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How Kazakhstan grows?

With an emerging economy and rich in natural resources, Kazakhstan is seen as a highly desirable place to invest by the West, China and Russia.

How Kazakhstan grows?

The view was surreal.

I stood on the top floor of a 100m-tall tower, looking down at glass, marble and the smooth highways of a modern metropolis surrounded by, well, absolutely nothing.

Beyond the oasis of shimmering skyscrapers, and as far as I could see, stretched the vast and empty Central Asian steppe.

Plenty of people raised their eyebrows when more than a decade ago President Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to move the capital of Kazakhstan out of Almaty to a tiny provincial town called Astana in the very heart of the steppe.

Back then it consisted of a bundle of concrete apartment blocks. A place of freezing winters, blistering hot summers and a complete lack of infrastructure.

Climate, it seems, is the only thing President Nazarbayev has not managed to change.

Extravaganza

Ten years and £5bn ($9.6bn) later, Astana is Central Asia's fastest growing city. And certainly the most extravagant.

Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev
President Nazarbayev has been in power since 1989
There is a theme park here with miniature versions of famous monuments like the statue of Liberty and the Eiffel tower.

In the centre of the city stands an aquarium filled with sharks and exotic fish.

The British architect Norman Foster is building a huge pyramid where in September President Nazarbayev plans to host a meeting of the world's religious leaders.

But it is not just this oil money fuelled architectural extravaganza in the middle of the desert that makes Astana a weird place. Weirder still is how normal life here seems to be.

'Nostalgia'

Lets get away from the affluent neighbourhoods, I suggested to my driver Dimash. It took him a while to think of a place. Finally we ended up in a neat but modest suburb.

In a garden outside a small wooden house Maria, a retired school teacher, offered me mint tea and a refreshing view on life in this corner of the former Soviet Union

"Of course life isn't easy for us, the old people," she said, "but my daughters received a free education, and they now have good jobs."

"Their life is much better than mine was at their age," she said.

Now it is not every day that you hear that sort of comment in a region full of nostalgia for the stability of Soviet times.

Map of Kazakhstan showing the capital Astana
Just as it's not common to see that it is local people, not expats, who fill the city's numerous bars and restaurants or to hear young people talk about the future with an optimism simply unknown to their peers across the border in Uzbekistan, or across the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan.

It does help, of course, that their country sits on enormous reserves of oil and gas.

International financial institutions praise not only the country's economy, but also the government's willingness to invest in education and sustainable development.

And this emerging nation is refusing to ally itself to any one foreign power: the West, Russia and China are all competing for investment while Kazakhstan reaps the benefits. But behind this country's maturing economy is an immature political system, built around the president and his family.

And that is a huge problem.

Two words forward one step back is how one diplomat here described Kazakhstan's democratic development.

'Family enterprise'

After 17 years in power, President Nazarbayev has just recently been re-elected for another seven year term.

Observers said the election, like other votes before it, was neither free nor fair.

"It's not a real state, it's a family enterprise," a man called Respek Sarsenbaiuly told me.

His brother, Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly, was one of Kazakhstan's leading opposition politicians.

In February he was gunned down in a street, his bodyguard and driver were also killed. Sarsenbaiuly was the second opposition leader murdered in just a matter of months. 

Dariga Nazarbayeva
Dariga Nazarbayeva party recently joined her father's Otan party
Recently President Nazarbayev's daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, an ambitious 44-year-old lawyer, dared to criticise one of her father's closest associates over the killings.

Well, there is not likely to be any more comment because last week, Dariga Nazarbayeva's party Asar announced that it was joining President Nazarbayev's own Otan party.

"Tell your party members that they have completed their task and that you are now coming back to your father", the president said, bringing his daughter's political career to an abrupt end.

Censorship

"I don't care, there is corruption of course and there are problems, but he really cares about people too" Olga, a librarian from Astana told me.

I met her on top of the tower overlooking the capital. Nazarbayev did not just built this city, he is building a real future for us, she said.

But Olga, like many other people I have spoken to, has never heard of the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly. So tight is the state control of the media.

And as we looked at skyscrapers reddened by the setting sun, I wished I could share Olga's optimism.

But Kazakhstan's rare post-Soviet success story, like its glamorous capital in the steppe, seems illusory and just a bit surreal.

 

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