Astana claims population tops 1mn in time for Kazakh president’s birthday

Astana claims population tops 1mn in time for Kazakh president’s birthday
The new capital of Astana.
By bne IntelliNews July 5, 2016

Authorities in Kazakhstan are claiming that the almost 20-year-old capital of Astana has witnessed the birth of its millionth resident, just ahead of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s birthday, which is marked as Astana Day, on July 6. Speaking at the launch of Astana Day festivities two days before, Nazarbayev said: “I would like to with great happiness announce that the millionth resident of Astana was born today… Astana now is a city of a million residents.”

Nazarbayev’s statement has caused controversy on social media in Kazakhstan as netizens claim the authorities are exaggerating Astana’s population in a bid to present the 1mn figure as an achievement to celebrate at a time when the country is experiencing the worst crisis since the late 1990s. Astana was officially declared the capital of Kazakhstan on December 10, 1997, after MPs passed an outlandish law on the relocation of the capital from Almaty to Akmola (later renamed Astana) on July 6, 1994, as a gesture to Nazarbayev on his birthday in the midst of the economic crisis the country was experiencing as a result of the breakup of the USSR. Nazarbayev attaches great significance to the development of the new capital, his pet project.

According to official statistics, Astana had 872,700 residents as of January 1 and its population had only increased to 880,200 people as of May 1. But following Nazarbayev’s claim and newly-appointed Mayor of Astana Asset Issekeshev’s present of a flat to the parents of the newborn, Astana’s administration issued a statement to justify the figure.

According to the migration police, over 61,300 people were registered in the city since the beginning of the year, and, according to the electoral roll compiled for the presidential election in 2015 and parliamentary election in 2016, the city’s population stood at 999,780 people as of July 1. Of them, 98,300 people were public sector workers and their families, 86,170 were civil servants and their families, 55,340 were workers of national companies, 80,120 were college and university students, 95,300 were construction sector workers, 66,000 were pensioners and benefit claimants, 6,500 were women with several children, 109,180 were workers of small and medium-sized enterprises, 15,600 were market and shopping mall workers, 169,070 were pre-school children, 117,000 schoolchildren, 39,900 were jobless and self-employed.

It is not clear whether there is double-counting involved in some of these figures, as public sector workers and their families and civil servants and their families might have already included some workers of national companies, construction workers, students and schoolchildren, for example.

Moreover, the migration police figure of 61,300 might not distinguish between people who have permanently settled in the city and tourists and visitors who come to the city on business.

Generally speaking, Astana is losing its lustre as a desirable destination for internal migrants: the inflow of migrants peaked at 33,842 in 2010 and fell to 17,880 in 2014, turning negative 2,488 in 2015.

However, there's no argument that since the establishment of Astana as capital in 1997 its population has skyrocketed, going from 275,300 in 1998 to 872,700 people at the beginning of 2016 thanks to large-scale migration. 

The relocation of the capital has changed the demographics of the city (and surrounding regions) from being a predominantly ethnic Russian town into an ethnic Kazakh one: the share of the ethnic Kazakh population increased from 17.7% in 1989 to 41.8% in 1999 and to 75.5% on January 1, 2016, whereas that of the ethnic Russian population decreased from 54.1% to just 15.3% at the beginning of this year. For comparison, the share of ethnic Kazakhs increased from 39.7% of the country’s total population in 1989 to 66.48% on January 1, 2016, while the share of ethnic Russians decreased from 37.8% to 20.6% respectively.

With the current economic crisis offering little to celebrate, the 1mn figure will surely be a source of celebration of Astana Day and Nazarbayev’s 76th birthday. That, however, will do little to ausuage the anger of many citizens who have seen their living standards decline over the past year. Kazakhstan has seen a rare wave of protests this year that were initially triggered by land reform plans but have quickly become an outlet for expressing general discontent with the government.