By TBY | Kazakhstan | Jun 06, 2018
Aquarter century after gaining independence, no year has been more important to Kazakhstan’s national, regional, and international place in the world than 2017: not only did it host Expo 2017, the first world’s fair to take place in a former soviet country, but it also hosted eight rounds of peace talks between Russia, Iran, Turkey, Damascus, and various warring Syrian factions to seek an end to the Syrian war. Though the year’s final International Meeting on Syria held in Astana between December 21 and 22 did not put an end to the nearly seven-year war, they served as a critical stopgap for the talks in Sochi on the Russian Black Sea coast. President Nazarbayev also met with his counterparts in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing to sign key trade and transport deals, including but not limited to progress on China’s critical One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.
As far as projections of soft power go, world’s fairs are hard to top: they represent not only prosperity and stability, but a spirit of innovation and risk that come from lying at a critical cultural crossroads and knowing what to do about it. The fourth such event of the decade after Shanghai, Yeosu, and Milan, Expo 2017’s theme was “Future Energy,“ a prescient study of how urban conglomerations can become more energy efficient and sustainable in the long term. Held from June to September and hosting over 120 nations, including pavilions from both the DRC and Vatican City, Future Energy was a coup for an energy-rich country whose young capital houses little more than a million residents at a time when the world’s most powerful country was pulling out of the Paris Accords and shunning the burdens of collective human responsibility toward fossil fuels.
The success of Expo 2017 was hardly needed to cement Kazakhstan’s role as the wunderkind of Central Asia and biggest post-Soviet success story. Crucially, however, it was events both before and after the expo that revealed the true extent to which the country has managed to carve out a potent niche for itself as a broker between rising and falling powers, the new world and the old. In May, President Nazarbayev traveled to Beijing to attend the Belt and Road Forum. Four years after Xi Jinping announced China’s gargantuan Silk Road Economic Belt infrastructure megaproject at Astana’s Nazarbayev University, President Nazarbayev dwelt upon the importance of Beijing’s efforts to bind together the vast Eurasian landmass. “Paternalism and the application of politically motivated sanctions have worsened economic activity and the lives of millions of people. As a result, the world economy and trade have declined. In these conditions, the world needs a new driver to stimulate international cooperation.“ And OBOR, he posited, is that “new driver.“
As part of its bid to diversify away from carbon, Kazakhstan has wooed vast amounts from the world’s most bullish lender. With more than USD14 billion invested by the Chinese in the past decade alone, Astana already had logistics and transport in mind when it unveiled a 10-year tax break on corporate and land taxes within designated special economic zones for non-energy sectors. As if on cue, China designated the dry port of Khorgos, on the Chinese-Kazakh border, as one of the crowning projects of its OBOR initiative. Designated to be the largest dry port in the world—the Dubai of the greater Gobi Desert, some 1,600 miles from the nearest sea—the multibillion-dollar project will more than halve the travel time of Chinese goods en route to Western Europe from 50 to roughly 18 days. A borderland hermetically sealed off for most of the 20th century, Khorgos facilitated its two inaugural train journeys in 2017: from Yiwu, China to London in January and from London to Yiwu in April, a distance of 12,000km, second in the world only to the China-Madrid line.
Though Kazakhstan is far and away China’s largest Central Asian trading partner, the middle kingdom’s trading volume has ballooned with the entire region, growing more than 25-fold from USD1.8 billion in 2000 to more than USD50 billion in 2013. As the leader of this regional transformation, Kazakhstan is now trying to leverage the faith Beijing has placed in it to reap further investment from Washington and New York. Traveling to the US in January 2018 to meet with President Trump and the US Chamber of Commerce, among others, Nazarbayev left with USD7.5 billion worth of commercial contracts signed. Both he and the Dotard mentioned Chevron, ExxonMobil, General Electric, and Boeing in particular as being deeply interested in the country and region. Chevron, it should be noted, is leading the expansion of the Tengiz Field, the world’s deepest operating super-giant oil field, the top of whose reservoir is some 3,500m underground.
Though oil services remain the Americans’ primary sphere of interest, Nazarbayev’s meeting with the US Chamber of Commerce was focused on what American firms can do to help spur the technical modernization of the Kazakhstani economy. But trade was far from the only thing in the offing. Trump also expressed his gratitude for Kazakhstan’s help in the US’ broader South Asia and Afghan policies, not to mention its support on the question of North Korean nuclear disarmament. After all, the only country in human history to voluntarily give up its nuclear arsenal is Kazakhstan, a fact that Nazarbayev highlighted gave his country the “moral right“ to admonish Pyongyang to do likewise, though he did add that the issue ought to be collectively resolved by China, Russia, and the US. Before leaving, he received Trump’s support in his efforts to make Kazakhstan one of the world’s 30th largest economies by 2050. Currently 57th in the world, Trump said of Nazarbayev, “he is on his way—very rapidly.“
All this being said, it would be disingenuous to discount the hugely important relationship that Kazakhstan still has with Russia, its strongest ally and closest kindred spirit, culturally, economically, and socially. In the wake of Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, however, things have been slightly on edge. After all, on the bucket list of Russian ultra-nationalists, reincorporating Novorossiya (New Russia), the Russian-inhabited provinces of northern Kazakhstan, is second only to the reconquista of Malorossiya (Little Russia), the Russian enclaves of eastern Ukraine. As such, while guarding its brotherly ties, Kazakhstan also sought to bring a little distance to its relationship with Moscow.
In what may very well one day be his biggest legacy, in October Nazarbayev ordered the country to switch from the Cyrillic to Latin script. The country’s third-such change in the past century—Kazakh, a Turkic language, was written in Arabic script until the 1920s, Latin until 1940, and Cyrillic until the present—all the country’s publications, street signs, and documents must be in Latin script by 2025. While Kazakhstan remains a leading member of the Moscow-based Eurasian Economic Union, Russia’s answer to the EU, not to mention the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the six-member military alliance of former Soviet states (along with Russia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), the EU is now Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, purchasing 40% of the country’s exports.
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