The Central Asian country built a futuristic city to host the World's Fair and polish its own brand. One small problem: it forgot to invite guests.
- By James PalmerJames Palmer is the Asia editor at Foreign Policy, which he joined in the winter of 2016. He was born in Manchester, U.K., and educated at Cambridge, before moving to Korea in 2002 and then China in 2003. He won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing in 2003, for his work on South Korea. He has written two books — The Bloody White Baron and Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes — and is working on a third.
ASTANA, Kazakhstan — I was the only visitor in Greece. As I walked through the tunnel of philosophers, eager young Kazakhs accosted me. “This is the Greek alphabet! It has 24 characters, and it was the original language of science. Here, please, come and take a photo by the sea.” They hustled me over to a Mediterranean backdrop. They outnumbered me five to one, I succumbed to relentless explanation.
It was a sunny afternoon on the second day of EXPO 2017, held on the outskirts of Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. The Expo boasts of being “the Olympics of economy, business, and culture,” a global event where each participating country showcases its national achievements in its own “pavilion” and crowds come to see pieces of the wider world. But today — at the first Expo ever held in a post-Soviet state — there weren’t any crowds.
The Expo was being held on the outskirts of Astana, near one of the city’s many construction sites, in a purpose-built park. Dubbed a “future city” but looking more like a vast conference center, the organizers claimed the site was self-powered, fueled by a mix of wind and water. Each pavilion takes up anywhere from one room to several floors in a giant ring of new buildings built to encircle a great sphere of black glass at the center, the Kazakhstan pavilion. Viewed from the west, the dome loomed over neighboring apartment buildings. “There’s two big ways to piss off the Kazakhs,” a delegate commented, “Mention Borat, or call the dome the Death Star.”
The obvious lack of attendees, by contrast, didn’t require mentioning. Greece wasn’t the only deserted pavilion. Many were barren of anyone except staff. A few of the big names — China, Germany, the United States — had clusters of a couple of dozen visitors at a time, but outside most nations I snaked my way through empty rail guards. On the avenues outside, two out of every three people were wearing lanyards. I eavesdropped on a conversation between two European delegates: “We have to plan for the worst-case scenario — if there are no visitors to our event.”
For years, the Kazakh organizers had been quietly ramping down the tallies of expected attendees at the three-month event; 5 million, 3 million, now 2 million. On opening day, the official figure was 10,000 visitors, and even that was a generous rounding-up. The next day, the crowds were even barer. In the Chinese pavilion, a CGI video showed a fly-through of busy Expo grounds; outside the street was empty save for a janitor having a smoke. Come dinner time, the empty plastic tables and giant windows of the second floor of the food court gave it the air of a provincial airport at 2 am.
At the last Expo I attended, in 2010 in Shanghai, the streets had been jam-packed; the event saw 73 million visitors. The last “specialized” Expo — the generally smaller events, like this one, held in between the quinquennial “world” Expos — was hosted by the coastal Korean city of Yeosu in 2012 and drew 8 million. Officially, Astana had sold 670,000 tickets — but there were serious doubts about how real many of those sales were. There were few doubts, by contrast, about the event’s $3 billion to $5 billion price tag.
So, what had the organizers of the Expo been thinking in awarding the event to Astana in the first place? And why had this remote capital asked for it?
The Expo used to be an international headline event, an opportunity for hosts and guest countries to show off for a mass audience. The first, in London’s custom-built Crystal Palace in 1851, embodied all the power and glory of Victorian Britain. The 1889 Exposition Universelle left the Eiffel Tower dominating Paris. The New York World’s Fair of 1939, “Building the world of tomorrow!” sung a science-fiction utopianism of atomic cars and robot servants. Through much of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union erected pavilions boasting of their social and technological supremacy.
But since the 1980s the Expo has largely dropped off the radar of the Western public. The events are still sanctioned by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) in Paris, but, in an era of easy communications and cheap flights, there’s less thrill in seeing a little bit of Spain or Thailand or Egypt on display. Meanwhile, private corporations have come to play a far larger role in Expo events, using it as an opportunity to show off products and woo potential clients. The U.S. government, for its part, is barred by a 1999 law from providing funds for its own pavilion, forcing it to depend entirely on corporate sponsorships.
In the developing world, however, the Expo remains an object of fascination. For the public in these parts of the world, there’s still a buzz associated with glimpsing faraway places and peoples; for governments, such events still qualify as a rare chance to show off for a sizable (if shrinking) international audience. As an editor at China’s state-backed Global Times in 2010, I was obliged to work on dozens of pieces about the Shanghai Expo and its importance to the country. (They were incredibly boring, true, but that’s state media; it could have been the Sex Olympics and it would still be leaden.)
