Dreaming of Snow Leopards Nazarbayev Dictates a Bright Future for Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan has oil, coal and uranium -- and a capital full of stunning architecture. President Nursultan Nazarbayev hopes his country can become the region's leading economy, but his heavy-handed cult of personality is not universally welcomed. Others worry about China's growing influence.


By Erich Follath and

Editor's note: This feature is the second of a series on Central Asia that will be running on SPIEGEL International in the coming weeks. You can read more about future installments in the series here.

It's one of those mild, cloudless summer nights in Astana, when the sky over the surrounding steppe won't get completely dark.

A stage has been set up in Lovers' Park behind Kazakhstan's huge, triumphal-arch-like Ministry of Oil and Gas. Kazakhstan's top artists are performing scenes from the history of the nomadic country, Italian tenor Andrea Boccelli is singing and the guests in the VIP stand are applauding with delight. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has traveled here along with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gül, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Jordan's King Abdullah. They have also been joined by the heads of state of Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine.

Sitting among them is a man with a round, expressionless face, a high forehead, and carefully parted hair wearing a drab suit. He is Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's president, and in just a few hours, he will celebrate his 70th birthday.

As the oldest son of a shepherd from the remote countryside, Nazarbayev has come a long way. He was a steelworker before becoming the first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and, shortly before the surprising dissolution of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had been planning to appoint Nazarbayev as his vice president. For the past 20 years, he has been the president of Kazakhstan.

The Triumphant Capital

It is the evening of July 5, 2010. The opening ceremony is being held in Astana for "Khan Shatyr," the world's largest tent, designed by star British architect Sir Norman Foster.

Foster has crafted a building of superlatives: Though it looks almost delicate with its translucent plastic exterior, the 102-meter (335-feet) high conic tower over an elliptic base covers the area of roughly 14 football fields. The multilevel interior boasts the country's most marvelous entertainment center: There are palm trees imported from the Caribbean, swimming pools with sand from Malaysia, gardens, water parks, movie theaters, a wellness temple, a children's amusement center with merry-go-rounds as well as cafés, boutiques and a supermarket.

Indeed, it's quite a birthday present, especially given the warnings Nazarbayev had given his subjects. "There will be no festivities on my birthday," he had instructed the akims, his country's chief regional administrators, back in March: "That's an order; and if any of you organizes anything, you will be relieved of your duties." But, long ago, the clever bureaucrats in the realm of Nursultan Nazarbayev the Kazakh had already scheduled the annual holiday celebrating the capital city of Astana for July 6, his birthday. Doing so allowed them to present their ruler with a fitting present -- the Khan Shatyr -- on the eve of his birthday.

Of course, Nazarbayev had wanted July 6 to be exactly like this -- so the entire world's attention could once again be drawn to the new, flourishing Kazakhstan and the man behind it all. "Astana has become the grandest mega-project of the entire post-Soviet region," he said on this festive evening. He then reminded the audience that he had been the one, in 1997, to order Kazakhstan's capital to be moved from the southern city of Almaty to the windy steppes of Astana. "At the time, my decision was met with rejection and a lack of understanding, but now everyone is delighted," Nazarbayev said. "Progressive ideas always have a hard time."

Now Nazarbayev has reached the final step in his plan: With the Khan Shatyr, he hopes to silence the last remaining critics of the move. Astana, after all, is the second-coldest capital city in the world, after Mongolia's Ulan Bator. But now, even when the temperature plunges to minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit), 20,000 people can still frolic under palm trees in Foster's tent. If the deserts of Dubai can have an Olympic-size ice rink, cold Kazakhstan can have its balmy Khan Shatyr.

Detractors & Ambitions

The Kazakh ruler has sunk $10 billion (€7.2 billion) into building projects on the steppes to transform a rural backwater into the country's showcase. There's the blindingly white presidential palace, ministries housed in glass skyscrapers, the Nur-Astana Mosque capable of holding 5,000 worshipers, a brand-new diplomatic quarter, endless shopping malls and luxurious apartment buildings in which a square meter (10.7 square feet) of space can go for up to $4,000.

With this sparkling new city, Nazarbayev has been able to respond to Kazakhstan's detractors, such as British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. In his 2006 film Borat, Cohen poked fun at Kazakhstan, portraying it as a backward state rife with prostitution, arms trafficking and discrimination against minority groups. The movie's protagonist, Kazakh TV reporter Borat Sagdiyev, says that Kazakh women are kept in cages and that the national drink is fermented horse urine. He then proudly presents his home village, showing off muddy streets, beat-up cars being pulled by horses and kindergarten children waving miniature automatic rifles.

Though the film was meant to make fun of the prejudices many in the West still hold about former Eastern bloc countries, Nazarbayev didn't see it that way. Instead, he was so insulted that he immediately banned the film in Kazakhstan. In his mind, Kazakhstan should be appreciated as the most successful of the group of former Soviet republics east of the Caspian Sea. And having steered the nation unscathed through all the post-Soviet chaos, he now has big plans for it.

A Would-Be Regional Leader

Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world and the largest landlocked nation on Earth. Its northern border with Russia is nearly 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) long. To the east, it stretches to China; to the west, the Caspian Sea; and, to the south, it touches on Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Since Kazakhstan saddles the Europe-Asia divide, it can play in UEFA, Europe's soccer association, and it currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It has mountains up to 7,000 meters high (nearly 23,000 ft.) and the world's most expansive arid steppe. Its territory holds enormous oil and gas fields as well as gold, manganese and coal reserves, and it is the world's largest producer of uranium.

Indeed, Nazarbayev's vast country has just one problem: It only has 16 million inhabitants. Statistically, this works out to less than 6 people per square kilometer. By contrast, Germany crams 230 people into the same amount of space.

Still, Nazarbayev doesn't think this will prevent Kazakhstan from becoming one of the world's 50 most powerful states, just like the Asia Tiger countries. As Nazarbayev explained to his people, only 50 years ago, even Singapore was "one of the poorest countries in the world," but now its per capita income has increased 85-fold. He then went on to explain how Kazakhstan couldn't become an Asian Tiger because it has no tigers. But since it does have snow leopards, he promised that, "by 2030, Kazakhstan will become the central Asian snow leopard."

As posters everywhere in Astana proclaim, Kazakhstan is "on its way to becoming the leader" in the region. They also remind the country's inhabitants that, thanks to its vast reserves of natural resources, within a single decade, per capita GDP has risen from $700 to $8,000.

Patriotic declarations like these are subtle digs at Kazakhstan's unpopular neighboring countries. As Nazarbayev explains, their people don't have sufficient electricity or enough to eat and -- owing to a combination of internal power struggles, ethnic conflicts and democratic experiments -- have all stumbled in their efforts to embrace independence.

In fact, as he said following the unrest in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, these countries haven't managed to set up functioning states because they have weak leaders. To keep the same thing from happening in Kazakhstan, he added, it needs "a powerful president" -- in other words, a man like him.


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