IT WAS in June of 1998 that oil-rich Kazakhstan officially inaugurated its purpose-built capital, Astana. But when the 20th anniversary of the city’s founding rolled round this year, the government decided to mark the occasion a few weeks late, on July 6th, as it has in previous years. That, after all, is the birthday of a much older fixture in the country’s life: the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has run it since it became independent in 1991.
On the day, a colourful cascade of fireworks illuminated Astana’s gleaming space-age facades. There was also a tournament of kokpar (a traditional game played on horseback with a dead goat instead of a ball) and a circus featuring elaborate shows of horsemanship. The latter ended with an acrobatics display in which the performers’ costumes fanned out to send the turquoise and yellow of the Kazakh flag rippling across the stage.
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At Bayterek Tower, a 97m-tall folly topped with a golden egg which is supposed to represent the cycle of life, revellers enjoyed a public concert and tucked into free ice cream. There was a star-studded gala at the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a vast glass pyramid designed by Norman Foster, a British celebrity architect. Buzzing holiday crowds thronged the tent-shaped shopping mall opened on Mr Nazarbayev’s 70th birthday, in 2010, with its internal monorail and indoor river.
A few monuments were constructed in honour of this year’s double birthday, including a space museum, a botanical garden and a fish-shaped bridge across which crowds swarmed snapping selfies. The space museum and bridge were among “gifts” presented to the city by Kazakhstan’s provinces, which ignored Mr Nazarbayev’s half-hearted injunction not to give the city presents. All told, they donated amenities worth $17m, ranging from the practical (cycle tracks and a children’s nursery) to the whimsical (a musical fountain and “wall of peace” that showcases Kazakhstan as a force for good). In total, the celebrations cost about $55m.
A few spoilsports asked whether the government had its priorities straight, given that many of the country’s villages still lack running water. Grumbling is tolerated, as long as it is not too vocal, but the handful of party-poopers who tried to stage tiny demonstrations during the celebrations were swiftly arrested.
To be fair, Mr Nazarbayev is not one to overdo it. He continues to decline suggestions that Astana, which means “capital” in Kazakh, should be named after him. The airport does bear his name, as does a mountain near the former capital, Almaty, which 5,000 devoted citizens climbed to commemorate the big day. But then Kazakhstan has never had any other presidents after whom to name things.