Kazakhstan's capital Nur Sultan with its bizarre sci-fi skyline. (Photo: Peter Kenny)

Some liken landing in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s capital, to touchdown in the film set of a futuristic sci-fi movie in Central Asia. It’s one of the most space-age looking of the world’s capitals. It lies in the central northern part of the Central Asian nation, flashing its bold skyline, signalling a city emerging from adolescence. At 21 years of age, Nur-Sultan, formerly Astana, which itself replaced Almaty as the capital in 1997, has just reached full adulthood.

More pertinently, it also lays claim to being the region’s “City of Peace”, since being awarded the title by UNESCO in 1999, not unlike Geneva thousands of kilometres to the west. But rather than lying at the foot of the Swiss and French Alps, this former settlement of fast-growing modern boroughs is part of an architecturally “planned-from-scratch” capital, the master plan of Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. It overlooks the sprawling semi-arid steppes along the Ishim River. It also represents the ninth largest country on the planet, but whose population is only 18.5 million. This is where the Old Silk Road used to run, connecting East and West.

The city evokes space, abounding with eye-catching landmarks such as the Baiterek Tower, a vaulting observation globe upheld by symbolic trees, that overlooks the city. There is the pyramid-shaped Norman Foster-designed Palace of Peace and Reconciliation; and the surrounding parkland near the presidential palace, and the tepee-like Khan Shatyr, a shopping centre designed by the same architect. Nearby is the majestic Nur-Astana Mosque, the third biggest in Central Asia, with its 40-metre golden dome flanked by four 63-metre minarets.

Yet almost eerily, the capital’s main thoroughfares rarely throng with people. Except at rush hour, when the two main boulevards that virtually define Nur-Sultan are clogged with backed-up traffic. In contrast, along the banks of the Ishim River and in the old area of the city, life constantly throbs.

A “planned from scratch” City of Peace: Nur-Sultan with the Nur-Astana Mosque, the third biggest in Central Asia, in the distance, The mosque has a 40-metre golden dome flanked by four 63-metre minarets.. (Photo: Peter Kenny)

Astana: A city of changing identities

Initially founded by the Russians in 1830 as Akmoly, then Akmolinsk, as a defensive fortification for Siberian Cossacks, the city has undergone various identity transformations. In 1961, the Soviets renamed it Tselinograd, “city of Tselina”, the term used for under-developed but highly fertile lands. Over three decades later, it was renamed Akmola (‘white tomb’) and then yet again in 1997 as Astana (‘capital city’) after replacing Almaty as the country’s administrative heart.

Not everybody rejoiced at the name change. Some feel Astana is an established brand and people railed as forking out a fortune for a costly new signposting exercise named after the recently retired president. In a place where public debate is not encouraged – nor does it proliferate –  there is resistance to the latest name change. The old title is often still used.

As an aspiring regional vortex, the Kazakhstan capital remains remote. It is not exactly on the tip of everyone’s tongue worldwide. Yet the direct flight time from London to Astana is only 6 hours 50 minutes. From Frankfurt it is 6:25, taking roughly the same time as to fly to Dubai from the centre of Europe. It is also far shorter hop than from Europe to Beijing, Singapore or Tokyo, plus is well connected to Istanbul. But it’s going to take a lot more to convince outsiders that Nur-Sultan is not just an artificial hub pushed by inspired political or economic interests, or a desire by the United Nations and other international forums to share their conferences and other global events more equitably with hitherto ignored parts of the world.

Kazakhstan’s new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev,, speaking to journalists. A former Director General of the United Nations Office in Geneva from March 2011 to October 2013),Tokayev is seeking to place Kazakhstan and Nur-Sultan onto the world stage. (Photo:Office of the President of Kazakhstan)

Geographically, Kazakhstan’s second-largest city is arguably located at the centre of the planet, connecting Asia with Europe as a region of growing importance. Hotels are relatively inexpensive, conference facilities are of surprising high quality, while taxis are cheap and the capital safe. Without doubt, the government is encouraging this image of a city as an increasingly crucial international hub. Two years ago, for example, it hosted Expo 2017, an international exposition focusing on ‘Future Energy’ as its theme. This aimed to spur global debate among countries, NGOs, companies and the public on: How do we ensure safe and sustainable access to energy for all while reducing CO2 emissions?” The Kazakhs are aiming to take this argument to New York for the UN’s 2019 Climate Summit in September. (See Global Geneva article on the current failure for more concerted climate action)

