The anniversary featured 50 events, staged in and around the capital. In addition, the openings of some 30 new facilities – including health clinics, public buildings and bridges coincided with the festivities. The entertainment began on July 1 with the opening of a new hippodrome for horse racing and traditional Kazakh equestrian sports.
The decision to move to Astana was taken in the mid-1990s, with Nazarbayev decreeing that the transfer would take place in 1997. The seat of government shifted in December that year, but the official unveiling of the city took place the following June. Thus, Astana will officially celebrate its 10th anniversary next year. Those festivities, many observers believe, will dwarf this year's munificent display. Last year, the city's official anniversary was moved from June to July 6, Nazarbayev's birthday, to mark the anniversary of the parliamentary vote confirming the move north.
Local residents marvel at the changes that have occurred over the past decade in the city, which was founded as a fortified outpost in the early 19th century, and in the 1950s became the center of then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's ambitious and ultimately disastrous Virgin Lands agricultural program.
"This was all dachas," said a street sweeper cleaning a fountain in the new part of town, gesturing at the grandiose skyscrapers lining the promenade extending from the presidential palace to the extravagant headquarters of the national oil and gas company.
"Of course it's changed hugely," agreed a pensioner watching the celebrations. "The town has grown at such a rate. We didn't imagine it would be possible to build what are effectively two towns so quickly. On the left bank there was nothing but dachas, steppe and forest and now look."
Nazarbayev has been accused by some of building a folly. He rebuffs criticism that the funds could have been better spent on public services, saying that the lion's share of investment in Astana's development has come from private capital. Some $12 billion has been invested in Astana, he said on July 4. Some observers suggest that figure is a low estimate. A total of $5 billion has been invested in the government quarter alone since the establishment in 2002 of a Special Economic Zone offering tax incentives to investors.
Regardless of the cost, there's no disputing that Astana has experience a construction boom on a grand scale, and there is still five years to go: many major projects are due to be finished by 2012, coinciding with the end of Nazarbayev's current term in office. Some 15 million square meters of construction is planned for the coming years, Astana Mayor Askar Mamin said recently. "By area, that's another Astana," he told the city council.
Among the big projects still in the developmental stage is Khan Shatyry (the Khan's Tent), which is envisioned as a giant dome that will house entertainment facilities, and provide a comfortable environment during the severe winters. Khan Shatyry is being designed by architect Norman Foster, who has already built a pyramid in Astana housing an opera house and hanging gardens. There are also plans to build an indoor town for 10,000 people called Batygay.
The rapid rate of construction has not pleased all the city's inhabitants, with some complaining of sloppy standards. "I don't really trust all those buildings," said a former Almaty resident who moved to the capital to work in an embassy. "Some of the buildings are already cracked."
Astana's population has more than doubled since the move, to over 600,000, and it is estimated to top 1 million by 2030. Migrant workers legal and illegal – have been attracted from across Kazakhstan and neighboring states such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and Astana is a magnet for young professionals seeking to build a career. This has changed the city's demographics, bringing more ethnic Kazakhs to a city that formerly had a Slav majority. Astana's ethnic Kazakh population has risen to some 60 per cent, up from 17 per cent in 1989.
Many argue that a drive to attract ethnic Kazakhs northward was the key factor in shifting the capital, which was officially put down to lack of space for expansion in the former capital, Almaty, and its location in an earthquake zone.
Bringing the capital north had the effect of squashing nascent separatist tendencies among some ethnic Russians in the region. "By bringing the physical institutions of state closer to the locus of the perceived unrest, Nazarbayev showed his readiness to confront threats at a moment's notice," argues academic Edward Shatz in a working paper on the move.
Clan affiliation was also a factor, observers say. Almaty is ostensibly controlled by the Uly Zhuz (Great Union) clan. Despite being a Uly Zhuz member himself, Nazarbayev, reportedly wanted to dilute that clan's political influence, and so he moved the capital to a location where another clan, the Orta Zhuz (Middle Union), was predominant. The move also brought the capital closer to the 7,000-km border with Russia, a key ally, and away from the Chinese border.
Astana's residents express satisfaction with the economic regeneration the move has brought. "There are lots of towns around Astana and they are developing in parallel," said Margulan Rakhimbekov, a company manager who moved to Astana from the nearby city of Karaganda to further his career.
The move has also produced a fair share of lifestyle hassles. A recent poll by the Parasat analytical center revealed that the capital's residents are discontent with the high cost of housing, insufficient public transport and constant traffic jams. At the same time, three-quarters of those interviewed said they were generally satisfied with the course of developments.
Many observers conjecture that Astana, which has changed its name four times in the past five decades, might soon be renamed after the president. Nazarbayev's public rejection of the idea during the anniversary celebrations is unlikely to dampen speculation.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.