In his first meetings in Kazakhstan, the pontiff was met by the splendour of palaces that former President Nazarbayev built in a capital that has changed names five times in a century. In a country where Cyrillic still prevails, the changing script in Kazakh-language signs are symptomatic of a country caught between a Russo-centric imperial past and a new Turkic-speaking future promoted by current President Tokayev.
Nur Sultan (AsiaNews) - Pope Francis arrived in Nur-Sultan, capital of Kazakhstan, around 5.20 pm local time, starting his visit to the Central Asian country.
His plane landed at Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport, which, like the capital, is named after the country’s founder and first post-Soviet president.
In over a century, the city has probably captured the record in name changes. Under the tsars, it was known as Akmolinsk, becoming Tselinograd under the Soviets, then Akmola, followed by Astana in 1997 when it replaced Alma-Ata as Kazakhstan’s capital. Now it is Nur-Sultan, but there is talk of another possible name as the old boss appears to be out of favour.
In the endless emptiness of the northern steppe, Nazarbayev spent 30 years erecting an impressive array of ultramodern palaces and flamboyant monuments, bridges and mosques, shopping centres and endless squares.
But then space is no problems in Kazakhstan, the eighth-largest country in the world, the largest that is landlocked, home to only 15 million people.
Upon arrival, Pope Francis was immediately welcomed by pomp and ceremony, against a backdrop that was still in the making more than 20 years ago when his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, made an historic visit, the first by a pope, to Central Asia.
The current pontiff, who has been using a wheelchair for months, was gently taken from the plane to the VIP lounge, welcomed by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and a coterie of top officials, surrounded by a huge security detail to protect the completely isolated area, located far from the passengers' terminals and any strangers.
After the first formalities, France got on his Popemobile and was driven to the huge Ak Orda Presidential Palace, in the middle of the city, for a private talk with Tokayev, but since the Kazakh leaders is always surrounded by ministers, satraps and the up-and-coming, their tête-à-tête was anything but private, as befits Asian leaders since time immemorial.
The Kazakhs, proud heirs to the nomads of the steppes and the Tatars of Genghis Khan, always move like one man. Preparations for the visit saw a never-ending procession of celebratory and crowded inspections of the various locations of the upcoming events, with constant changes and new props, symbols and floral compositions added or taken away.
From Ak Orda, the Kazakh Kremlin, the papal delegation travelled to the nearby Qazaqstan Central Concert Hall to meet more government officials, civil society representatives, and members of the diplomatic corps. The hall is a replica of the one in the State Kremlin Palace (Kremlin Palace of Congresses) in Moscow.
Signs on government buildings are now in latinised Kazakh (Qazaq), although the Latin script has not yet been implemented in the rest of the country, still dominated by Russian and Cyrillic.
Everything is now hanging between Nazarbayev's Sovietistan with its Russian imperial past and the new Turkic-speaking country open to the whole world under the current president, who morphed from a silent dauphin into fiery rebuilder.
At the end of the day, the Holt Father retired to the nunciature, a big, anonymous but functional building, built in the 1990s by Italians.
When Pope John Paul II visited in 2001, a suitable place was quickly found, and the newly abandoned building was hastily occupied by the Vatican, with the papal symbol Totus Tuus on the chapel.
For their part, all the other members of the current papal delegation – Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, cardinals, prelates, and aides – are billeted at a nearby hotel.
The Kazakhs tried to persuade the pope to stay at a luxury palace in a residential neighbourhood for government officials, but Francis chose instead to avoid pomp and excessive monitoring, and stay in a sobriety that befits the small Kazakh Catholic community, the prophetic vanguard of a humble and poor Church amid an endless world of peoples and cultures.