We are living in times when it is becomes obvious who is a leader and who is not. Who is acting in the area of world challenges related to global warming, energy safety, and nuclear non-proliferation? Which country is willing to change, which government is willing to start reforms that make a difference in the long run? While articles have been written about Saudi Arabia's announced its plan to create a $2 trillion sovereign wealth fund to reduce the country's reliance on oil and fundamentally change its economy there is no mentioning of trying to move to alternative sources of energy. However, there is another oil-rich country that deserves attention for addressing exactly the crucial challenge of finding renewable sources of energy, and of assuring energy safety.
This country is Kazahkstan, the world's ninth largest. A visit to Washington, D.C. by both President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Akhmetzhan Yessimov, Chairman of EXPO 2017 provided a good opportunity to look at Kazakhstan's dynamism on the regional and world stages. In a wide-ranging interview, Yessimov - speaking in his capacity - provided insights into why his country is working to become a Central Asian hub and continues to display regional leadership.
A former mayor of Almaty, Yessimov officially is Chairman Management Board of JSC National Company Astana EXPO-2017, a bulky title for being the key official of the EXPO 2017 that will take place in Kazakhstan's young capital Astana between June and September next year. In official parlance, the EXPO is a global event that aims at educating the public, sharing innovation, promoting progress and fostering cooperation. It is organized by a host country that invites other countries, companies, international organizations, the private sector, the civil society and the general public to participate. Kazakhstan was chosen from a highly competitive field of contenders as host in 2012, with "Future Energy" being its topic.
When asked about what it is like for Kazakhstan to be so publicly in the lead for the crucial topic of the future of energy Yessimov agrees that it is a big honor.
"An EXPO like this is not something that the country can just choose and have. This is something we had to deserve, something that we had to win in competition with other countries and other cities. [...] [Kazakhstan] chose this topic because although our country is rich in energy resources, we are thinking about the future and we should continue to develop and seek alternative energy sources. On the one hand this includes the search for new technologies, new scientific achievements. These are completely new developments. [...] [W]e [at the EXPO] are creating a "best practices area," which comprises the world's best modern developments. A commission is headed by Vicente Gonzalez Loscertales, the Secretary General of the International Exhibition Bureau and comprises the world's leading scientists, including Nobel Laureates, as members. Therefore, in Kazakhstan, however far away it might seem, will bring together the world's latest best practices. These practices will inevitably facilitate progress and it can be said that these practices are aimed at the future rather than [merely] being today's developments."
Yessimov is keenly aware that Kazakhstan, with its large reserves of natural resource - it is the or among the world leaders in reserves of minerals, rare metals, oil, and gas - will need to diversify its economic base.
"Let me speak frankly: Yes, Kazakhstan has very substantial energy resources. But as the current crisis that is going on in the world right now shows we cannot indefinitely rely on [traditional] energy resources. And dedicating our EXPO to the energy of the future means that we are carefully studying what is going on in the world right now. Many countries are very active in developing and using alternative renewable sources of energy. This is at the same time also an issue of the environment and of ecology."
Awarded to Kazakhstan in 2012, its chosen topic couldn't have been more timely, indeed.
"Today, the cost of power general or the price of electricity is lower than that of solar power. But this is a temporary situation, and in the end the cost of renewable energy sources may become equal to or even lower than that of the existing ones. Therefore it is very reasonable that the work in this sphere has started, so as to not continue to use coal, oil, and gas without thinking about the future. And it is these new sources of energy that trigger and are triggered by scientific advancement, technical progress, and new technologies. This is why Kazakhstan has chosen the topic "Future Energy" and why we are determined to make progress. We have received a very positive attitude toward our EXPO and its topic and Kazakhstan will make its contribution to this large and significant movement."
While Kazakhstan has so far been mostly known as an oil and gas rich nation and so it seemed an odd choice for a major event there be dedicated to alternative energies and technologies at first. But we are witnessing a country that made a strategic choice for its future. What we see is a country that is in the process of recreating, rebranding and reintroducing itself as a responsible global player, with best practices in the region.
