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Why Nations Move Their Capitals

Why Nations Move Their Capitals

When asked about the capital city of a country, the obvious answer may not be the correct one and there are plenty of examples for this. Usually, we tend to think of cities like Istanbul, Sydney, Lagos or Rio de Janeiro as being capitals, but in fact, they are not. Sometimes the biggest city is not the seat of government and the list might grow as both Egypt and Indonesia announced they plan to build new ones from scratch.

Sometimes capitals stand out for their population, but that is not always the case. Prior to the Westphalian system, the capital was marked by the presence of the ruler and its court, or the presence of the two most important buildings, “the castle and the temple” (Gottmann J., 1977). The situation changed in the last 400 years as the modern bureaucratic nation-state characterized by permanent and impersonal institutions took form and the monopolistic/personalistic/patrimonial approach to rule diminished. This transformation changed the way a capital city works as it became a pivotal place from which the state exercised power over its territory with the help of a large mechanism that encompasses various economic, administrative and judicial institutions. With this in mind, one might ask, why do nations even bother changing the city which will eventually get to host nothing but institutions and ministries? 

Capital reasons 

There are several reasons why a country decides to move its capital. The first reason may be geography. Maybe the old capital of a country was located in farmlands and moving it closer to a mountain range proved strategically advantageous as it is easier to defend against enemies. However, nowadays, the risk of having your capital under siege has dramatically lowered. The only modern example of such motivation is that of Pakistan which moved its capital in 1959 from the port of Karachi to the mountainous city of Rawalpindi partly because of security reasons only to change it again in 1967, 20 kilometres farther, to the newly built city of Islamabad. One might argue that the change was done in order for the state authority to be closer to the disputed region of Kashmir.

On the other hand, geography has many “weapons” at its disposal such as environmental disasters which can pose a threat to any human establishment. The most straightforward example is the change of Belize’s capital in 1970 from the coastal Belize City to the inland small town of Belmopan due to the former being hit by a hurricane. Furthermore, the story of Jakarta is similar. The capital of Indonesia is sinking by about 10 centimetres annually. This is one of the reasons why the Indonesian Government announced that is currently planning on moving its seat of power to the island of Borneo, in the East Kalimantan region, by 2024. In the case of Indonesia, strengthening the government’s control over its provinces may be an important aspect behind the decision of changing the capital city, given that the country exerts sovereignty over a loosely connected archipelago inhabited by various ethnicities and religious minorities, and Borneo itself is shared with Brunei and historical rival Malaysia.

A heterogeneous population can be a key factor that negatively impacts the legitimacy of the government. This was the case of Nigeria which moved its capital from maritime Lagos to the more central city of Abuja in 1991. This move was done mainly to reach a compromise between the Muslim north and the Christian south while also redistributing power to other ethnic groups as the city of Lagos lies in a region mainly inhabited by the Yoruba people.

Just as Nigeria chose to compromise between various ethnic groups and religions, the same applies to other nations. The best-known example of a compromise is that of Washington D.C. which was built in the late 18th century as a political compromise to avoid having any of the jealous States host the nation’s capital (previously, the capital had been New York and Philadelphia). The position of the new city owed much to the already existing divide between North and South which would later lead to the Civil War over the issue of slavery and foreign trade. At that time, Washington D.C. was considered to be right in the middle of the young country, but as the United States “manifested their destiny” through westward expansion, the capital found itself far from being considered central. The same can be said about Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union which was chosen due to its location, being somewhat central that is (keeping in mind that the E.U. had just the original six countries at that time). Furthermore, Brussels is roughly located in the middle of one of the most densely populated areas of Europe, an area encompassing the Low Countries, the Rhine-Ruhr region and the northeast of France. Just like in the case of the United States, Brussels is no longer “central” due to the European expansion (mostly eastwards). Washington D.C. is a proper capital, a planned city, and a growing one and moving it might prove expensive and difficult. However, moving the de facto seat of power from Brussels to a more central Vienna, let us say, can further bring Europe to the east.

