Known officially as the Nur Alem, the imposing silver globe is the symbol and centerpiece of Kazakhstan’s latest attempt at an “Open For Business” sign. Five years ago, the country won the rights to stage what is essentially the world’s largest science fair. More than 100 nations built pavilions on a once-empty corner of this capital city. The Kazakh government chipped in a reported $3 billion, and, after an 11th-hour, all-hands push, met a June 10 deadline to open Expo 2017.
The theme of the fair, which closes on Sunday, is “Future Energy.” That may sound like a stab at humor given that oil, gas and metals are the lifeblood of the country. But guided by the hand of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and, so far, only president of this former Soviet Republic, Kazakhstan is trying for a dramatic economic makeover.
The country does not want to merely sell off state-owned assets. The goal is to wean the nation from a dependence on natural resources and to transform it into a financial hub, the Dubai of Central Asia. There are plans for a new stock exchange overseen by an independent judicial system. Tech start-ups will get the come-hither, too, with the hope of giving rise to Kazakhstan’s own version of Silicon Valley.
All of this will take foreign investors, and not enough of them have reached for their checkbooks yet. As a share of the country’s gross domestic product, net foreign investment has dropped to 3.5 percent, from a high of 13 percent in 2004, the World Bank reports.
Experts say that, despite talk of reform and transparency, Kazakhstan is still quietly controlled by shifting alliances among elites, all of them angling for prestige and riches in a soap opera scripted by the president. “You have to carefully assess who your Kazakh partners are and where they fit into the elite structure,” said Livia Paggi, a director at GPW, a political risk firm. “They can be bright and well connected, but if they fall out of political favor and lose their status, your business is at serious risk. In the worst case scenario, your asset could be seized.”
When Mr. Nazarbayev, 77, isn’t refereeing the never-ending tournament of clans, he is the nation’s stern and loving grandfather, a ruler whose style might be described as autocrat lite. He has many of the trappings of an old-school authoritarian, including a self-mythologizing museum, a spotty record on human rights and a glaring absence of genuine political opposition. The last time he ran for re-election, in 2015, he won 98 percent of the vote — a figure so high that he apologized the next day.
“But I could do nothing,” he said, during an Orwellian press conference at the time. “If I had intervened, I would have looked undemocratic, right?”
Nonetheless, Mr. Nazarbayev has devoted much of his political life to expanding Kazakhstan’s middle class, which has grown from just 9 percent of the population in the mid-2000s to 33 percent in 2014, according to the World Bank. To his people and to investors, he offers both opportunity and stability — at least for now. He has never articulated a plan of succession, a pressing matter given what the actuarial tables would say about a man who toiled for years as a steelworker in Ukraine, breathing dust and gas near a blast furnace.
Then there is Kazakhstan’s branding problem. Although it is wedged between China and Russia and has a land mass roughly four times the state of Texas, few outside the commodities business could pin it on a map. It is forever lumped with the other “stans” in the neighborhood, which are repressive by comparison. Kazakhstan’s big international breakout moment came as the butt of jokes by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who played Borat, a bigoted and clueless Kazakh, in a 2006 mockumentary.
Expo 2017 is a splashy attempt to change that image. Kazakhstan beat out Belgium for the rights to host the “specialized expo,” essentially a slightly scaled-down world’s fair. Most of the visitors are tourists, but the key audience here are business executives, government leaders and anyone else who could sink real money into a country that is eager to diversify.
Much is riding on the event. Too much, perhaps, given that it is in a city as remote and singular as Astana and devoted to a subject as bland as “future energy.” How many Westerners packed up their families and said, “Let’s fly to Kazakhstan and learn about biomass fuel”?
Very few, judging from three days spent walking the grounds not long ago.
Most people enter Expo through the Mega Silk Way, a 1.5 million-square-foot mall. It is filled with Kazakhstan’s answers to Western staples: a restaurant that looks like Applebee’s, a computer retailer that resembles an Apple store. Anyone yearning for local flavor can dine at Rumi, with traditional decorations on the walls and horse meat on the menu.
The fairgrounds look pristine, and touring the premises is like strolling through an updated United Nations as reimagined by a big box retailer. Many countries used their pavilions for elaborate, multimedia infomercials. Vietnam promoted its economy, Georgia extolled its wine and Belarus went for a hard-core real estate spiel, pitching a huge industrial park it is building with the Chinese.
In an effort to appear environmentally minded, Saudi Arabia showed a film on an IMAX-size screen with a montage that included men drinking bottled water and the words, “We sustain.” Thailand highlighted the energy uses of animal waste, with the life-size rear end of an animatronic elephant, complete with a waggling tail, hovering over a convincing reproduction of a large dung patty.
“No step,” an unnecessary sign nearby said.
For sheer production values, Russia’s pavilion was hard to beat, although it was essentially a long claim to the rights to mine natural resources in the Arctic — something that seemed wildly tin-eared in this setting. The country even displayed a block of “old arctic ice,” which, after watching films of melting floes all over Expo, made you want to yell, “Put it back!”
The true ambitions behind Expo will only become apparent after it ends. The plan is to transform several of the buildings into Kazakhstan’s Wall Street. The main attraction of the Astana International Financial Centre will be a stock exchange, created in partnership with Nasdaq, and a legal center for addressing financial disputes, to be governed by British common law.
The financial center goes beyond what has been tried here before. But Kazakhstan already has a stock exchange, and it has talked about selling off a greater share of state-owned assets in the past. To foreign investors, this new plan sounds very familiar. What has changed, government officials say, is the context.
“When the price of oil was $100 a barrel, it was difficult to convince anyone to think another way,” said Kairat Kelimbetov, governor of the financial center. “The price of oil is $50 a barrel, and we don’t think it is ever coming back. Now is the time to wake up.”
For years, Kazakhstan had a terrible case of the resource curse, Mr. Kelimbetov said, referring to the paradoxical plague of the easy money that can come to any country with fortunes that are simply buried in the ground. But the curse is over here, and so far, that has brought only new curses.
After growing for years, Kazakhstan’s middle class is shrinking, and the poverty rate has inched close to 20 percent, up from 16 percent in 2014, a World Bank report says. Average monthly wages, which now equal about $421, have fallen slightly for two years straight.