brletich

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Futuristic, expansive, cold, frigid, and even the “the space station in the steppes” are some words that are used to describe Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana. The city is beautiful, with futuristic and colorful buildings reflecting Kazakh folklore, history, and culture and a look into Kazakhstan will be.

Attracting large domestic and international investments, Kazakhstan’s nearly two-decade old capital, Astana, strives to be a worldly and international city welcoming investors, but the city lacks many features characteristic of other bustling and global cities. The mayor’s 2015 development plan, proposing fast food restaurants and strip malls already flooding a city with countless shopping malls and cafes, will fail to attract “global citizens” and those who want to experience authentic Kazakh culture.

Astana is a relatively new city. Established in 1997 and renamed in 1998 (was called Akmola), Astana has a population of 851,000 and is currently the second largest city in Kazakhstan. The city is 722 km2 (279 sq. mi.) as compared to Washington D.C. with a population of 658,893 and the size of 177 km2 (68.3 sq. mi.). Washington D.C.’s population is roughly two-thirds of Astana’s, but the size is of Astana is more than four times the size of D.C. Astana  has potential to grow not only in population, but in the commercial and residential sectors as well. The city, upon construction, took upon an ambitious urban development and capital relocation program to transform the Siberian steppe area. Astana was built over an already existing city and was a “planned city.” Astana is a “brand city” to project Kazakhstan’s influence well beyond its borders as Nazarbayev is poised to make Kazakhstan the Eurasian bridge connecting Europe and Asia while seeking recognition for Kazakhstan politically, economically and culturally.

As Nazarbayev promotes Astana, he is also distinguishing Kazakhstan from other Central Asia states, but also from the Former Soviet Union. The relocation of the capital from Almaty to Astana highlights the need for a more central location to quell tensions notably the ethnic tension between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians and celebrating Astana’s independence leaving the Soviet identity marred by memories of violence and poor governance behind. Astana’s city variations and the desire to attract foreign investors echo Nazarbayev’s political and diplomatic strategy of multi-vector foreign policy. The interesting observation was made regarding Sir Norman Foster’s design of the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation: “the president’s determination to have the rest of the world perceive Kazakhstan as neutral host to international affairs is writ upon the Astana landscape—while the conference meets once every three years, the locals are confronted daily with a giant glass pyramid.”[ii] The mayor’s plans to adhere to the 2015 Astana Development plan are to include a system of a fast food chains and to replace shopping malls. Shops, restaurants, and shopping centers are equally distributed throughout Astana. Astana, if more strip malls were to be constructed, would be a “strip mall city.”

The city’s current land-use is focused on commercial and residential areas. There is abundant green space (parks and tree-filled areas), but this green space primarily lies outside the city (and behind Khan Shatyr and around Turan Avenue) and it is mixed in around Astana’s buildings including Bayterek tower/monument and around the Presidential Palace. Residential land use focuses primarily on Western-style apartments built for expatriates and young professionals. Traditional houses are expected to be built, but are hard to find currently. Due the city’s design, houses would have to be on the periphery and not able to be incorporated among apartments. To the north (referred to the as Old Center) of the Ishim River, the buildings are built during the Soviet times reflected in the outside aesthetics and most of the words are in Russia. To the South of the Ishim River, is new which has newer apartments. Construction on apartment buildings has already begun in South Astana on the outskirts of the main town. The apartments will mostly attract expats and young professionals as “2,507 apartments totaling 1,588,000 square [meters] will be put into operation during the first quarter of the current year.”

Astana lacks many Kazakh culture staples such as bazaars. They are more like a supermarket in a concrete building. Bazaars are part of Kazakh heritage and Central Asian history as the region was part of the historical trading route, the Great Silk Road. Kazakhstan’s appeal to be a global city should not include dismissing its culture and catering to people who may or may not visit. The loss of Kazakh cultural identity should be considered when planning. Many of the shopping malls contain the same stores. The Keruen shopping center including high end retailers such as Max Mara and Escada.

Nazarbayev University, named after President Nursultan Nazarbayev, is on the outskirts of the city blocking off a key demographic away from South Astana and its economy. The school was established in 2009. Cities in America, Europe, and Southeast Asia have student populations which contribute significantly to the local economies. Nazarbayev University, upon establishment, had partnered with seven schools to develop its programs, including the University Wisconsin-Madison. This is ironic as UW has been considered an institution that embodies democratic ideals, something that Nazarbayev’s Administration has not always complied with.

