Kazakhstan Can’t Get No Respect

But can it get the 2022 Olympics?


At first glance, Almaty -- located in the oil-rich Central Asian country of Kazakhstan -- seems an unlikely backdrop for one of the world’s biggest sporting events.

At first glance, Almaty — located in the oil-rich Central Asian country of Kazakhstan — seems an unlikely backdrop for one of the world’s biggest sporting events.

The city is gray and classically ex-Soviet, with chunky concrete apartment blocks and potholed boulevards. It’s prone to earthquakes; it has a dismal human rights record. It isn’t even the Kazakh capital anymore: It lost that status in 1997 to glittering Astana. Once a stop along the ancient Silk Road, Almaty has a colorful history that included stints as a Russian colonial fort and the provincial capital of Soviet Kazakhstan. But the city has since settled into a comfortable, if staid, existence as its country’s financial center, its glory days long behind it.

But on July 31, quiet Almaty – and Kazakhstan as a whole — will face what officials are calling a make-or-break moment.

Landlocked and lumped in among the mass of countries rarely differentiated by the wider world and collectively known as the “Stans” of post-Soviet Central Asia, Kazakhstan has had few opportunities for international glory in its 24-year existence. But somehow, Kazakhstan has found itself one of just two countries left standing in the competition to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, alongside mighty China — an unlikely underdog in a bidding process that usually awards the games to Western darlings and powerful economies.

Kazakhstan has been helped along the road from Olympic long shot to contender through some unlikely twists. It didn’t hurt that most of Almaty’s competitors eliminated themselves: First, Lviv dropped out of the running due to fighting in eastern Ukraine; next, Stockholm removed itself after the Swedish government said it wouldn’t foot the bill. Poland’s Krakow followed suit after a poll found that 70 percent of the city’s residents weren’t interested in hosting the two-week event. Then, on Oct. 1, 2014, Norway’s capital Oslo — considered a shoo-in, with its abundant oil money and squeaky-clean international image — politely withdrew its bid, informing the International Olympic Committee that it was no longer interested. With that, the field narrowed to two de facto finalists: Beijing and Almaty — a scenario that some have called a “human rights nightmare” — and IOC members were left scratching their heads about what to do next.

Beijing at first looked like the instant front-runner in the two-city contest. But strong presentations to the committee from the Kazakh side have narrowed the gap: Kazakh organizers have played up Almaty’s winter credentials, in contrast to its competitor, whose games would have to rely extensively on man-made snow. For all its human faults, Almaty is in fact surrounded by excellent nature, with snowcapped mountains and lush forests on its outskirts. In a June presentation to 85 IOC members, the Almaty team highlighted their city’s commitment to environmental sustainability and flaunted images of waist-deep snow — reportedly effective in winning over voters.

For Kazakhstan, which has spent nearly a quarter century building itself up from the ashes of the Soviet Union, a winning bid would be a game-changer — and a coup for the country’s image-obsessed government. “We want to showcase the progress our young country has made over the past 24 years of independence,” Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, told Foreign Policy. One of the government’s goals is to make Kazakhstan one of the 30 largest economies in the world by 2050 (Kazakhstan currently ranks 46th). That goal requires attracting international investment, Idrissov said; the government thinks the Olympics can help. “Each of the events we host, including our desire to host the 2022 Winter Games, is part of that strategy.”

The Olympics have recently become a sort of debutante’s ball for emerging economies: The 2008 games in Beijing were intended to show off China’s spending and organizational power; the 2014 games in Sochi were meant to signal Russia’s return to greatness; and Brazilian officials are hoping the 2016 games in São Paolo will solidify the country’s standing as a global economic player. 2022 for Kazakhstan would be all that and more: a stage to trumpet new investment and tourism opportunities and a powerful symbol to its population that 24 years of tight political control has brought the country economic progress and international prestige.

The transition to independence after over 300 years under outside control has been rough for Kazakhstan. The country lacked a strong sense of identity when it first found itself a sovereign nation in 1991. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a former steelworker and Communist apparatchik, took the reins of his country’s nation-building project as the former Soviet boss and new leader, reviving the importance of the Kazakh language and promoting a new historical narrative after nearly 70 years of Soviet rule by retracing Kazakhstan’s origins back to the Mongol horde and the conquests of Genghis Khan. Nazarbayev’s most ambitious project was the construction of Kazakhstan’s new, futuristic capital Astana — a strategic move by the government to strengthen its hold on the north of the country, with its large number of ethnic Russians. “The past 24 years of Kazakh foreign and domestic policy has been about securing the country’s independence,” said Luca Anceschi, a Central Asia expert at the University of Glasgow.

Despite Nazarbayev’s efforts, however, Kazakhstan’s global reputation remains lackluster: It’s widely viewed as something of a backwater that has happened to get lucky economically, the result of its location on top of vast oil wealth. The country has managed to stand out in a tough part of the world, positioning itself as a strategic ally for China, Russia, and the United States. This role has come about, however, less as a result of Kazakhstan’s own appeal as a partner and more due to the dysfunction of its neighbors, which make it look good in comparison. Nazarbayev might be a dictator, but he’s not as Orwellian as Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov or as brutal as Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, whose regime is most famous for boiling dissidents alive. Nor is Kazakhstan as unstable as Kyrgyzstan, which has experienced two revolutions in 10 years, or Tajikistan, which descended into civil war in the 1990s and claims to be currently battling Islamic militants.

The Olympics quest is just the latest phase in Kazakhstan’s push for fame and respect. The country fought for chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010, despite never having held an election deemed free and fair by the OSCE. Kazakhstan has been pursuing a seat on the United Nations Security Council for the last decade, and Nazarbayev has tried to insert himself as a peacemaker and international arbiter on issues ranging from the Ukraine conflict to the Syrian civil war. (Nazarbayev even hosted a set of talks on Iran’s nuclear program in 2013.) The government has considered dropping the suffix “stan” to give its image a boost, and it hired a PR agency to plaster bus stops in Washington in 2010 with posters extolling Nazarbayev’s work on nuclear disarmament ahead of a high-profile visit.

For Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, when it was still part of the Soviet Union, the stakes are high. A winning Olympics bid would not only signal the country’s progress and elevation to an elite class of accepted and economically viable nations, but it would also be a legacy achievement for the aging autocrat — the man known officially to Kazakhs as “Father of the Nation” and colloquially as “Papa” — as he enters the twilight of his rule.

But the hunt for legitimacy could also backfire. Sochi’s legacy was marred by concerns over security issues and LGBT rights violations, and was then overshadowed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Similarly, the Beijing Olympics brought international attention to pollution and environmental degradation in China, while the 2000 games in Sydney highlighted the plight of Australia’s aboriginal population. From the drying of the Aral Sea due to irrigation to high-level corruption and the country’s history of repressive government, Kazakhstan has plenty of ugliness that would surely work its way into any Olympics coverage — including the government’s use of force against its own people in 2011, when a strike over pay and conditions in the oil town of Zhanaozen and a nearby village escalated into riots that ended in police killing at least 15 people. Exact details about the crackdown are still spotty, but following the strike, a critic of Nazarbayev was jailed for more than seven years on charges of rallying oil workers to try to topple the government.

The regime remains bent on securing Olympic glory, despite the risks that added scrutiny would bring. “An essential part of Nazarbayev’s power at home is showing the people that Kazakhstan is legitimate and accepted by the world,” said Anceschi. “The Olympics is too big to ignore.” For a country driven by a desire to show the world that it has finally arrived, too big to ignore is exactly what it wants.

Photo credit: VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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