9 июня 2023
Beiimbet Moldagali, photo by Zhanara Karimova.

Happy Birthday, Astana!

A city that, despite claims, was not “built from scratch” will turn 25 on June 10

Happy Birthday, Astana!

I was born in Astana in 1998, sixteen days after the grandiose international inauguration of the capital on June 10, and I have always found it symbolic: I was a child of a young country with a new capital, faces and hopes. Kazakhstan celebrated the city’s birthday on this date for another seven years. In 2006, the parliament moved the celebration of Astana Day to July 6, the birthday of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

A few years later, I realized that with this date change, I was now born before the birthday of my hometown. This caused an internal dissonance, a personal contradiction that was augmented in 2019 when Astana was even renamed after Nazarbayev.

Nazarbayev’s name was attached to several things: an airport, a university, several schools, a library, and a spacious museum. Astana’s own local history museum, which changed locations eight times, was shut down. Some of its exhibits were moved to Kokshetau to the Akmola Local History Museum, others were scattered between the National Museum and the State Archives.

During the process of “Elbasization” of the capital (from Elbasy, the ‘Father of the Nation’ title that Nazarbayev held), the legendary local football club Zhenis also suffered. My father took me to watch their games in the old Kazhymukan Munaitpasov Stadium. The stadium is now abandoned and in ruins.

The city administration stopped supporting the football club at the end of 2014, after a few name changes, which led to its bankruptcy. In 2009, the government supported the merger of two Almaty clubs and their move to the capital as the new Lokomotiv team under the auspices of the Presidential Professional Sports Club (PPSK), created by Nazarbayev. In 2020, the Anti-Corruption Agency unveiled a criminal scheme in the presidential club and the PPSK was liquidated.

FC Lokomotiv was soon renamed FC Astana. The club “stole” this name during the 2011 season from the legendary local team. The original Astana had to be renamed Astana-1964.

Altai Kulginov, who made a name as one of the worst mayors of the capital, was involved in the real estate development that is leading to the slow death of Taldykol group of lakes. He was later promoted and became the vice-prime minister of the country. But, not for long: he was sacked on June 8.

In an interview for a documentary directed by Oliver Stone, Nazarbayev said that the city was "built from scratch". This false narrative stripped city residents of their right to identity and decision-making in their hometown. Astana has become a symbol not only of independent Kazakhstan, but also of its authoritarian regime and Nazarbayev’s cult of personality.

The current mayor of the capital gave an interview with Vlast and explained that the problems of the city appeared because "no one expected such a fast population growth." This wording should be replaced with "no one expected such inadequate bureaucrats to dismiss the opinion of local residents."

The problems of our young capital will not be solved until the government listens to the residents. This requires a change in the political system, not just a formal and partial “de-Elbasization.” We should start celebrating our capital’s birthday on the date associated with the history of the city and the entire people of Kazakhstan, not just with one person.