Forward Capitals: The Case Study of Kazakhstan

In class last week, we joked about stereotypical US perspectives on the world. One of the most common examples of American ignorance involves lumping the “-stans” all into one basket. While most students know of Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of the neighboring Central Asian countries are left out of classroom conversation. Our class reflected on “Tomorrowland,” a 2012 National Geographic article that describes the growth of Astana, the new capital city of Kazakhstan. The city was originally built to put important military and political resources closer to their border with Russia, and evolved into a source of national pride.

Many other forward capitals have struggled in their infancy, including Brasilia, Brazil and Canberra, Australia. While Astana is very photogenic today, it will be interesting to see how the city holds up as it ages over the next couple of decades. The decision to move the capital closer to Russia seems more wiser now with the separatist movements in the Ukraine.

Beneath the surface, the construction of the capital is part of a broader mission by President Nazarbayev to separate Kazakhstan from their neighbors. Their leader took another bold step in this mission a year ago by suggesting changing the name to “Kazakh Yeli” or “Land of Kazakhs” instead of their current name, which is Persian for “Place of Kazakhs.” While the strategies may be debatable, it will be worth following Kazakhstan over next few years to see if they can truly emerge as a world player.