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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Playing Musical Capitals

But Kazak bureaucrats don't want to move

By Anthony Davis / Almaty


FOR A MAN IN the process of packing up a comfortable home of 15 years and moving a wife and young family 600 km to a new house he has yet to see -- and which may not yet exist -- Rachim Nurgazinov is displaying commendable calm. Panic, confusion and acrimony will come later.

Nurgazinov is one of tens of thousands of Kazak civil servants caught up in his government's controversial decision to transplant the national capital. From southern Almaty on the Chinese border, Kazakstan's government and administration is to move 600 km into the midst of the Central Asian steppe. Officially, D-Day is October 25 and all ministries are supposed to be up and running in the new capital Akmola by early next year. As a ministerial assistant in the Ministry of Trade and Economics, Nurgazinov is moving now -- at the vanguard of a reluctant army of bureaucrats.

Downstairs in the ministry entrance scenes of contained chaos are being played out. Army conscripts are hoisting furniture onto trucks while junior officials scrawl numbers on crates of files and office equipment they hope they will be seeing again in Akmola. Nurgazinov is juggling the day's work, an interview with the foreign press and a phone-call to a friend who is helping pack up the household in the coming week. Nurgazinov has had better days.

Things probably won't improve when he gets home. Wife Zhana, a university lecturer, and two boys, Askar, 12, and Sanja, 10, are less than amused by it all. "For myself, I never considered quitting the ministry," says Nurgazinov, a 37-year-old on a government fast-track. "But the family..." -- he pauses and smiles sheepishly. "They're, well, reluctant." It's hard to blame them. Zhana will need to quit a prestigious job. The children, born and raised in Almaty, are leaving playmates and a good school.

Nurgazinov has visited Akmola just once; Zhana and the boys never. Maybe that's a good thing because Akmola is nobody's idea of a holiday resort. A bleak industrial center of 300,000, it is searingly hot in summer and brutally cold in winter. With housing short, many new arrivals may end up in state-run hostels. Nurgazinov has been guaranteed an apartment -- but there have been a lot of promises.

This is not the first time the Kazaks -- once a largely nomadic people -- have shifted their capital. It used to be in Orenburg (now across the border in Russia) and later in Kyzl Orda (in the south). Almaty became the capital in 1929. Why move it yet again? The official line is that Almaty, a graceful, mainly Russian city of wide, tree-lined boulevards, is built on a geological fault line and could face a major quake in the coming decade. A big one hit in 1911, which helps explain the lack of high-rise buildings in the city of 1.16 million. But that argument cuts little ice in Almaty. As local Kazak journalist Bayan Orumbaeva points out: "Mexico City could suffer earthquakes tomorrow, but no one is talking about moving it."

The move is the brainchild of President Nursultan Nazarbayev -- and geopolitics and demography have influenced his thinking far more than seismology. For one thing, much of the north is populated by Russians -- and they have been muttering about separating since independence in 1991. The move should appease them, as well as stimulate growth in the depressed industrial cities in the center and north. Moreover, Almaty, as some Kazaks see it, is uncomfortably near the Chinese border.

Even so, the move will be hugely expensive and already has generated intense controversy. Not least because the government is largely broke. Many civil servants and workers in state-owned industries have not been paid in months, social services have collapsed, and the once-proud Soviet-era education system is crumbling.

Rebuffed by the International Monetary Fund, the government has been chasing foreign investors. South Korea has responded fast. And Turkey, keen to build closer ties with Turkic-speaking Central Asia, has pumped hundred of millions into the new capital. Few other foreign governments share the Turks' enthusiasm. And few plan to shift their embassies -- newly established in Almaty since 1992 -- for as long as they can help it. "We hardly have the money to finish painting this place," gripes a Western diplomat. Plenty of Almaty residents feel the same way, and many are just saying no -- even though finding new jobs will be hard. In Nurgazinov's ministry, less than half the 660 civil servants are moving.

Still, short of an abrupt (and unlikely) change of president, the freight trains will continue rolling north through the winter, and the new buildings will continue to rise in Akmola. For decades to come, Almaty will remain Kazakstan's commercial and cultural hub. It will take years for Akmola to acquire the facilities and attributes of a real national capital. But this is one stamp on the nation's history that Nazarbayev seems determined to leave.

SHIFT The capital is moving from Almaty to Akmola; previously it was in Orenburg and Kyzl Orda


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