Money Changes Everything

Oil cities are now lit up by windfall profits around the world, but only Kazakhstan has one where none existed before. It's the brainchild of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who declared in 1997 that the capital would move from Almaty, near the Chinese border, to a place closer to the geographic center of the country. Ministries, embassies and the offices of the state oil company were moved by administrative fiat. Private businesses and people followed, complaining all the way. But there's no saying no to Nazarbayev. The city of Astana now has a population of about 600,000, out of a planned future total of 1.5 million.

There's nothing quite like the spectacle of skyscrapers rising in the wind-blasted steppes of central Kazakhstan. Astana's original designs were drawn up by the Saudi contractor Sheik Bakr bin Laden, elder half brother to Osama, and control of the project has since passed to a wider consortium of developers. (The bin Ladens still own more than 100 hectares of land in the city center.) While other oil capitals like Baku are using their newfound money to recover a late-19th-century charm, Astana has arguably less class, but way more chutzpah.

The eccentric cityscape boasts a 97-meter-high tower topped by a golden sculpture featuring an impression of President Nazarbayev's right hand. Visitors can put their hand in his and make a wish. There's a giant, domed presidential palace that Ming the Merciless might find appealing. One foreign oil exec wryly calls the oddly Orientalist style "ethno-postmodern." Holding pride of place is a giant pyramid symbolizing the "four sides of the universe" designed by the fashionable British architect Lord Norman Foster. Elevators travel up the sides to a halo-shaped room at the apex where Nazarbayev likes to host meetings of the world's religious faiths.

Their proximity to oil wells has driven the rise of smaller cities like Calgary, Houston and Baku. But what to make of Astana, or for that matter Moscow, which is far from the oil wells, and Dubai, which has no oil? The answer is political power, or perhaps more precisely, political whim in Astana's case.

Nazarbayev spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on the city, a sum equal to about one twelfth the annual state budget. Critics like Anton Ar-temyev, senior researcher at Kazakhstan Revenue Watch, a nonprofit financial-watchdog group, complain that "the money is being thrown on some ridiculous towers and pyramids." Unfazed, Kazakhstan pushes ahead with vanity projects like the construction of a giant shark-filled aquarium, and a theme park with miniature versions of famed architectural monuments, from the Statue of Liberty to the Coliseum. "Sharks are swimming in the middle of the desert; visitors are able to sunbathe and swim in an artificial ocean when it's minus 50 degrees outside," enthuses Sergey Fomichev, director of Astana's development committee. Somewhat more constructively, Fomichev plans a new university for 35,000 students that he hopes will soon attract graduates from Harvard, Cambridge and Yale for teaching positions.

The results of all this activity haven't always been happy. One building, dubbed by locals "the Titanic," has a huge crack in its foundation, while another, named "the Kursk" after the lost Russian submarine, stands perilously close to a crumbling riverbank. In May a catastrophic fire struck a skyscraper known as "the Lighter." One hopes that's not a prophetic sign for this whole blazingly ambitious city.