Newly constructed buildings are to contain parking lots. Parking in Astana is limited and atrocious. Luxury vehicles and imported vehicles crowed the narrow roads and vehicles are parked strategically on curbs blocking pedestrian foot traffic especially in busy areas near KazMunaiGas headquarters and the shopping area near Keruen shopping center. Many busy intersections do not have crosswalk signals and drivers without indication (no traffic lights) have to stop to let pedestrians cross the street. The businesses and shopping centers would best benefit from parking garages similar to the parking garage in Sary Arka (or Sary Arka) shopping mall.

Astana’s public transportation system relies on  buses and private cars. There is only one cab service approved by Astana, Komandir, which operates a fleet of crossovers and sedans. There are also private car companies many which pick up drivers from the airport; airport drivers are known to inflate prices. Astana, to better connect the North and the South, would benefit from a subway system. The city’s roads will be improved by reconstructing/repairing 108 kilometers of roads including 30 streets in 11 districts and more video cameras will be installed. Plans were signed in 2013 for a light rail system to be rolled out in three stages according to the “New transport system of Astana city” and connected with the bus system. This is needed as Astana has experienced rapid traffic congestion and a growing population expected to be 1.2 million in 2020. The light rail would have to sustain Astana’s harsh winter temperatures.

Astana is not a metropolitan area. More development will have to be done surrounding Astana if Astana wants to be a global city, and the closest populated places are Koschi, and Vishnevka, and Izhevskoe located along the Karaganda-Astana Highway. Two other large cities in northern Kazakhstan are Karaganda (2009 population: 456,634 according to UN data) and Pavlodar (population: 307,880 according to UN data).Astana attempts to mimic the bright lights and screens of New York City, but instead of showing advertisements (some do), one screen on Qabanbay Batyr Avenue shows prominent Kazakh historical figures

Compared to other new planned cities such as Putrajaya in Malaysia and Brasilia in Brazil, Astana was relocated to serve a federal administrative function. Putrajaya is located 25km south of Kuala Lumpur and is the federal administrative center for Malaysia because of overcrowding in the capital. Putrajaya was planned as a garden and a smart city—uses technology to better well-being and to reduce consumption—as 38% of the city is green space; the city has land designated as open space. Astana is the new Kazakh culture capital and business center. Just like Kazakhstan the development was slowed down because of economic factors: the 1997/1998 Asia Economic Crisis and the collapse of the Soviet Union respectively.

Brasilia is considered a modernist city and like Astana was built into the country’s remote interior and was a capital relocation effort and was built quickly—Brasilia was completed in three years. Like Astana, Brasilia is a “civitas” encompassing administrative and urban functions. Astana has many government structures adjacent to shopping centers and strip malls. Brasilia and Astana share a division of “urban fabric between the civic space” and “was intended to make possible the speedy completion of the most prominent civic structures to create an emblematic vision of the nation’s new capital.”


[ii] Rutz, Julia. 2015. Astana’s Mayor Outlines City Plans for 2015. Astana Times Web site. http://www.astanatimes.com/2015/03/astana-mayor-outlines-citys-plans-2015/ (last accessed March 29, 2015).

[iii] Danilo Matoso Macedo and Sylvia Ficher. N.d. Brasilia: Preservation of a Modernist city. The Getty Conservation Institute. http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/28_1/brasilia.html (last accessed April 4, 2015).

Samantha M. Brletich is a researcher and writer specializing in Central Asia and governance, security, terrorism, and development issues. She possesses a Master’s in Peace Operations Policy from George Mason University in Virginia, United States. She works with the virtual think tank Modern Diplomacy specializing in Central Asia and diplomatic trends. Her work has appeared in multiple publications focused on diplomacy and Central Asia respectively. She is currently an employee of the U.S. Federal Government.

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Central Asia

ILO Reports Important Progress on Child Labour and Forced Labour in Uzbek Cotton Fields

MD Staff

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A new International Labour Organization report to the World Bank finds that the systematic use of child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest has come to an end, and that concrete measures to stop the use of forced labour have been taken.