What's more, Kazakhstan chose a different approach to sustainability of structures built for the EXPO. The mini-city being created to be the site of the EXPO is being built as a permanent addition to the country's capital and will ultimately provide the foundation for Kazakhstan's growing business and hi-tech community.
"The way EXPOs have been planned in the past is that once it's over, the pavilions are taken down. They were temporary. At last year's EXPO in Milan, our pavilion took the third place in the competition but still had to be disassembled because that's the way it was planned. Now, the way we planned our EXPO is that the newly-built sites in this new mini-city in Astana will be used afterwards. The whole infrastructures that is created today will be used in the future. Our President [Nursultan Nazarbayev] suggested in his speech at the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly that the EXPO infrastructure be the base for an International Centre for the development of "green" technologies and investment projects under the auspices of the UN in Astana. In addition, an International Financial Center is being created, operating under Anglo-Saxon law, with English being the language spoken there. More structures are being built to attract international financial institutions. Lastly, there is the central part, a sphere measuring 80 meters [about 87 yards] in diameter, which will stay and become the museum of the future. Where the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Atomium in Brussels are the only remnants of their respective EXPOs, we will use the whole of our infrastructure once the EXPO is completed [in September 2017]."
Yessimov explains that there is infrastructure collaboration between the state and the private sectors. Sponsors at different investment levels, at EUR 8 million and less, are contributing a considerable portion of the EXPO costs. On another important topic, publicity, Kazakhstan's EXPO 2017 understood the attraction naming a high-profile athlete - Boxing Superstar and Unified Middleweight World Champion Gennady "GGG" Golovkin when it named him the Official Ambassador. Golovkin is a native of Kazakhstan and won the Silver Medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece as a member of their boxing team. [Note to boxing fans: Golovkin, 34-0 (31KO's) will defend his titles (WBA, IBF, IBO and WBC "Interim') against Undefeated Mandatory Challenger Dominic Wade, 18-0 (12KO's) on Saturday, April 23.] Aware of his achievements popularity, Yessimov showed himself delighted with the choice of Golovkin, who undoubtedly will attract more people and let them know about the EXPO, motivate them to visit next year, and by default, about highlight Kazakhstan and its ambitions.
There is no doubt on Yessimov's mind about the positive trajectory of his country:
"Kazakhstan is a leader in our region, in Central Asia, and these are not just words. It is reflected in indicators, such as the GDP and GDP per capita. For instance, the budget or GDP of Almaty - where I served as mayor for seven years - alone are larger than those of all other republics of Central Asia put together, except for Uzbekistan. It equals 80 percent of the GDP of Uzbekistan, the population of which totals almost 30 million people, while the number of residents amounts to a mere 2 million people."
Aware that such comparisons using economic indicators might be problematic he still believes that Kazakhstan has made progress across the board. He references his country's president Nazarbayev, who was in Washington for U.S. President Obama's Nuclear Security Summit and gave an insightful speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, highlighting mainly his country's efforts promoting nuclear non-proliferation. While there is still work to be done, the government made progress in the areas of democratization, elections, governance, transparency, rule of law, accountability, and judicial reform.
Nazarbayev reportedly showed himself very optimistic about his country's future, noting that its location and resources made it a natural place for investors and trade from and between Russia, China, Europe, the United States, Turkey, Iran, and India. He added that, certainly, while things are not perfect in Kazakhstan-it displays some of the same post-Soviet governance issues that other former Soviet states display-it is on the whole, doing pretty well for itself and certainly much better than its other Central Asian neighbors.
EXPO 2017 in Astana, under Akhmetzhan Yessimov's competent leadership, promises to be exciting event and will certainly consolidate these achievements and broaden the country's progressive approach with regard to economic diversification and new and alternative forms of energy.
And while there may be some difficulties on the road to the EXPO's opening next June, Yessimov is confident that they will be overcome:
"[W]e are dealing with them."
The same certainly goes for Gennady "GGG" Golovkin in his upcoming title fight. When Kazakhstan will be in the arena of world attention - in the boxing ring on April 23 and at EXPO 2017 in Astana - it will certainly emerge as a winner.