Asserting itself on the world stage

The more graceful city of Almaty, in the south, ringed by snow-capped mountains and Kazakhstan’s capital during the Soviet era, put itself on the international organizations’ map in 1978 when it held a pivotal conference of health experts and world leaders to commit to health for all. But in October 2018, it was Nur Sultan’s turn. It co-hosted with WHO and UNICEF the Global Conference on Primary Health Care to renew a world-wide commitment to universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Almaty, Kazakhstan’s main city. (Photo: Peter Kenny)

Since then, Nur-Sultan has become a platform for high-profile diplomatic talks and summits on critical global issues, such as rounds of Syrian peace talks between the Assad regime and the opposition. In 2003, Nur-Sultan also began hosting the Congress on World and Traditional Religions, a diverse gathering of religious leaders, which is now held every few years, to discuss religious harmony and ending terrorism and extremism with the latest such gathering held in October 2018.

A city of purpose, but still beset by shortcomings

Unlike Almaty, Astana does not have a history of being earthquake prone. For local native, television programme director Alena Gorbacheva it is a superb home city. “The city has the right geometry, perfect symmetry and lovely landscapes from the bird’s-eye view,” she explains. It has excellent facilities, and despite some urban issues, such as public transport, life is manageable. As a city, it also exudes purpose.

Almaty, which is double its size, has a small but efficient underground rail network, but Nur-Sultan’s geomorphic makeup renders it impossible to safely build a subway. For the moment, the city has mainly bus and taxi-sharing, plus a steadily growing bike service, as its principal forms of public transport. While a light-rail service is planned, it still has far to go to develop the sort of transport system that will make it readily attractive to outsiders. “But when you come down from heaven to earth all these vast squares, long, long boulevards and dead public spaces are uncomfortable to walk around and use, due to the harsh weather conditions,” admits Gorbacheva.

Nur-Sultan’s pubic transport system still needs to be improved if it wishes to assert itself as a regional hub. (Photo: Peter Kenny)

Second coldest capital in the world

Climate-wise, summers can be great, but the winters are long and bitterly cold. Nur-Sultan ranks as the second-coldest national capital in the world after Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. That’s a position formerly held by Ottawa in Canada until the city became Kazakhstan’s new capital. As a result, Nur-Sultan is an unlikely ‘walking’ city’.

Nevertheless, people such as Gorbacheva is hopeful the government’s strategy to improve the transport shortcomings of the capital, which she still calls Astana, will work. “On the whole, Astana is like any other young city. It has a lot of challenges which are not, fortunately, barriers for it to earn international recognition,” she says. She rattles off the saying “Astana is for work and Almaty is for life,” noting that the former capital has an enviable reputation for cultural events, finance, nightlife and restaurants, but such attractions are now being increasingly found in her city.

Despite the freezing winters even the Beatles are here – as statues in downtown Nur-Sultan..(Photo: Peter Kenny)

As a member of Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russian minority, Gorbacheva is optimistic that her country is slowly transforming, including efforts to attract investment, notably from Russia. She studied for five years in Moscow and said that the government is generous in helping students to study at the best universities abroad, provided they come back and work in Kazakhstan. Many students head to Western Europe or the United States under the scheme.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the Kazakh language has become the official tongue, but Russian is widely used in government institutions and meetings; Russians remain prominent in every aspect of life. In 1989 Kazakhs were 39 per cent of the population, numbering some 6.5 million, and Russians 38 per cent. Today ethnic Kazakhs make up around 68 per cent of the population, and ethnic Russian have settled at about 20 per cent. While many Russians left following the collapse, some are returning.

Getting on the world events’ calendar

Nur-Sultan’s outlandish architecture os one of its draws. (Photo: Peter Kenny)

Given its modernist architectural attractions coupled with a keen regional vision, Nur-Sultan is already firmly entrenched in the world event’s calendar. Current plans by Pakistan, Iran and other neighbouring countries to develop rail links through Afghanistan (depending on the security situation) in a bid to link the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East and even Europe with Central Asia, are something Kazakhstan hopes to cash in on. Nur-Sultan is also establishing itself as a tech hub. The Astana Hub Technopark has already established connections with other innovation ecosystems in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. It is also reaching out to Silicon Valley and Switzerland’s own EPFL Innovation Park in Lausanne.

