Saturday, May 23, 2009

Astana, Kazakhstan

Astana, Kazakhstan. We took an overnight train to the capital city last weekend. Astana has supplanted Almaty as the capital city for the past 10 years. President Nazarbayev has cited several reasons for changing the locations, the most dramatic, hysteria-mongering excuse, in my opinion, is that Almaty is on an earthquake fault line.

World leaders are ego-maniacs. That’s not a generalization. You have to have an enormous ego, a surplus of courage, and a conveniently flexible conscience if you want to get into world politics. Here’s my rant:

Today, Astana is a planned, urban development. It has had a somewhat coloured historical past, not the least of it involving the U.S.S.R’s detention and rehabilitation “programs.” But in the past 10 years, it has been scraped out of the steppe and built up to a city of 300,000 people from a scant 25,000 on the periphery.

Nazarbayev moved the centre of politics up north so that he could “play with his blocks.” The pictures below depict, in a 180 degree perspective, the extravagance that can be achieved if you use your people’s money for your own whimsical selfishness. See the images below.

The first picture is the “President’s Residence.” Directly behind it are gardens and fountains and the Bayterak Tower, where, at the very top, you can “shake hands” with the President in this gold plated impression of his right hand.

If you look closely at this image, right behind the blue dome of the Nazar’s shack is “The Pyramid of Peace.” Edna and the kids are standing right at the base in this close-up. About the only thing I’ll give Nazar any credit for is hosting a conference for all of the world’s religious leaders to come to Astana once every three years to discuss religious harmony, tolerance, and appreciation. Not really clear what it is used for in the intermittent 1,000 days, though.

Flanked by two golden towers, Nazar’s house runs along a line of architectural and financial waste.

Why am I being so hard on him? Why don’t I criticise any of a number of capital cities for unnecessary opulence and vanity? Give me the money and I would travel anywhere and comment on social inequity. The tragedy involved with Nazar’s project is the glaring poverty that exists here. On the 12 hour train trip up to this shiny city, we passed countless hovels that still use outhouses, some within 5 minutes of Almaty. I appreciate that Canada doesn’t have a perfect record in some aspects of immigration and First Nations issues and International business, etc., but, unlike say, the ostentatious-ness of Kuwait City or Dubai or Abu-Dhabi, where the display is generated by oil wealth and doesn’t negatively affect the average citizen, here in Kazakhstan, it does.

We went to visit a drug and alcohol rehab centre that is operated by one of our colleagues before we went to Astana. It is operated strictly on donations of money and goods. They can only afford to house 18 people at a time. It costs about $100 a month to keep an addict for the six months that it usually takes to help them cope with reality. The government does not have any such program. Unless you have access to privilege. So, 97% of the citizenry don’t get help.

Before we arrived at the rehab centre, our friend drove us past one of the local prisons first. Just to set the mood. You honestly wouldn’t house your pets there if you were out of town for the week. Appalling. Inhumane. Etcetera. She kept stressing that most of them come out “feet first.” Tuberculosis, AIDS, murder.

She came here to Kaz from New Zealand to do this sort of work, because, she said simply “I’m a Christian and God told me to.” She paid $400 for her house and I think she got ripped off. It is so spartan, it would give Mother Theresa cause to reconsider. She helped raise another $5000 and bought about ten acres for the centre right next to her house. Again, the government doesn’t/won’t help.

We met some colourful characters at the centre. I won’t provide details because it is not the sort of thing that you reduce to an entertainment format. But we did shake hands with a guy who was pronounced dead at a hospital and left with a toe-tag for six hours until Jesus sent him back. This anecdote may also speak to the quality of the medical staff.

What does this have to do with Astana? Waste. Inequity. Vanity. I’m not preaching, I’m commenting. For a hundred bucks a month, Dorothy and her crew can save a life. The money that is generated in a day by going up Nazar’s tower so you can shake his “golden hand” would easily cover the costs of the rehab clinic for a month.

Maybe I’m getting old. Next I’ll be telling my kids about the war, or something. Astana will only immortalize President Nazarbayev for a few generations. Feeding his people, not his ego, would make him more of a memorable leader.

We’ve committed ourselves to helping Dorothy and her program stay afloat. If you would like to get involved, let us know.


Dana Yartin said...

The reason of capital changing is really dumb. But I also think that there is financial reasons. But not sure about it )

George and Tina said...

Are you related to a guy named Rick Mercer? It looks like you guys were the only people there!

Anonymous said...

Nicely said!
Truth be told...we have no idea in, North America, how far a dollar can go. I experienced much of the same in Colombia. When people say it's ONLY $10 or it's ONLY $20....I think ,if they only knew....such numbers can change lives.
Love and Light