No press packages, no cheerleading videos, no slick PowerPoint presentations and nary a pre-arranged interview with a bigwig. For a mega expo positioned as Kazakhstan’s coming-out party on the world stage, the arrangements for media familiarisation in the capital of Astana couldn’t have been more half-hearted.
The three-month expo, due to open next June and meant to showcase Astana as the Dubai of Central Asia, was originally estimated to cost up to US$3 billion and attract five million visitors. But much has changed since the expo was planned in the oil-exporting nation. The commodities market has gone bust, the currency is in free fall, and the ripples of China’s slowdown have begun to be felt in the neighbourhood.
Dotted with glitzy towers and the cranes that build them, Astana replaced Almaty as the capital in 1997, on the order of authoritarian leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, the nation’s only president since it gained independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“Unfortunately we cannot spell out the budget,” said Alisher Pirmetov, deputy chairman of the state-owned Astana Expo-2017 National Company.
China and Kazakhstan sign $2 billion in deals as Xinjiang party chief visits the Central Asian nation
Pirmetov’s reluctance to talk numbers mirrors the uncertainty that has engulfed Kazakhstan recently. A key ally and trading partner of China, Kazakhstan is in the grip of a protracted economic downturn. Oil accounts for around a fifth of Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product, half its budget revenue and 76 per cent of its exports.
Kazakhstan’s economy was growing at a rate of 4 to 7 per cent between 2011 and 2014, before oil prices collapsed in mid-2014. Last year it grew just 1.2 per cent and shrank 0.2 per cent in the first quarter this year. To cushion the economy from the oil crash, Kazakhstan switched from a managed trading band system to a floating exchange rate regime in August last year.
But that hasn’t stopped its currency, the tenge, from dropping nearly 45 per cent, further denting the economy.
To counter the post-devaluation spurt of inflation, the interest rate has been raised to 17 per cent this year from just under 6 per cent in September.
As a result of the tenge’s depreciation and the oil price plunge, Kazakhstan’s trade balance this year turned negative for the first time since 2009.
And, not even proximity to China seems to be of any help. Kazakhstan, which is the world’s largest land-locked nation and borders Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, is the linchpin of China’s “One Belt, One Road” development plan in Central Asia. Astana is the birthplace of President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) pet project aimed at commercially integrating China with Central and South Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was here in 2013 that Xi first spelt out the policy in a speech at a university named after Nazarbayev.
China’s one belt, one road plan covers more than half of the population, 75 per cent of energy resources and 40 per cent of world’s GDP
As the region’s largest economy, Kazakhstan’s oil, uranium and copper resources make it a prime strategic ally for China. For Kazakhstan, closer economic ties with China also help it reduce its reliance on Russia, itself mired in recession as a result of the oil slump and Western sanctions following its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
China contributed 7.8 per cent of global foreign direct investment into Kazakhstan in 2014, compared to 6.7 per cent by Russia. China also absorbed 12 per cent of Kazakhstan’s oil-dominated exports last year, while Chinese goods – mainly machinery and electronic goods – accounted for 16.8 per cent of Kazakhstan’s imports. Russia, meanwhile, took up 9.5 per cent of its exports and contributed 33.9 per cent of its imports.
As demand for oil flags, Chinese businesses are increasingly turning to Kazakhstan’s underdeveloped agriculture and food processing. But Chinese interest in leasing agricultural plots has sparked rare public protests.
“Kazakh people are weary of dealing with the Chinese, they are worried about the risk of losing control over their assets,” said Joseph Chan Nap-kee, chairman of Hong Kong-listed Kaisun Energy Group.
“Being a big country the size of Western Europe with a small population of around 17.5 million, potential military threats are always at the back of their minds … the Kazakh people are quite conscious that they need to be on good terms with, but not too reliant on, Russia and China.”
Four years ago Kaisun invested in coal mines in neighbouring Tajikistan and has been scouting for investment opportunities in Central Asia.
Due to Kazakhstan’s small domestic market, investment opportunities outside the resources industries were limited, but agriculture and food processing were areas of growing interest, particularly after the currency devaluation, Chan said.
Astana is equally keen to diversify the nation’s economy away from the resources sector, with its underdeveloped tourism industry a target sector.