Pavel K Baev
Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
Astana, since 1997 the capital of Kazakhstan, with its striking extra-modern architecture amidst desolate steppes, is the point of departure for this thoughtful study in political geography. In order to test her ideas about the purpose and impact of such massive investments, the author travels to Baku, Azerbaijan and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, and then further beyond the post-Soviet space – to Abu Dhabi, OAE and Doha, Qatar, and to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei and Naypyidaw, Myanmar. Contrasts between these spectacular urban centers and the devastated environment of the drying Aral Sea or the conflict-rich provinces of Myanmar are shocking, and if the Gulf states can spread their prosperity wider, the war-torn Yemen is still in their neighborhood. These contrasts compel many researchers to decry the efforts at constructing the spectacular capitals as merely beautification of facades of rent-harvesting authoritarian regimes. Koch disagrees with such simplistic dismissal and argues that the political technology of creating stunning buildings and breath-taking urban spaces needs to be taken seriously. Megalomania may be a typical character trait of despotic leaders, but the impressive results of their orders to channel resources toward erecting architectural miracles make many inhabitants and visitors of these glitzy cities proud of their respective countries. There is no denial of oppression and corruption of Nazarbayev’s or Aliyev’s regimes, but it is indeed essential to acknowledge the ‘more positive and inclusionary dimensions of authoritarian state-making’ (p. 16). Koch is perhaps more interested and convincing in challenging the prevalent perspectives and raising questions about the complexity of messages emanating from the newly-modernized cities than in supplying answers, informed partly by the ever-green proposition on ‘structural violence’.