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Reflections on the Emergence of a City and Nation
Foreign Minister Recalls How Astana Started, How Kazakhstan’s Recognition Has Soared

By David Witherspoon


anat Saudabayev will never forget his visit to Akmola with President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1995.

Saudabayev, who is now Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, was part of an inner circle whom Nazarbayev asked to accompany him to the provincial city on the Ishim River in the northern steppes.

The trip came after Parliament had signed off on the idea of moving the capital from Almaty to Akmola. The group spent two days surveying prospects for a successful relocation. Nazarbayev came up with the idea of moving the capital in the early 1990s, and most officials initially opposed it.

Saudabayev, who grew up in Almaty – Kazakhstan’s biggest city and its cultural center – was one of the naysayers. Akmola was a place “where frankly I wouldn’t have wanted to live or work,” he said.

Underscoring his feeling was the fact that on that 1995 visit the president’s contingent stayed “at a hotel that didn’t even have running water,” Saudabayev said in an exclusive interview with EDGE magazine. “That trip didn’t give us many grounds for optimism,” he said.

But Nazarbayev turned out to be right about the city that became the capital in 1997 and was renamed Astana, the foreign minister said. “Today this city is preparing to host 6,000 guests and up to 70 heads of state and heads of international organizations” at the summit of the Organization for Security and Economic Cooperation in Europe on December 1 and 2, he said. “It’s not only a beautiful city but a city that is surging into the future.”

International architects have hailed the smorgasbord of futuristic architecture in the city as vibrant and trailblazing. And global economists have pointed out that Astana has been a sparkplug of Kazakhstan’s economy, helping the city grow from 280,000 to 750,000 people in less than 15 years.

“Indeed, Astana is a symbol of the dynamic growth of the whole country,” Saudabayev said. Now, he said, Astana exudes “electricity and dynamism. Many people want to live and work here.”

Noting that history has shown that many of the world’s hundreds of capital relocations have failed, Saudabayev said Nazarbayev took a huge risk in making the move. “Basically this was a historic deed of the president in both a political sense and at a personal level,” he said.

Nazarbayev has viewed the development of Astana like a father doting on a beloved child, Saudabayev said. “He has been playing a key role in designing the city,” the foreign minister said. “Sometimes he personally approves of the architectural designs.”

Evening setting on Astana

In addition to taking pride in Astana’s development, Saudabayev is enjoying immense satisfaction from the resurgence in Kazakh culture since independence in 1991. Two hundred seventy years of Russian rule – 200 under the Tsars and 70 under the Soviets – had almost wiped out important manifestations of Kazakh culture, he said.

Maintaining a separate Kazakh cultural identity “basically ran against what the Soviet Union wanted to do,” he said. “Culture developed within the tight limits set by Moscow.” One casualty, he said, was the loss of many Kazakh cultural monuments. In addition, Saudabayev said, “we almost lost our language during Soviet times,” with Russian prevailing.

“So for us, preserving our traditional culture and language has been a big challenge,” he said.

Making up for lost time, Kazakhstan’s leaders have taken a number of steps to preserve and enhance Kazakh culture since the country became independent. On the language front, President Nazarbayev has set a goal of all residents speaking Kazakh in the next few decades – part of an effort to make the country trilingual in Kazakh, Russian and English.

The government started a special Cultural Heritage Program a few years ago that has restored monuments and reintroduced books and musical works that had nearly disappeared, Saudabayev said. He is well versed in those and other cultural-rejuvenation efforts because in addition to being foreign minister he is Kazakhstan’s secretary of state – a role that, among other things, includes overseeing culture.

At the same time that Kazakhstan is reviving culture, it is giving new impetus to the performing arts – symphonies, opera, ballet and cinema. “Every year we’re spending more” on culture, Saudabayev said.

The cultural revival, he noted, has led to Kazakh art and performances being “presented to great acclaim and interest in Paris, London, New York, Washington” and other cities.

Saudabayev’s position of foreign minister, and his previous ambassadorships to such countries as the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and Turkey, have meant that he has globe-trotted much of the past two decades.

The traveling has allowed him to learn firsthand how others view Kazakhstan. To his delight, those perceptions have shifted in a very positive way in the past two decades, he said.

The fountain at the Round SquareAt the beginning of the 1990s, when Kazakhstan was a new country, the word that best described outsiders’ view of the country was “ignorance,” Saudabayev said. Few people in nations beyond the former Soviet Union knew much about the place. “Now Kazakhstan is known in the world as an accomplished state, an economically strong and democratic state, a reliable partner on security” issues, the foreign minister said.

The fact that Kazakhstan is chairing the OSCE this year, and that it was able to muster the consensus needed to hold the organization’s first summit in 11 years, “is a clear indication of progress in the recognition of Kazakhstan globally,” he said.

Nazarbayev is personally responsible for much of the recognition Kazakhstan has received, Saudabayev said.

The rest of the world took notice when the president made the politically courageous decisions in the early 1990s to stop nuclear testing in the Semipalatinsk area and to rid Kazakhstan of the globe’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal, the foreign minister said.

Nazarbayev added to his antinuclear credentials, and Kazakhstan’s recognition as a force to rid the world of the nuclear threat, when the United Nations, at his initiative, passed a unanimous resolution proclaiming August 29 an International Day Against Nuclear Testing.

Fittingly, the first global commemoration of this day came on the 61st anniversary of the start of Soviet testing at Semipalatinsk in eastern Kazakhstan on August 29, 1949. Even more importantly, it came on the 19th anniversary of Nazarbayev’s decree on August 29, 1991, to close the infamous nuclear test site forever. The decision took courage because it came against the will of the Kremlin four months before the Soviet Union collapsed.

International recognition of Kazakhstan not only is a result of the country’s high-profile actions on the nuclear front, but also of a clear-cut national development strategy, Saudabayev said. The strategy has come to be known as the Kazakhstan Way – placing economic reforms that would help improve people’s lives ahead of political reforms, although the political reforms have not been far behind.

The country has made rapid economic progress, with gross domestic product in most of the past decade averaging around 10 percent and with wages and the standard of living jumping. And the world has taken notice as Kazakhstan reached such economic milestones as becoming the world’s top producer of natural – as opposed to reactorgenerated -- uranium for the international nuclear industry in 2009 and becoming the world’s top exporter of flour for four years running.

Political reforms have accompanied the economic achievements, Saudabayev noted, although Kazakh officials would be the first to acknowledge there is more to do. It’s been important that the Kazakhstan Way has been an evolutionary way, Saudabayev said. That has meant domestic stability “free from upheavals and sharp jolts” that could have disrupted progress.

Kazakhstan’s economic surge and its growing international recognition show that the development path that the Nazarbayev administration chose was the right one, Saudabayev believes.

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