Kazakhstan's capital marks 20 years as critic's protest plans fall flat

Astana (Kazakhstan) (AFP) - Kazakhstan on Friday marked 20 years since steppe city Astana became the country's capital with pomp and ceremony, as calls for protests by an exiled critic of the country's authoritarian leader fell flat.

Security was tight at concerts marking the country's "Day of the Capital" in both Astana and the city it displaced as the country's seat of government, Almaty.

An AFP correspondent saw police checking bags and identification documents of citizens entering the square in Almaty where a concert was taking place. Police remained out in force as the festivities continued late into the evening.

Astana became the capital city in December 1997 but the summer holiday was designed to coincide with the birthday of Kazakhstan's long-ruling President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who turned 78 on Friday.

Nazarbayev's nemesis-in-exile Mukhtar Ablyazov had called on Facebook for demonstrations to spoil the public holiday but there were no signs of rallies -- illegal unless officially sanctioned in Kazakhstan --in either city.

Fugitive banker Ablyazov's previous attempt to stage nationwide rallies from a distance last month led to scores of citizens being detained and bundled into police vans in Almaty en route to the intended site of the demonstration.

Kazakhstan's regime has cracked down on political opposition domestically leaving Ablyazov, who was last year sentenced in absentia to seven years in jail on fraud charges, as Nazarbayev's only political opponent of any note.

- Second-coldest capital -

During Friday's celebrations, Astana hosted games of kokpar (a nomadic game played with a goat's carcass), an international music festival and other festivities while the city's international financial hub threw open its doors the previous day.

Astana, the world's second-coldest capital behind Mongolia's Ulan Bator was known as Akmola before it became Kazakhstan's seat of government.

On Thursday, Nazarbayev, who has never publicly mentioned any plans to leave office, presided over the opening of the Astana International Financial Centre aiming to ramp up international investment in the energy-rich economy.

While the centre is not expected to rival Hong Kong or Singapore any time soon, the strongman views it as vital to buffering the country against the global and regional economic volatility that has afflicted the national economy.

Nazarbayev, has described the financial centre as unique in the ex-Soviet region since it will operate according to an independent legal structure based on English common law and will be overseen by Lord Harry Woolf, a former Chief Justice of England and Wales.

Glitzy Astana was the brainchild of Nazarbayev. The city's main airport took his name last year, indicative of a pervasive leadership cult in the republic of 18 million people.

Nevertheless, many of Astana's one million residents compare it unfavourably with southern Almaty, citing harsh temperatures and isolation.

At the start of the year the country’s ambassador to Britain, Erlan Idrissov, wrote a prickly letter to the Financial Times newspaper, denouncing an article that had referred to Astana as a "bizarre" and "hastily built" vanity project.