The new capital building as an urbanization policy of the emerging state

Abstract. In this article, the transfer of the capital of Kazakhstan to Astana is interpreted as a successful urbanization policy of the young state. It shows the importance of Astana in the formation of national identity, in solving the geographic and demographic imbalances inherited in the Soviet period. Kazakhstan was in need of new centers of modernization. Astana is defined as one of the key successful narratives of the young state.

Currently new capitals building are reappeared in the developing countries to duplicate large global cities by patterns of glamorous architecture and shining skyscrapers. On the base of Astana experience as one of the new capital cities this paper examines the success of the new capital building as an urbanization policy of the emerging state and considers some challenges and lessons for last two decades.

20 years ago the Kazakhstani capital had moved from the Soviet Alma-Ata to provincial small town Akmola. The capital shift was considered by society as a personal voluntary decision of the President N. Nazarbayev, forcing will of the ruling power. At the very beginning of independence the new national state should manage several issues. The most crucial challenge was the nation building and development of the new state. For stabilizing and strengthening the new state the new capital was required, which would become the strongest object of identity for the whole emerging nation.

It has been agreed that all soviet republics invented and developed different strategies in solving issues related with the nation building process. After the break of the USSR special decisions had been undertaken in formation of new national identity in former republics, nationalistic strategies had been chosen by many of them, the most drastic policy of ‘nationalizing state’ is the notoriously famous nationalistic policy of all three Baltic states for pushing out of Russians from the region. Ethnic composition and ethno - demographic disproportion in distribution of population was one of the strongest challenges for Kazakhstan. According to the last Soviet census Kazakhs and Russians had equal proportions in 1989; Kazaks were 40.1% and Russians – 37.4% [1].

However ethnic composition was complicated with geographic distribution of these two large ethnic groups. Geographic distribution of population had ethnic feature in the soviet time: the southern and the western parts of republic were mainly concentration of Kazakh population. Whereas northern and central parts traditionally were considered as “Russian”. In these regions Kazakhs were quantitatively much less than other ethnic groups. New nation faced a question: how to balance the national state without violent exile of Russian-speaking population? How to bring Kazakhs to the North? How could the northern part of country become attractive for Kazakh population from the South? How to stimulate southern Kazakhs to move, to migrate to very Russian and Russian-speaking north? Furthermore Russian and Russian-speaking in the early 90-s for various reasons actively left the country, including northern and central regions of the country, therefore there could be a gradual emptiness threat of these lands.

Historically population’s density in Kazakh Steppe always was low. Harsh winter’s conditions and very short summer demanded strong resources for residing, so Kazakhs here practiced only nomadic survival strategies, not comparable with living conditions on the southern agricultural region of Kazakhstan. Therefore the state should do something with former Russian-speaking northern and central regions of the country, it was necessary from somewhere to bring people in exchange.

The decision was found in the movement of capital from the south to the north, which in reality stimulated huge float of population to Astana and surrounding territories, towns and villages. This fact is confirmed by official statistics of 2000s [2]. The key cores in this southern migration float were Kazakhs. In 2004 in my Doctor dissertation I emphasized two qualitatively diverse groups of Kazakhs migrating to the north from the south: rural- urban and city-to-city migrations. I argued that such differences in social background of migrating population as an education, qualification, and economic capital, involvement in network relations and skills in Kazakh and Russian languages strongly influenced on the adaptation processes on the new place and finally on positive or negative results of migration. Moreover I explored how emergence and development new national state influenced on rural-urban and city-to- city migrations of Kazakh population, how the idea of kazakhisation triggered this continuing move, and how formation, legitimacy and reproduction of new national identity in Kazakhstan were (along with traditional, socio-economic factors) “attractive” factors of rural-urban and city-to city migration [3].