On the other side of the world, a compromise was also behind the decision to build Canberra in Australia in 1913 as a new capital. This was, however, not an ethnic or ideological compromise, but based purely on the rivalry between the cities of Sydney and Melbourne as the latter was considered sometimes to be the de facto capital while the former had more economic power. Another rivalry was between the two biggest cities of Brazil: São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. This how, in 1960, the newly built city of Brasília became capital under the Presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek. This movement had also an economic reason, that of trying to develop the interior provinces of Brazil which were mostly left forgotten as the economic and commercial centres of the country were located on the coast.

However, the “meet me halfway” approach is not the only one out there. South Africa wanted to reach a compromise between its provinces by having three capitals, executive Pretoria, judicial Bloemfontein and legislative Cape Town, the latter being mostly seen as a British colonial centre while the other two were capitals of the old Boer states (Orange Free State and Transvaal) founded by settlers of mostly Dutch origins. In addition to this, South Africa has eleven official languages and it is sometimes nicknamed “The Rainbow Nation” due to its ethnic diversity. Maybe sharing the power and avoiding centralisation can prove successful for the young African nation in the post-Apartheid world.

The urge to develop the interior of the country while achieving a compromise is also the case of Tanzania, which moved its capital from the coastal and crowded city of Dar es Salaam to Dodoma in 1974. The case of over-crowding is also present in the previous examples of Indonesia and Nigeria and even in Egypt, as Cairo is home to more than 20 million people and is tied with Lagos as the largest city in Africa (for reference, Cairo had a population of just 2.5 million in 1950 and Lagos just a quarter of a million people) (World Population Review, 2021). In response, the Egyptian Government announced a plan to build a new administrative centre filled with futuristic architecture and hi-tech infrastructure, but the project is yet to take shape as financing may be difficult even with help in the form of loans from Chinese banks. 

Down to brass tacks 

Until now we have explored the obvious reasons a state might consider changing its capital. Over-crowding, environmental problems, trying to reach a compromise within the nation or focusing on developing the “interior” of the country are straightforward reasons, however, politics can play a bigger part in that decision. Sometimes the lack of a democratic system of governance can lead to a sudden change of the seat of power. This is the case of Côte d’Ivoire which moved its capital city from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro in 1983 as the latter was the birthplace of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the man who ruled the country for most of the Cold War. However, the move was not complete and to this day Abidjan retains the title of de facto capital of the African country.

A curious case is that of Myanmar which transferred its seat of power from the coastal Yangon (also known as Rangoon) to the more central Naypyidaw in 2005. This action is highly controversial to this day as Myanmar (previously known as Burma) is still ruled by the military and pluralistic democracy has yet to take shape. Controversy also surrounds the actual city which holds vast infrastructure projects and a 20-lane avenue but its population did not surpass one million, making the city look abandoned. Some might even say that Naypyidaw is meant to serve as a place for the elites of the country. A similar case is that of Kazakhstan, which transferred its capital from the Eastern, populous and economically prosperous city of Almaty to the northern town of Astana, which is closer to the Russian border, in 1997. Furthermore, the town was renamed to Nur-Sultan in 2019 to pay respect to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first President of Kazakhstan, who ruled the country from 1990 until his resignation in 2019. 

Infographic source: Statista Research 

Symbolism can also play a role. It is true that trying to reach a compromise (as we have seen in previous examples) can be an apt symbol; however, the capital city of a country can tell us more about its mindset, and for that matter, how it wants to be seen on the world stage. There are two pivotal examples here: Saint Petersburg and Ankara.

In 1703, Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia, moved the capital from the inland city of Moscow to the Baltic port of Saint Petersburg, which he had built in accordance with Western fashion. The symbolism behind this move was the urge of the Russian elite to westernize the country by moving the capital closer to the “illuminated west” and to the very important maritime routes that represented the future area of expansion. By doing so, the administration would have an easier task of interacting with its Western counterparts and exchanging ideas and technology with them. After the Communist Revolution in 1917, the capital was moved back to Moscow to show that the new government has an inward focus rather than an outward one. Furthermore, Saint Petersburg (later known as Leningrad) found itself closer to the border with the newly independent state of Finland which posed a security threat. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the entry of the Baltic states into NATO, Saint Petersburg’s distance to NATO borders is ten times less what it was previously, something that factors into the rhetoric of Russian elites.