The report Third-party monitoring of measures against child labour and forced labour during the 2017 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan is based on more than 3,000 unaccompanied and unannounced interviews with a representative sample of the country’s 2.6 million cotton pickers. It shows that the country is making significant reforms on fundamental labour rights in the cotton fields.

“The 2017 cotton harvest took place in the context of increased transparency and dialogue. This has encompassed all groups of civil society, including critical voices of individual activists. This is an encouraging sign for the future. However, there is still a lag between the sheer amount of new decrees and reforms being issued by the central government and the capacity to absorb and implement these changes at provincial and district levels,” says Beate Andrees, Chief of the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch.

The ILO has been monitoring the cotton harvest for child labour since 2013. In 2015, it began monitoring the harvest for forced labour and child labour as part of an agreement with the World Bank.

Interviews carried out by the monitors took place in all provinces of the country and included cotton pickers and other groups which are directly or indirectly involved in the harvest such as local authorities, education and medical personnel. In addition, a telephone poll of 1,000 randomly selected persons was conducted. Before the harvest, the ILO experts organized training for some 6,300 people directly involved with the recruitment of cotton pickers.

The results confirm that the large majority of the 2.6 million cotton pickers engaged voluntarily in the annual harvest in 2017 and that there is a high level of awareness in the country about the unacceptability of both child and forced labour. The report confirms earlier findings that the systematic use of child labour in the cotton harvest has ended though continued vigilance is required to ensure that children are in school.

Instructions have been given by the Uzbek national authorities to local administrations to ensure that all recruitment of cotton pickers is on a voluntary basis. In September 2017, an order was given withdrawing certain risk groups (students, education and medical personnel) from the harvest at its early stage.

Moreover, cotton pickers’ wages have been increased in line with recommendations by the ILO and the World Bank. The ILO recommends that the government continues to increase wages and also addresses working conditions more broadly to further attract voluntary pickers.

Last September, Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev spoke before the United Nations General Assembly in New York where he pledged to end forced labour in his country and underscored his government’s engagement with the ILO. In November 2017, at the Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labour in Argentina, Uzbekistan also pledged to engage with independent civil society groups on the issue.

The ILO Third-Party Monitoring (TPM) project in Uzbekistan will now focus on the remaining challenges, particularly the need for further awareness raising and capacity building, which varies between provinces and districts. It will ensure that all those involved in recruitment will have the information and tools needed to ensure that cotton pickers are engaged in conformity with international labour standards.

The monitoring and results from a pilot project in the area of South Karkalpakstan also show that cotton picking economically empowers women in rural areas. The cotton harvest provides many women with a unique opportunity to earn an extra cash income which they control and can use to improve the situation of their families.

The ILO TPM Project is funded by a multi-donor trust fund with major contributions by the European Union, United States and Switzerland.

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Kazakhstan Launches Online Platform for Monitoring and Reporting Greenhouse Gases

MD Staff

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An online platform for monitoring, reporting and verifying emission sources and greenhouse gases (GHG) was officially launched today by the Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the World Bank.

The platform is an essential element of the National Emissions Trading System of Kazakhstan, which was launched in 2013 as the country’s main instrument to regulate domestic CO2 emissions and to drive the development of low-carbon technologies. Today, the National Emissions Trading System of Kazakhstan covers all major companies in the energy, oil and gas sectors, mining, metallurgical, chemical and processing industries.

Since 2014, the World Bank Trust Fund Partnership for Market Readiness has provided technical assistance to Kazakhstan in supporting the implementation of the National Emissions Trading System of Kazakhstan and related climate change mitigation policies.

“Kazakhstan’s emissions trading system is the first of its kind in the Central Asia region,” said Ato Brown, World Bank Country Manager for Kazakhstan. “With support from the Partnership for Market Readiness, the country has made a great effort to develop policy options for mid- and long-term emissions pathways and to develop an action plan on GHG emissions reductions by 2030. The World Bank will continue to support the Government during the crucial stages of policy implementation.”

The platform enables Kazakhstan’s major emitters to transmit and record data on GHGs emissions, as well as trade online. The National Allocation Plan, adopted in January 2018, sets an emission cap for 129 companies for the period 2018-2020. Per the national allocation plan, quotas have been allocated until 2020.

