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New Capital City Draws Attention in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan enjoys a booming economy fueled by the country's oil revenues. As Valer Gergely reports, the country's new capital, Astana is not only one of the fastest growing cities in the world, but has also become a prime destination for foreign investments. Jim Bertel narrates.

The observation globe atop Astana's 105-meter Baiterek tower offers a perfect bird's eye view of the new capital. Many of the city's half a million residents come here to see the forest of construction cranes dominating the skyline - a testimony of the construction boom in Astana. The Kazakh government has spent billions of dollars on construction, but for this oil rich country cash may not be a problem.

The city was given its present name in 1998. Earlier it was called Akmoilinsk, then Tselinograd. Remnants of the old town are still visible.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev relocated the capital to the north from the cosmopolitan city of Almaty 10 years ago. The central geographical location, available resources, and potential for further development motivated the move. Grandiose government buildings, marble palaces and boulevards have grown at an incredible pace in the heart of the Central Asian steppe. However, many other parts of the country do not show much sign of improvement.

And yet hundreds of joint ventures and foreign companies operate in Kazakhstan, the majority of them from Turkey, Russia, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, Switzerland and the U.S.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher says there are great opportunities in Kazakhstan beyond oil and gas. "There is engineering, power and agriculture - a lot of sectors where people could be more involved if there were a better business climate, less corruption; some areas where a trained work force would be helpful. One of the things we try to do is to get together some public and private activity with Kazakhstan so we have companies and governments working together to improve the opportunities both for the U.S. and for Kazakh business people," he said.

Beibit Yerubayev, representative of "BISNIS", a business information service that had promoted U.S. exports and investments in Eurasia for 16 years, believes there are many opportunities for U.S. investors.

"America is very strong in telecommunications and computer sciences, and I believe they could also expand their operations in Kazakhstan,” Yerbavev said. “We would like to see more U.S. companies in food processing, construction, especially modular, because now the demand is very high for real estate development."

Astana's construction boom has already attracted many businesses. But creating a real city in the middle of the steppe where the January temperature can drop below minus 40 degrees Celsius is challenging and presents a huge risk, says Astana's chief architect Baktybay Taitalyev.

"Because of the cold and long winter we had to develop new construction techniques and materials," Taitalyev said. "It was a kind of 'technological revolution.'"

The new capital is being developed by an international team. Following a worldwide competition, Kazakhstan invited Kisho Kurokawa, a well-known Japanese architect, to draw up the master plan for the city, says master planner Amanzhol Chikanaev. "An international panel accepted Kurokawa's general development plan, because it was unique and innovative in design and construction technologies," added Chikanaev.

British architect Norman Foster has already built a giant glass pyramid, housing a conference hall. Now he plans to erect a 150-meter-tall, air-conditioned glass tent housing an area of 10 football stadiums with shopping and recreation centers. While these projects may be engineering marvels, some critiques say the city's architecture is a clumsy link between Kazakhstan's nomad past and a modern city. The architects, however, adhere to their own vision.

"We try to make Astana a Eurasian city with Kazakh, Asian and western elements," Chikanaev said. "At the same time we want to give it a national identity."

City planners say they worked hard to create a world-class city atmosphere of the 21st century. It is predicted that Astana will have more than 1.2 million residents by 2030.