It was inevitable that Kazakhstan would bid to host the event. With its massive natural resources, it has been the most successful of its Central Asian neighbors at picking itself up out of the ruins of the Soviet Union. Under autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former Communist Party boss who took over without trouble when the Soviet Union collapsed, the economy has grown steadily even as its press remains shackled and corruption rampant. Its international recognition has also remained low.
Since the 1990s, the country has been making an earnest bid to correct this latter deficiency by serving, whenever possible, as a host for the rest of the world. In recent years, it has been the site of everything from international football gatherings to meetings of religious leaders to Syrian peace talks.
Part of the country’s drive to stage such events is Nazarbayev’s own ego. At 76, he’s increasingly conscious of his legacy; one of Astana’s main buildings is the Museum of the First President of the Republic, a mausoleum erected even before his death. Many of the gatherings are pointless; the World Religious Congress, commented one interfaith expert, was “a complete waste of time, developed along the old lines of the Soviet Religion and Peace events, which were likewise a front for repressive regimes trying to look nice.”
But it’s more than that. Like other Central Asian states, outsiders barely know where Kazakhstan is or who the people are. Finding a national story to tell the rest of the world (or, to use business-speak, a brand to sell) has been important for Kazakh pride.
The line they’ve settled on is hospitality. While other Central Asian nations have largely failed to find a post-Soviet identity, the Kazakhs know what they’re pushing. Kazakhs are very, very keen to tell you how friendly they are. “The Expo is very important to us because Kazakhs are a naturally friendly people. And we want to welcome everyone,” said Tilik Zhunnunsova, an office manager in Astana. “Because Kazakhstan was a place of trade on the old Silk Road, guests are always welcome in Kazakhstan.” In the Kazakh pavilion at the Expo, an entire wall was dedicated to explaining the importance of being a good host.
That hospitality culture is real, but hardly unique. It’s a shared tradition with roots in Turkish and Arab nomadism throughout Central Asia and the Middle East, not a Kazakh creation. Kazakhstan has spent billions on these events — a high cost for a nation where nearly half the population still lives on about $70 a month. But as a national story for a young nation, it’s not a bad one. “The thing I really admire about the Kazakhstanis,” says Anthony de Angelo, the communications director for the USA pavilion, “is that at a time when everyone else is turning away from the rest of the world, they want to embrace it.”
Kazakhstan’s path to hosting the Expo was straightforward. It put in its bid in 2012, when the only competitor was Liège, in Belgium. As the previous Expo, Milan 2015, had also been in Europe — and as Kazakhstan was flush with oil money, while Belgium was in the middle of the Continent’s debt crisis — it was an easy win. The BIE boasted of this being the first Expo event in a post-Soviet nation.
Like the Olympics, the Expo has become a less tempting event in straitened times, a surefire money-loser that’s alluring mostly to those who want to shove to the forefront of the global stage. Kazakhstan almost took the 2022 Winter Olympics too, losing by just four votes to Beijing, the only other contestant left; every other city had dropped out due to popular objections or financial constraints.
But that’s where the first blunder was made. The natural location for the Expo should have been Almaty, the country’s largest city and former capital. Almaty is not only big, it’s also relatively easy to reach — not only for Kazakhs, but for Central Asian neighbors.
Since 1997, though, Kazakhstan’s government has been based in the new city of Astana, 600 miles north of Almaty in the high reaches of the country bordering Siberia and surrounded by nothing but the steppe. The city is a cross between a theme park and a construction site; shopping malls sit next to grand palaces (built, unsurprisingly, to host global events) while the shells of new apartment blocks rise around the edges. Nazarbayev threw oil money at famous architects like Japan’s Kisho Kurokawa and the United Kingdom’s Norman Foster to design the new city, and so it’s stuffed with gleaming monumental landmarks that look as though they’re about to transform and fight the Autobots.
Much of Astana is beautiful — but it’s also half-empty, and hotels are ludicrously expensive, driven up by the flow of all-expenses paid foreign delegations and provincial officials. “The city is frenetic,” the head of the USA pavilion, Joshua Walker, imaginatively told Forbes magazine. It was true that the opening ceremony produced a rare traffic jam: a long procession of SUVs with individualized license plates. But at best, Astana was going at a gentle amble; when I strolled through the city I frequently found myself alone, usually next to a gold-plated statue or a bush in the shape of a dinosaur.
