View Full Version : Through the Kazakh looking-glass

10-12-05, 00:58
Through the Kazakh looking-glass

By Damian Grammaticas

BBC News, Kazakhstan

Oil-rich Kazakhstan's elections may not have been fair, according to poll monitors, but neither the Kazakhs themselves nor governments in the West appear concerned.

The Kazakh steppe is a vast, flat expanse of land. Devoid of features, treeless, almost empty of people.

It stretches for several thousand miles across the heart of Asia.

In winter, temperatures out here drop to 40 below zero. From out of nowhere the snow arrives in flurries.In the morning the drifts are topped with lines of crystals, slender, delicate, like frozen feathers.

It is so cold that within seconds the tips of your ears begin to freeze. Kazakhs tell you to rub them or they will get frostbitten and fall off.

The climate is so extreme that steel structures can buckle and break.

Incredibly it is out here that a new city is taking shape, a new capital.

Bizarre sight

Astana is the expensive, eccentric vision of Kazakhstan's President, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Rising from the featureless steppe are office blocks and skyscrapers. In what must be one of the world's least densely populated countries, it is a bizarre sight.

Kazakhs have pet names for their president's creations: a bright yellow tower block is "the banana", another with a cutaway top is "the cigarette lighter".

And in the middle of it all is "Chupa Chups", named after a brand of lollipop. It is meant to look like a tree of life cradling a golden egg.

The entire city is being built to a plan that echoes Washington DC and Rome.

President Nazarbayev's new palace is like a giant version of the White House with the dome of St Peter's painted blue and stuck on top.

From his palace window he can survey the progress of his most audacious commission, a giant pyramid, like those of ancient Egypt.

In a few months it will soar higher than London's St Paul's Cathedral.

Designed by British architect Lord Foster, it will contain an opera theatre, museum, library, university, and be topped with hanging gardens like ancient Babylon.

Lengthy rule

Mr Nazarbayev is a diminutive, 65-year-old. A former communist steel worker who now dresses in expensive, tailored suits.

When the Soviet Union collapsed he was the last ruler formally to declare independence for his nation, reluctant to break with the past.

If he sees out the new term he won last Sunday he will have ruled Kazakhs for almost 25 years.

Western observers condemned the vote as far from democratic.

The opposition said the official result - over 90% for Mr Nazarbayev - was like something out of Stalin's times.

But Western governments have been relatively muted in their criticism. The reason is oil and gas.

Kazakhstan has some of the largest untapped reserves anywhere. The West has a share, but fears losing out to Russia and China.

Economic growth

And ordinary Kazakhs, too, hardly seem to care.

The money from oil and gas is helping build the new capital. It is also fuelling economic growth.

Their president may be autocratic, seduced by his own grand visions, but Kazakhs see him as more benign than the dictators who rule other Central Asian states.

Gulzada, a university lecturer, waiting at a bus stop, is typical.

"I like Nazarbayev," she says. "He's brought lots of jobs, he's increased the money given to students and teachers."

She is wearing a glossy fur coat and hat to ward off the cold.

"But," I ask her, "what about claims he and his family have benefited from corruption?"

She smiles apologetically: "I'm afraid I can't answer," turns quickly and walks away.

Corruption is the great unmentioned subject.

Documents lodged with a court in the United States allege that Mr Nazarbayev benefited from tens of millions in bribes connected to oil contracts. He denies it.

But Kazakh media are not even allowed to discuss the allegations. Newspapers that do can find their entire print-run seized and destroyed.

'Predatory survivor'

The OSCE monitors judged the election a failure by democratic standards.

Kazakh television did not report that fact.

Instead Kazakh viewers were told the election had been praised as an unprecedented success.

Kazakh television even replayed one of my own reports aired by the BBC.

Their commentary said the BBC had marvelled at the pace at which Kazakhstan is developing.

It did not include the bit where I had pointed to the parliament building and said there was not a single opposition MP there.

Perhaps most bizarre of all is Astana's impressive aquarium.

Kazakhstan is landlocked, and no aquarium is further from a major ocean than this one. One of the main attractions is its shark.

It seems an apt metaphor for Mr Nazarbayev's grandiose designs.

A looking-glass world, incongruous, lavish, costly, patrolled by a predatory survivor from ancient times.

And ordinary Kazakhs, on the other side of the glass, looking in, marvelling at what has been made in their name.