Secondly, new centers of modernization needed. It is essential to notice, that Kazakhs did not have historical attachment to a certain city. For example Baku or Tbilisi, being the same russified cities as Almaty, despite their ethnic composition, remained as an Azeri city as well as Tbilisi as a Georgian city. I argue that soviet Almaty was not Kazakh type of city, during Soviet time Kazakhs never defined Almaty as a cradle of the Kazakh nation. The point is that after the declaring the movement of the capital in 1990th population of Almaty didn’t protests against loss of the capital status.

Definitely there were serious Kazakh intelligence, national press, national writers and poets, national historians and linguists in the Soviet Almaty as defenders of the Kazakh language and the whole Kazakh culture. Apparently this intelligence gave way to Russian-speaking culture and science, as a result of which the whole Kazakhs ethnos became the most russified and sovetisized ethnos in the USSR. I argue that in soviet period Almaty didn’t become the Kazakh city, it was a Soviet city, and correspondingly the Soviet identity (especially through language and culture) dominated over the Kazakh identity. If at the moment of the USSR’ collapse Baku, Tbilisi or Tashkent (together with Bukhara and Samarkand) already had necessary urban platform for nation building, in Kazakhstan in 1990 this urban platform should be created. Therefore N. Nazarbayev initiated or supported northern expedition. By the way the last is not known, the question who suggested the idea of creation the new capital is still open. Elite of an emerging state had been challenged with question: how to make a Kazakh capital without conflicts and simultaneously implement kazakhization in the North?

Apparently, the Kazakh elite made a decision to construct new national core for the new national state and to locate this core in new Kazakh capital. I argue that such new national core for new Kazakh nation became government class, officials (chinovnichestvo).

Kazakh elite faced with the necessity to create new centers of modernization and initiated formation of new enclave of modernization. In this context it is important to notice that Kazakhstan chose strategy very typical for the postcolonial country: so called ‘enclave’ modernization, strategy of creation of new enclave of Kazakhstan on the North in addition to already existing enclave on the South, which was created by Soviet Empire.

Apparently modernization was understood by Kazakh elite as an urban modernization in parallel with kazakhization of North and then the whole society. However it’s a different story whether national officials become core of the new national state? It is a different story whether strategy of urban Kazakh state was successful? At least today it is clear that problem on indigenization or kazakhisation of the North was solved successfully by elite, according to the second national census Kazakhs in Astana makes the demographic majority.

Nowadays in official speeches, in academic publications, in mass media Astana identifies as a new chapter of Kazakh history, of independent Kazakhstan; and as a symbol of political distance from soviet past and soviet Almaty, so Astana became the new postcolonial narrative.

The post-coloniality of new narrative is that Astana became the “shift” not only in geographical sense but also in “distancing” from the Soviet past prevailing with its soviet grand narratives. New state demanded emergence of new ideas, one of the symbols of which became Astana. New city became an implementation of the new urbanization strategy, culture and economy of emerging state.

Firstly, the ethno-demographic composition of the northern part of country has been changed and now we witness typical for many postcolonial countries speed urbanization with a signs of Asian and Muslim types of urbanization. Substantially state didn’t consider what to do and how to adjust the floating rural population to the urban place?

Secondly, revival of many cultural traditions, change of language policy and everyday practices, emergence of new political, cultural and business elite among the native population are signs of Astana’ post-coloniality.

Thirdly new capital city project is a very expensive project for the whole emerging state. However Astana is not capable to provide adequate and affordable housing for its inhabitants, especially for newcomers; many rural migrants are living under poverty at destination. Employment possibilities are the main factors that would help rural migrants to escape from social exclusion and urban poverty. Therefore in the process of new capital building Kazakhstani government should focus more on the meeting contemporary urban challenges as rapid urbanization, informality, social segregation, poverty and unemployment.



  1. Краткие итоги переписи населения. – Астана,2009. Astana, 2010.
  2. Астана. Энциклопедия // Народонаселение. – Алматы, Атамұра, 2008.
  3. Забирова А.Т. Формирование, легитимация и воспроизводство идентичности в пост-советском Казахстане. // Социологические исследования. 2003. №12. С.118-126.
Year: 2018
City: Almaty