The cities of the five former Soviet Stans have been dominated by the personalities of their authoritarian rulers but in Kazakhstans old capital of Almaty, at the least, something new is afoot

From his office on the 20 th floor of an Almaty tower, Ruslan Assaubayev outlines a vision for a new kind of city. Newly pedestrianised streets, a network of bike lanes and bus lanes, and modernised modes of public transport are all part of a five-year plan developed in coordination with western consultants and implemented by the city authorities and Almaty Development Centre, a governmental organisation of which Assaubayev is the deputy head.

Downstairs, brightly coloured logos adorn the white walls of the Open Almaty centre, a new branch of the mayoralty where locals can come and address questions or grievances to civil servants.

Attempting to develop a city around the needs of its residents is something very new for Central Asia, where urban planning tends to be a very top-down affair. But even public involvement is ordered rather than organic.” We are strengthening the involvement of citizens in the development of the city, in line with the edict of the president ,” says Assaubayev.

The five ‘Stans'

Kazakhstan's Almaty is the financial hub of central Asia, a region made up of the five “Stans”- former Soviet republics which became independent nations in 1991. The region is off the radar of most westerners not in the oil business, and in recent years, when the region is not being ignored, it is being mocked.

Many find Central Asia as the ultimate middle of nowhere, but locals point out that this is highly dependent on the perspective of the person looking at the map. From Almaty, it is less than a five-hour flight to Moscow, Delhi, Beijing, Tehran or Dubai. Right in the heart of Eurasia, there is a good argument that if the Americas are taken out of the equation, Central Asia is at the centre of everything.

Outwardly similar and sharing a common Soviet heritage, the five countries are in fact most varied. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan sit on the territory of some of the world's oldest civilisations, while the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz were largely nomadic until the onset of Soviet power. All five countries are majority Muslim, though the Soviet legacy and paranoid governments entail outward displays of religion are not promoted( some say this leads to an increased chance of radicalisation among those who do turn to religion ).

The cities- as with everything else in modern-day Central Asia- have been dominated by the personalities of the men who have ruled the five countries since the Soviet collapse. The cityscapes are filled with billboards featuring the presidents, and in some cases even statues; the ultimate personality cult being that of Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan, who had a golden statue of himself construct that rotated to face the sun.

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A human walks through the grounds of the Nurly Tau business centre in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

In Kazakhstan, chairwoman Nursultan Nazarbayev decreed in 1998 that the capital should be moved from Almaty, which had been the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan, to Astana, previously a small , nondescript town more than 600 miles to the north-west. Gradually, a new capital rose from the steppe, a remote echo of Peter the Great's decision to found a new capital in the inundates of Russia's north three centuries previously.

Astana and Almaty are counterpoints- on the one hand an artificial city built from nowhere, and on the other a lively and dynamic city growing organically, from a little over a million at the collapse of the Soviet Union to 1.7 million today.

Central Almaty is in many ways an ideal Soviet city, a neat grid of broad boulevards, shaded from the hot summertime sunshine by trees, and lined with grand late Stalinist houses in parts and vast imposing monumentalist structures in others, many of them the work of a group of architects despatched to the city from St Petersburg in 1967. It is packed with coffeehouse, eateries and the bustle of the modern city.

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Jan Gehl's vision of a pedestrian and cycle friendly Paniflov Street in Almaty

By contrast, Astana is sterile, surreal and devoid of any sense of organic developing. The steppe city has a miserable climate and little in the way of infrastructure, but western architects happily came to the city to construct outlandish structures in return for large amounts of petroleum dollars. It is still referred to by some cynical Almaty residents as “Adstana” (” Ad” is the Russian term for “hell” ).

Ewan Simpson, the Glasgow-born dean of the business school at the Kazakh-British Technical University in Almaty, has a more charitable interpreting, comparing the relationship between Almaty and Astana to that between New York and Washington, somewhat liberally.” The two cities complement each other ,” he says, bullish and optimistic about the future of the country's two main cities.

Simpson's office is in the former Kazakh parliament building, an enforcing Stalinist neo-classical structure that was once the most important building in Central Asia. When the capital was shunted up to Astana in 1998, it ceased to function, and it now houses the university. Outside, employees are putting the finishing touch to a summer of redevelopments, with the car park in front of the building now transformed into an attractive pedestrianised zone with wooden benches, fountains and bike lanes.