In the case of Ankara, the motivation is similar. Prior to the proclamation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the Ottoman Empire exercised its rule from Constantinople, “city of the world’s desire” (officially renamed to Istanbul in 1930). The young republic, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, made the central city of Ankara capital in order to show, as in the case of Russia, the inward focus of his administration, showing that the main responsibility of the nation is to its citizens.

Symbolism can also have roots in prestige. This is the case of Greece and its capital, Athens. The case of Athens is curious as the city used to be a centre of Hellenic culture for much of Antiquity but, by the beginning of the 19th century, it had a population of just 4,000 people and had little to no power as it was shadowed by Constantinople for more than a millennium. When Greece became an independent country in 1834, the country chose Otto of Bavaria to become the first King of Greece. In order to strengthen his legitimacy and prestige, the king commissioned architectural projects to restore the lost glory of Athens. The population also grew significantly following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War and its subsequent population transfers as most of the Greeks living in Turkey found refuge in Athens. Some might argue that Athens is a hybrid capital as it was artificially built 150 years ago while also having a rich history as a centre of power in the Mediterranean.

It is here that we should also mention the decision to move the capital of the newly unified Germany from Bonn to Berlin (the city itself being unified after 1990). The Unification Treaty made Berlin the de jure capital but there talks of keeping Bonn as the seat of government (similar to how The Hague is the seat of government while Amsterdam is the constitutional capital). Following a vote in the German Bundestag in 1991, Germany was on to move its capital to Berlin. The movement was completed by 1999 while some state employees still work from Bonn. However, the decision to move the capital back to Berlin had a lot of emotional value as it marked the end of the Cold War Era division of the nation.

In the case of Romania, there have been debates on whether Bucharest is the right place to act as capital or not. Its main contender is the city of Alba Iulia, a city that holds great symbolism as it is regarded as the birthplace of unified Romania (unification which happened after the Great War). In the Interbellum, the movement to change the capital had some support, but it failed to gain momentum. However, Bucharest is seen as the largest and the most powerful city in Romania as it holds a far greater than average population, size and economic output. Some consider that Bucharest is lacking a major asset, that of a central location within the country. In fairness, Alba Iulia is more central and benefits from a strategically advantageous location but it is not the only one. In fact, Brașov is almost perfectly centred within the nation while having probably an even more easily defendable position. As mentioned before, a central and easily defendable location for a capital tend to be outdated arguments in the era of globalisation where communication is fast and wars are (mostly) illegal. The only real argument for Alba Iulia would be symbolism but it may not hold a greater emotional value than Bucharest. Alba Iulia is, after all, a place which hosted an important ceremony hundred years ago and has strong ties with Romanian Irredentism, not necessarily Romania as a whole. On the other hand, Bucharest was the capital of Wallachia since 1659 and of Romania following the unification in 1862, giving it a strong legitimacy nonetheless. With this in mind, judging by historical importance, Bucharest may have the upper hand. 


In conclusion, the capital tends to represent the nation and, for that reason, changes (pragmatic or not) can happen. Geography and the environment can influence this decision or even the concept of compromise, compromise between cities, regions, ethnicities or different viewpoints. Capitals are the seat of power after all and the location can bring prestige or legitimacy or can even serve as a remote place reserved for the elites. One thing is clear, however, that the capital city is viewed as much more than a place that hosts ministries, institutions and palaces. The capital is a centre of administrative power and of economic activity which shows the focus of the nation and influences the way the country is seen on the world stage. 

Main photo source: Wikimedia Commons 





The Romanian-American Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture (RAFPEC)
Amfiteatru Economic

OEconomica No. 1, 2016