The capital city of Kazakhstan is Astana, a city in the north-west of the country.
Astana is one of the world’s newest capital cities – it only became the Kazakhstan capital on 10 December 1997. Prior to that date, Almaty had been the capital of Kazakhstan. So, to ask “What is the Capital of Kazakhstan?” is actually a pretty sensible question.
The move from Almaty to Astana
The decision was taken to move the Kazakhstan Government from Almaty soon after Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union. Although Almaty was (and still is) the largest city in Kazakhstan, it is located in the South East of the country, right on the border with Kyrgyzstan. This was felt to be disadvantageous for two main reasons – firstly that it was geographically isolated from much of the rest of the country, and governing from such a remote spot was thought to be too difficult for a new state. And, secondly, because it’s position right on the Kazakh border was not felt to be secure in what was likely to be a relatively unstable region. Other minor concerns were the potential for earthquakes in the region, and a lack of room for expansion.
In an impressive feat of organisation, the move from Almaty to Astana was organised in just a couple of years – Astana was designated future capital in 1995, and by the end of 1997, the capital had moved.
You can see how far the capital moved, and how close Almaty is to the Kyrgyz Republic’s border in the map below.
Astana is the second largest city in Kazakhstan, and has grown rapidly since becoming the capital city. In 1997 its population was less than 300,000. Today it is more than 700,000. In 20 years time, the population of Astana is estimated to reach 1 million.
Astana is a Kazazkh word which means Capital – it must be said that whoever chose the name wasn’t very imaginative. The name Astana is a new one, though, for a city which has had many names. Founded in 1824 as a Cossack fortress, the town was initially named Akmolinsk, and rose to prominence as a regional transport hub for the southern Russian Empire. The city was re-named Tselinograd in 1961 – the new name literally means Virgin Lands City, and it should come as no surprise to learn that the city was critical to Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands campaign – so much so that it was named the capital of the Soviet Virgin Lands Territory. After Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, the city was briefly renamed Aqmola (White Shrine), before being given its current name of Astana in 1998.
There are still many critics of the decision to move the capital of Kazakhstan to Astana. The climate on the Kazakh steppe isn’t as hospitable as in Almaty, and the cost of flights to Astana and the cost of Astana hotels is high – a constant cause of griping from business travellers. Many people within Kazakhstan are also angry that their taxes are being used to construct a brand new city instead of to boost the Kazakh economy.
There is certainly a huge amount of money being spent on the construction of Astana, which has resulted in the building of some impressive Astana landmarks (some would say follies). Chief among these are the Bayterek tower, the Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation, the Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall and a lush Presidential Palace. Most ambitious (and controversial!) of all, though, is the Khan Shatyry Entertainment Centre, a massive transparent tent that contains a massive park, river and indoor beach, as well as a number of very expensive shops.