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Astana hosted Expo 2017. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright

” People criticise this country but you have to remember the distance it has come in the past 25 years ,” says Simpson.” There has been a gradual switching in understanding about what the city should be like. To start with, people were concerned with surviving , now that they have built it through those years, there's a more concerted great efforts to make the city into a nice place to live .”

Due to Nazarbayev's fixation on Astana as his legacy project( there are persistent whisperings that the city may be renamed in his honor ), Almaty has been allowed the oxygen of liberty to develop more naturally, though even here the president is never far away. He seems the moment visitors land at the airport, where a large banner in Russian and Kazakh proclaims the rather Orwellian axiom:” The modernisation of society's consciousness is the foundation of national identity .”

Almaty's regeneration, at the least in the centre, has been impressive, and it is clear the city wants to learn from international best practise. The mayoralty engaged consulting firm McKinsey in 2015 to advise on a five-year plan for urban improvements, and has furthermore hired the renowned Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl to help devise a plan to pedestrianise the city and make it generally a friendlier urban environment. Almaty city officials have recently travelled to urban forums and consultation sessions in Bangkok, Singapore, Seoul, Berlin and Ljubljana.

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Pedestrian on Arbat shopping street in Almaty. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

For all the good purposes, critics say that while the city has been quick to consult international experts, it has been more dismissive of its actual residents. Many post-Soviet cities have inherited this problem of a lack of societal participation in decision-making and a lack of transparency on the part of the government. Soviet urban development had a whole philosophy and canon behind it, and much of it was designed to try to make the urban environment an inspiring place for citizens, but it took very little notice of the actual wants or complaints regarding people. Urban beautification projects were “gifts” from the government and there was no two-way feedback. In the new autocracies of Central Asia, the trend continues.

” A lot of it is very impressive, but local people weren't asked whether they want it or not ,” says Asel Yeszhanova, an architect who works for the Almaty Urban Forum, of Almaty's recent changes. The forum was set up by concerned urbanists who felt the city was not taking the opinion of citizens into account.” For the past 80 years we were told what to do- whether it was Almaty being told by Moscow, or the people being told by government. It's time to encourage people to take responsibility ,” she adds.

Ashgabat: the ultimate trophy city

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A typically deserted central boulevard in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photograph: Alamy

Almaty's urban development strategy may not be ideal, but it is streets ahead of the rest of the region. In Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, vast billboards of the president, Emomali Rahmon, are omnipresent, while city planners tear down Soviet houses with little think for heritage or planning. Without the petroleum the resources available to Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan, the country does not have the cash to splash out on international designers or whole new trophy city districts. Instead, the competitive city-building streak was manifested in the erection of a 165 -metre high flagpole in the centre of Dushanbe, which flies a 700 kg Tajik flag. It is three metres higher than a similar flagpole in Azerbaijan, and was briefly the tallest flagpole in the world before the Saudis eclipsed it with a 170 m pole in Jeddah.

Of the region's trophy cities, Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, is by far the most extraordinary and overwrought. Begun by Niyazov, the city has been continued by his successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who has set about building a personality cult almost as bloated as that of his predecessor. Whole swaths of Soviet Ashgabat have been bulldozed to make way for wide avenues of white marble buildings, few of which are occupied. The city centre is largely bereft of people, save the armies of cleansers who move methodically through the wide avenues pruning the bushes and watering the grass. Ashgabat is like the prize china of an obsessive household- on display but far too precious to be used. The city's new airport is an example of this: a vast structure in the shape of a falcon, constructed at huge expenditure and opened amid fanfare by Berdymukhammedov last September. It can manage 1,600 passengers an hour, but there are hardly any flights because the country devotes out so few visas.

The paranoid Turkmen authorities are torn between conflicting impulses to show off and to conceal their capital city. At enormous expenditure, the country hosted the recent Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, spending a reported US$ 5bn( PS3. 74 bn) on infrastructure for what is effectively a minor regional tournament. The government constructed several new venues from scratch. The Guardian was accredited for the games, then had its accreditation rescinded at the last minute with no rationale, as did a number of other international media organisations.