Bringing world religious leaders together. The Congress on World and Traditional Religions in October, 2018.(Photo: Peter Kenny)

In keeping with its global peace mission, perhaps influenced by the Geneva experience of Kazakhstan’s new President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (he served as the UN’s Geneva Director General from March 2011 to October 2013), the country signed on 3 July 2019 a law ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. As with South Africa, it has publicly eschewed a nuclear armaments’ capability by getting rid of its nuclear weapons, including the closing down of its test site in Semipaltinsk.

The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) based in Madrid and Nur-Sultan are organizing the eighth Global Summit on Urban Tourism under the ‘Smart Cities, Smart Destinations‘ theme in the Kazakh capital from 9-12 October 2019.  Another significant event will be the 12th World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in June 2020. According to Yerkimbayev Daulet, an Expo centre director, the city is expecting trade ministers from 164 member countries and 20 observer countries of the WTO, plus over 4,000 participants. This will make Kazakhstan, the world’s biggest landlocked country, the first Central Asian country to hold such a conference.

Much of this comes at a time when global trade is on a knife-edge, especially with ongoing tensions between the world’s two largest economies, the United States and China. For WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell, Kazakhstan has an historical ability to bring nations together and to understand the perspectives of large countries. “The Silk Road went through Kazakhstan and trade is a part of the historical DNA of the country. But perhaps the event might create new trade, business and investment opportunities as well as to show the facilities of this impressive city,” he said.

This vision was all made evident at the Kazakhstan capital’s 21st anniversary celebrations in July this year, an event that reportedly attracted some 450,000 people. It was also emphasized by Almaty-born Tokayev during his inaugural presidential speech a month earlier. “Over the coming years, the leading issues of our time will come to the fore: which countries will be able to effectively adapt and integrate to the new global realities, and who will be left on the side-lines of world development.” Stressing its ability to respond to the main economic and political “challenges of our time,” he added that Kazakhstan was open for business by developing “creative change” for all. This, he maintained, “is how I view progress.”

For Kazakhstan – and Nur-Sultan – to excel, however, much will depend on whether such UN-style speeches can be translated into reality. For Deputy Foreign Minister Yerzhan Ashikbayev, who spoke with Global Geneva during the May 2019 Eurasia Media Forum in Almaty: “Kazakhstan cannot afford to limit its perspective to its geography only. We mean to be part of global development by also contributing to global peace, global stability and global development.”

Investing both in modernity and global influence

Kazakhstan is driving itself into modernity by spending heavily on education and infrastructure. It is also seeking to internationalize itself by focusing more on English in schools. Much to the dismay of Russians, it is also in the process of dropping the Cyrillic alphabet, using Roman letters for the Kazakh language. Nevertheless, despite being rich in oil and gas resources – it boasts Central Asia’s best-performing economy – severe discrepancies exist between the privileged and the poor. It also ranks low on press freedom indices and is accused by watchdog bodies of practising religious discrimination.

Kazakhstan’s chief Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen believes that Kazakhstan is  helping to foster religious tolerance. (Photo” Peter Kenny)

Kazakhstan’s Jerusalem-born Chief Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen believes that the country, which has a 70 per cent Muslim majority and some 26 per cent Christians (plus several thousand Jews), actually seeks to foster “mutual self-respect” of religions. The country, for example, allows freedom of worship for Eastern Orthodox Christians, Catholics and traditional Protestant denominations but has been criticised for being less tolerant of some evangelical Christian groups and Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as some Islamic groups as well.

Human rights are also reportedly improving. As a nation that emerged from the Soviet sphere, Kazakhstan has known the meaning of political repression. The founding Kazakhstan president ruled as a strongman for 30 years, but the 2019 elections were considered to be relatively free and fair. As I learned, people now feel that it is time to open up more, to allow trade unions to flourish, to tolerate more independent media and to permit more dissent. Only in this manner can Kazakhstan seriously embrace its new aspiring role as a regional icon of peace.

South African journalist Peter Kenny covers UN, WTO and international issues from Geneva.