“The electronic platform undoubtedly proves the evolution of the Kazakhstan emission control system, which will allow the monitoring, reporting and verification system to be upgraded to a much higher level,” said Sergei Tsoy, Deputy General Director of JSC Zhasyl Damu.

GHG data is confirmed by accredited bodies for verification and validation and transferred to the Cadastre using an electronic digital signature. To date, there are seven verification companies accredited in Kazakhstan, with five more in the process of accreditation.

The platform was developed by JSC Zhasyl Damu with the support of France’s Technical Center on Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases. The system is administered by JSC Zhasyl-Damu, while the beneficiaries are the Climate Change Department and the Committee for Environmental Regulation and Control of the Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Background

Kazakhstan is one of the largest emitters of GHG in Europe and Central Asia with total annual national emissions of 300.9 MtCO2e in 2015. The energy sector accounts for 82% of total GHG emissions, followed by agriculture (9.6%) and industrial processes (6.4%). More than 80% of produced electricity in Kazakhstan is coal-fired, followed by natural gas (7%) and hydro power (8%).

Kazakhstan proposed as its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) an economy-wide reduction of GHG emissions of 15% from 1990 emissions levels by 2030. Kazakhstan ratified the Paris Agreement in November 2016 and committed itself to the fulfilment of the proposed target as its first INDC. The objective will contribute to sustainable economic development as well as to the achievement of the long-term global goal of keeping global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius. 

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Religious buildings in Kazakhstan to be labeled 16+

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New restrictions on religious activities are emerging in Kazakhstan. Will they help to fight extremism?

According to the Government bill introducing amendments to the laws on religious activities and associations, adolescents should be forbidden from attending mosques, churches and synagogues if they are not accompanied by one of the parents and don’t have written consent of another parent.

Schools and the media are going to be forbidden from talking about the belief systems of various religions as well.

By implementing these and other measures, Astana intends to combat religious extremism. However, the crackdown on religion has already set the country four years back: in 2017 the Republic of Kazakhstan returned on the list of countries where the religious situation arouses concern of the US State Department Commission on International Religious Freedom. Kazakhstan last appeared on the list along with Afghanistan, India, Indonesia and Laos in 2013.

Is the proposed bill really going to help to contain the spread of radical Islam, and to what extent does it conform with international human rights standards?

The Concept of State Policy towards Religion, adopted in 2017, shows that the authorities strive to expel religion from public space altogether and promote an ideology of “secularism”. Their thinking is understandable: with no contact between members of differentreligions, there will be no inter-religious conflicts.

However, according to the European experience, prohibitive policy does not bring the expected results. In a multicultural society, the lack of information about the beliefs of other religions only increases tensions. Silencing the matter of religion and obstructing religious education reduces the ability to critically evaluate the extremist ideologies,while increasing the opportunityto spread false information aimed to promote inter-religious discord.

In addition, various summer camps, excursion and pilgrimage activities organized by religious communities are going to be banned if the bill is adopted. It includes those traditional religious confessions that the Government routinely thanks for promoting the inter-civilizational dialogue, youth development and the maintenance of stability, peace and prosperity in the society. A large number of children and teenagers will be deprived of their usual social circles and leisure activities.

As a result of such unconstitutional state interference and bureaucratic obstacles, children and teenagers will be denied the right to practice the religion of their family even when outside educational, medical and other state institutions. Not to mention that parents will be entitledby law to restrict the right of their children under the age of 16 to choose their faith.

Moreover, according to the proposed legislation, if a minor is found in a prayer room“illegally”, the responsibility will fall on the religious organization in question. Consequently, the clergy will need to alienate and discourage the younger generations from attending their own churches, so as not to get fined and fall within the scope of the restrictions on the religious activities!

At the same time, actual extremist organizations will go underground and get more freedom than their peaceful competitors. Obviously, the unruly youth will turn not to those imams, priests or rabbis unable to go beyond the restrictive framework of formal prohibitions. They will go to the “real” preachers who offer communion, new religious experience, something to devote yourself to, a sense of self-worth (even if as suicide bombers).

It is in the interests of all religious leaders, and indeed the whole world, to prevent such a terrible scenario from happening and to return Kazakhstan on the path of civilizational dialogue and inter-confessional cooperation. Otherwise, any participation in the VI Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in the Astana Palace of Peace and Reconciliation can be seen as not only dishonorable and hypocritical, but also unsafe.

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