Astana: An architectural playground
ASTANA. KAZINFORM - Landing in Astana is like touching down on a movie set shooting a sci-fi film set decades in the future: an unusual number of buildings shaped as spheres - or "eyes" gazing up into space as if in communication mode with extra-terrestrial beings - interspersed with tall buildings topped with spires reminiscent of antennas, Buzzy Gordon of The Jerusalem Post writes.
At night, much of the city's edifices are illuminated in colorful lights, evoking a carnival atmosphere. Many futuristic movies depict their cities as densely crowded places, but this is where Astana breaks the mold: many of the streets are boulevards - some of them eight lanes wide, even in the heart of the city - and the distances in this sprawling metropolis are not designed for walking from place to place.
Adding to the sense of a city of the future is the construction of a monorail, which will eventually connect downtown and the two inter-urban transportation hubs: the international airport and the new train station.
Astana was an unlikely candidate to be the capital city of the ninth-largest country in the world (in area) and fourth largest in Asia - more than 100 times the size of Israel. Less than a generation ago, it was just a backwater in the ocean of land that is the great steppe - actually closer to Omsk in Siberia than to Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, and the nation's capital since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Out of the blue, Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, decreed that the provincial town of Akmola would be the country's new capital - and in Kazakhstan, what Nazarbaev says, goes. He has been the undisputed leader of the country since it was a Soviet socialist republic, and is consistently re-elected to the highest office with more than 90% of the vote.
It is hard to imagine that this was a popular decision for the thousands of government employees who would be compelled to relocate. The city's climate is far from hospitable: although the weather in the summer is ideal, its long winters are harsh; Astana is the world's second coldest capital, after neighboring Mongolia's Ulan Bator.
The city would have to be redesigned and built to accommodate an influx of residents that would almost quadruple its population. Renowned international architects were invited to plan and reshape Akmola, which would be renamed Astana - meaning capital city - when it was officially elevated to its current status in 1998.
The city's cultural life needed a serious upgrade as well, if senior government officials and foreign diplomats were to live there. An opera house to rival any in Europe, as well as a separate palace for ballet, went up in short order.
Enormous financial resources were invested in Astana; fortunately, Kazakhstan is blessed with abundant natural resources - including oil, uranium and rare earth metals - enabling the country to spend billions not only on infrastructure but also on an ambitious international Expo in 2017, in the run-up to this year's big 20th birthday bash. Israel, which has had diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan almost from the start of the Central Asian republic's independence, won the award for best presentation for its Expo pavilion.
Kazakhstan may be a Muslim-majority nation, but it is firmly a secular nation, which takes pride in maintaining good relations with everyone. If there is anything that symbolizes this attitude, I discovered it in the market; when I asked a seller of dried fruits where his dates were from, he replied: "Israel and Iran."
An even more striking juxtaposition took center stage the next day. As part of the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of Astana's coronation as capital, the city dedicated the Astana International Financial Center, an ambitious undertaking meant to serve as a clearinghouse and stock exchange that would catapult Kazakhstan into the forefront of Eurasian commerce. Economists and financiers gathered from the world over, including a significant delegation of Israelis; one of the featured speakers, shortly after the keynote address by President Nazarbaev, was Jacob Frenkel, global vice chairman of giant investment bank J.P. Morgan - and former Governor of the Bank of Israel. The speaker immediately preceding Frenkel? The representative of the Islamic Development Bank.
Israel-Kazakhstan relations have been nurtured carefully over the years: former president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have visited the country, and Israel maintains an embassy, with a resident ambassador, in Astana. According to a Russian-Israeli journalist familiar with the embassy of Kazakhstan in Israel, a posting as ambassador to Israel is considered a plum diplomatic position and a springboard to future promotions.
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