Astana 2017: Kazakhstan’s City on a Hill

Kazakhstan, a country with immense oil wealth but relatively little global influence, has recently been trying to convert its wealth into influence. The successful bid to hold an exposition in Astana this summer is so far the crowning achievement of this international push to engage with countries directly outside of the post-Soviet space. The preparation for Astana 2017 is decades in the making and has literally been built from the ground up.

Twenty years ago Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital and second largest city, was a nondescript village in the country’s northern steppes. Fast forward to present day and the gleaming metropolis is adorned with skyscrapers and unique structures designed by the world’s best architects. The city was willed into reality as a representation of Kazakhstan’s new wealth and outlook for the twenty-first century. Astana was designed to grab the world’s attention and to be used as a spectacle for events like this year’s world expo. Having failed to secure the 2022 Winter Olympics, Kazakh authorities have pulled out all the stops to promote the expo. A massive futuristic pavilion will house the expo and even world famous boxer Gennady Golovkin has been recruited to promote the event.

The wealth needed to allow for such projects only emerged following the tumultuous 90s. Under the leadership of Soviet era strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has risen from planned economy stagnation to double digit GDP growth. Granted, this was not achieved through transparent economic practice and the rule of law, but through the development of its petrochemical industry. Hydrocarbons accounted for 60% of exports in 2015. However, due to the collapse of crude prices in late 2014, Kazakhstan has had to adapt to an alternate reality where sustainable development and outside investment needs to matter for the continued upward movement of the Kazakh state.

Astana 2017’s theme of “Future Energy” is an important continuation of the general worldwide consensus following the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference. As of September of last year, 101 countries have confirmed their participation at the expo with more than two million individual visitors planned for the three-month long event. Astana will take center stage for Kazakhstan’s future ambitions. Mr. Nazarbayev’s real vision of Kazakhstan’s role in the world is known only to him and a select few individuals in his inner circle. It is difficult to imagine him wanting Kazakhstan to take a leading role in the fight against climate change or energy equity.

Kazakhstan has outlined a plan to obtain 50% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2050. This target is not binding to any supranational organizations of which Kazakhstan is a part (ex. Eurasian Economic Union [EEU] and Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS]). Additionally, with the country so heavily invested in hydrocarbons all the while lacking almost any renewable energy infrastructure, it is unlikely that Kazakhstan will be able to meet it, despite an enormous renewable energy potential. These speculative inferences point to a likely scenario where Mr. Nazarbayev does not foresee his country using soft power to influence its neighbors with energy policy.

Instead of traditional established partnerships with its CIS and EEU partners, Kazakhstan may be looking for outside investment. With its conventional economy tied to the EEU trading block, which is also hurting due to the low price of oil, Astana 2017 could prove to be particularly useful to attract investment and diversify its economy. In addition to international representatives, the world’s largest energy and tech companies will be making an appearance. It is through partnerships with these giants that Kazakhstan can create its own homegrown industries which may be competitive in the EEU and abroad. Rapil Zhoshybayev, a Kazakh commissioner for Expo 2017 and a former deputy foreign minister described the expo’s mission in an article for The Diplomat:

“Our aim is to use EXPO to drive the next stage of our industrial development and diversification with a new emphasis on sustainability, high-tech and skills. The exhibition site and its buildings will, wherever possible, use the latest renewable power sources, smart energy networks and sustainable construction techniques. Their use will embed these skills and knowledge throughout our wider industry”.

It is extremely unlikely that Kazakhstan would hope to become a global leader in renewable energy. However, it can hope to be a player in an underdeveloped regional market and expand its influence that way.

Astana 2017 can lead to a more diversified and successful future for Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, its typical post-Soviet government may derail any plans even before they are formed. Mr. Nazarbayev is currently 76 years old and has been in power for more than 26 years. His recently more liberal attitude towards finance, development, and succession could all be rolled back should he be unable to fulfill his duties as president. There is no guarantee that his successor will be as open minded. Corruption, the traditional enemy of free enterprise in this part of the world, will also almost certainly have an impact. It is just a question of how much of an impact.

Kazakhstan has had an impressive start to the 21st century and its economy looks set to continue to grow. Astana 2017 presents a bridge to the outside world which Kazakhstan would likely be best served to explore.