Kazakhstan's Capital Has a Million Residents? Probably Not.

Astana. A million strong.

Astana. A million strong? Wikipedia image.

Numbers and landmarks are important to ex-Soviet Kazakhstan's 75-year-old dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Take his uncompetitive re-election to the post of president in March last year in which he claimed a record landslide with 97.7% of the vote and a record turnout of 95.1%.

If that election was going to be his last — which some predicted at the time but no-one can say for sure — it had to be his best.

This week Nazarbayev has been playing the numbers game again, boldly claiming that the republic's capital Astana — a city he transformed from a provincial town to an uber-modern steppe hub with the help of significant oil revenues — has reached a million people.

Speaking on July 4, two days before Astana Day and in the 25th year of Kazakhstan's independence, the veteran autocrat said:

Хочу с большой радостью объявить, что сегодня родился миллионный житель Астаны. В семье Мухамедьяровых, она – воспитатель, он – электромонтер. Теперь Астана – город с миллионным жителем. Поздравляю вас!

It is with great pleasure that I announce that the one millionth resident of Astana was born today. The baby was born into the Mukhamedyarov family. [The mother] is a day carer and [the father] is an electrician. Now Astana is a city with a million inhabitants. Congratulations!

While it is always nice to have a dose of good news in the midst of a growing economic crisis, Nazarbayev's claim is contestable.

According to the country's national statistics agency, Astana had 862,750 people at the beginning of the year. By May it had 876,000. Residents of the city habitually put the population in the 800-900,000 range.

The discrepancy between official data and the data of the authoritarian country's top-ranking official was met with an immediate quip from popular Twitter user Rinat Balgabaeyev:

Right before a national holiday, Astana has given birth to it's millionth resident! Now we just need to give birth to all the babies starting from the 800,000th and ending with the 999,999th!

And another one:

I am looking at [our new Mayor] with new eyes. Ever since he took up his post, fertility has boomed!

And a third:

In the capital it seems that even children are planned as part of the [state] program “Development of Astana 2016-2020″.

Astana, the second coldest capital in the world after the capital of Mongolia, does have a rapidly growing population, but as another Twitter user pointed out, a part of it lives in transit between there and the more inhabitable former capital of Almaty, which has over 1.5 million people.

At any rate, even allowing for a margin of error in the statisticians’ modelling, it is unlikely that over 100,000 people made the move to Astana in the last two months and far too convenient that the millionth resident was born just before the city celebrates itself.

For more than a quarter of a century now, Nazarbayev has been Kazakhstan's voice of authority, but as he approaches 76, his public appearances have taken on a surreal hue, with statements that suggest a politician out of touch with the lives his citizens are leading.

Visibly obsessed with a legacy that has been threatened by low oil prices and economic stagnation in neighbouring Russia, it seems possible that the president himself is no longer capable of separating fact from fiction.

The rest of the country, meanwhile, must do its best to keep up.

The president says a million. And the president never makes mistakes.

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