There was also almost no effort to draw visitors from outside Kazakhstan. A desultory marketing campaign in Russia had looped in a handful of guests, but in Kazakhstan’s other neighbors, there was almost nothing. Air Astana promised free Expo tickets to anybody flying in; at both Almaty and Astana airports the machines issuing them were broken. I found a pair of lost Chinese tourists looking over a map in an Astana park (“I think we’re here, look, here’s the big glass pyramid.”) One of them, Mr. Tan, turned out to live a few miles from me in Beijing. A retired Communist Party official, he was an Expo enthusiast. “I loved Shanghai!” he said, delighted at the memory. “It had a little bit of so many countries! So I was so happy when I saw there was another Expo near China this year!” But they were the only ones. Being a host is wonderful, but it helps to invite guests.
On top of that, there was a palpable resentment toward the Expo from many Kazakhs. Plenty of people were proud of it — “We have been preparing for this for four years! Even little children know what the Expo is!” said Nikolai German, a Russian-Kazakh shop owner. But Kazakh social media was lit up with complaints about being forced to buy tickets, about pension funds being divested toward Expo funding, about the absurdity of spending billions on a vanity project when “half the country still shits in a hole in the ground.”
Then there was the corruption. The Kazakh government has already acknowledged that millions of dollars were stolen during the construction process. In part because of the fallout of squabbles among the country’s oligarchical elite, the official in charge of the Expo, the chief construction manager, and the Expo firm’s managing director were all arrested for embezzlement. This wasn’t surprising; Kazakhstan is a deeply corrupt country, and the Expo, like any big event, a playground for thieves. The Milan Expo in 2015 was wracked by corruption scandals, adding to the prevailing cynicism about the event.
“The government is running tramps through the turnstiles to keep the numbers up,” another resident of Astana told me confidentially, refusing to give me his name. (Kazakhstan ranks 157th in the world for press freedom, and dissenters are frequently arrested.) “Of course I won’t go!” proclaimed Talgat, a construction worker. “That’s for people like you!” He poked me in the chest with a calloused finger. “Not people like me.”
But maybe the biggest problem with attracting visitors was that the majority of the Expo was boring. The exhibition’s theme — “Future Energy” — meant an endless sequence of corporate videos about the sun (good) and wind (also good). The bigger the petro-state, the more time the pavilion spent talking about how committed they were to alternative energy. “Please come to the Shell pavilion,” one of the Kazakh staff implored me, “It is a very brilliant company.” Many of the videos ended with young women in diaphanous clothing turning to smile at the viewer; the Israelis one-upped this by having a live dancer — in diaphanous clothing — as a treat after you’d sat through their video.
More generally, hardly anyone’s heart seemed to be invested in the proceedings. The technology on display in the pavilions was an endless stream of the same ideas; over and over again, I pressed buttons to light up diagrams of sustainable houses. In some pavilions, budgets had clearly been rapidly scaled down; Venezuela was nothing but an empty room with some photos of the country on the walls. (“Fuck those guys for even coming, though,” another delegate commented. “How dare they even buy plane tickets when their country’s on fire?”)
The national slogans started to blur together: Land of Energy, Energy in the Air, The Power of Energy, Energy on the Move. “What is the source of infinite energy?” asked a voice-over at the USA pavilion. “It’s people. You, me, all of us, together.” I looked around to make sure we weren’t about to be processed as Soylent Green. Later there was a song. “There’s an energy moving through the air/It’s the land we love, it’s the land we care/There’s an energy in the world we do/and when we use it our dreams come true.”
Among all this, there were a few outstanding exceptions, like a great German pavilion full of things to push, pull, and hold, culminating in a stunning laser show. The designer of the British pavilion, Asif Khan, bearded, skinny, and deeply sincere, showed me around. “The whole landscape’s computer generated, down to the leaves,” he said, pointing to the 360-degree display around a central yurt made up of hanging graphene tubes. “And the weather’s randomized — but the more people touch the tent, the more the weather’s influenced by them.” I watched a Kazakh boy run his hand along the tubes, delighted as they lit up in the darkness. “Look,” Khan said, “If one Kazakh kid sees this, and he goes away wanting to be a scientist, or an engineer, if he takes something away from it — then my job’s done.”
Occasionally, you could see glimpses of the point of the whole affair, beyond the branding exercises. The American “student volunteers” took pictures with local visitors, snapping them by the pavilion’s “HOLLYWOOD” sign and chatting with them in Russian. “For a lot of Kazakhstanis, this may be the first time they’re meeting a real live American,” said de Angelo, the communications director. “And so we want to make it stick. But it was when we announced that they’d be a cowboy show that people’s faces at the TV event really lit up.”
A few nations had had the common sense to bring musicians. As Lithuanian folk dancers, adorned in pointy hats, twirled outside their pavilion, a crowd gathered to laugh, clap, and do-si-do with them. For a moment, the whole thing seemed worth it. Then I took a closer look at the crowd. Of the 20 people there, only four weren’t other delegates.