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Ashgabat venues for the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, with Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Composite: Alamy; Tass via Getty; imageBROKER/ Alamy; AFP/ Getty

In these presidential republics, the authorities have a suffocating grip not only on the architecture of the cities but on the rules and fabric of public life. In Ashgabat, Turkmen authorities stopped all sales of alcohol for two months, with no prior warn, in the runup to the Asian Indoor Games. In Dushanbe, Tajik authorities have introduced a number of requirements leading to a sneak regulation of residents' lives, from the colour of clothing permitted to be worn at funerals to the number of guests people are allowed to invite to weddings.

The public take a definite backseat when it comes to the use of what is ostensibly public space- aggressive police, shut streets and traffic diversions are common tactics to keep the population away from their leaders. Even in democratic Kyrgyzstan, when the president is anywhere in the vicinity, aggressive police lines shoo away the public.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, is the outlier among the cities, reflecting the different political climate in the country. Kyrgyzstan has been the region's odd-one-out since a revolution toppled chairman Askar Akayev in 2005 and another removed his successor in 2010. Chaotic but democratic, the country is exceedingly poor, absence the resources of its neighbours and heavily dependent on remittances from migrant workers in Russia. Even in the very centre of Bishkek, pavements are often cracked or fully absent and many streets are unlit at night. The sorry state of Kyrgyzstan's economy is used by many in Russia and elsewhere to suggest that authoritarian regimes are better for people than democracies, and the chaos of Bishkek's messy urban environment is certainly in stark contrast to the neatly manicured streets of Almaty.

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Women stroll past an election campaign poster of Kyrgyz opposition presidential candidate Omurbek Babanov in the outskirts of Bishkek. Photograph: Vyacheslav Oseledko/ AFP/ Getty Images

Here too, there are finally some efforts at improvement. The mayoralty has signed a contract with the Moscow city government and hopes to import some of the Russian capital's experience of urban beautification of recent years. Deputy mayor Erkin Isakov says it's a huge advantage for Bishkek to be coming to urbanism years after most other capital cities:” It means we can see what mistakes others have made and be discouraged ,” he says with a chuckle. He admits that, over the past two decades, very little has been done.

” Since 1991 , nobody has paid the slightest bit of attention to our parks, but now for the first time, this year we have the budget to renovate four of them .”

Isakov speaks in Russian laced with English urbanism buzzwords like” data fusion”,” billing centre” and” smart parking “. But despite the grand city growth plan, everything voices rather more speculative than Almaty's programme.” That depends on how soon we find an investor ,” is Isakov's response to a question of how soon any of the changes might happen. He does say that some steps to involve citizens have already been taken, such as giving local people the chance to plant their own trees in their neighbourhoods, and setting up groups on Whatsapp in which locals can air objections with city officials.

On Gagarin Street, the centralised water heating plant has been switched from gas to solar. With 345 days of sunshine a year, even winter sunlight when the temperature is -2 0C going to be able to partially heat the water, with gas doing the rest of the work. Alimbek Abdylaev, the head of the city's energy systems, says he plans to build 10 such solar often in the next two years to replace older gas and coal plants, usually from the Soviet era.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was a huge outflow of qualified an expert from Central Asian cities as thousands of Russians and other qualified locals left for Russia. Many more remain, a component of the region's tangled and thorny post-colonial legacy. For now, Russian remains the most spoken language of Almaty and Bishkek, but in many other cities in Central Asia, Russian is succumbing out. Keen to de-Russify even further, Kazakhstan has announced it will transition from writing Kazakh script in the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet during the next two years, which will further change the cityscape.

In the end, the cities are inextricably tied up with much larger questions of national identity, which is perhaps part of the reason why the region's overbearing presidents have tried to hard to mould them in their own images.

” This is all part of the search for who we are ,” says Aidos Sarym, a Kazakh nationalist, political consultant and member of Almaty's Public Chamber.” Before, we were nomads, then we were Soviet citizens, and now we need a new prototype of what the modern Kazakh looks like. Will they be an updated version of the Soviet person, will they be Islamist, will they be westernised? Right now, we're at a crossroads .”

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