The 11th annual Eurasia Media Forum in the capital of Kazakhstan was a spirited event at which 600 delegates from 46 countries debated hot topics ranging from the crisis in Europe to the future of Afghanistan and the violent disintegration of Syria.
As one of the participants, I enjoyed the many exchanges, but the most appealing topic for me was the determination of the oil-rich host country to reshape itself and create the ideal green economic model within four decades.
Images of the country that I studied before my visit could not compare with what I saw once I landed in Astana. This is a country that is serious in its determination to evolve and create one of the world’s great capitals in the heart of the Asian steppe. Astana is a stunning example of the achievements of Kazakhstan in just two decades as independent nation.
“Strategy 2050 is the main strategy for today, and by that year we will be ranked as one of the 30 most competitive nations,” said Nurlan Kapparov, the minister of environmental protection.
“As an oil-rich country, Kazakhstan is at a fairly good level of economic development. Green economy plans can be brought to fruition and will help uplift the living standards of all citizens in the country,” he said during the first day of the Eurasian Media Forum.
Acknowledging that building a green economy requires huge commitments of capital in the early stages, Mr Kapparov said he was optimistic that with its high resource-led economic growth, Kazakhstan would be able to afford the price.
According to the 2013 Doing Business report of the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation, Kazakhstan ranks 49th out of 185 countries surveyed. The country has attracted more than US$160 billion in foreign direct investment since gaining independence 22 years ago. The figure represents 80% of the total FDI into the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
One of the priorities for the government of Kazakhstan has been cross-border trade in the challenging and volatile but high-potential region. Parliament recently passed a new border security master law, which will allow citizens of Kazakhstan to be more involved in border trade and create a more business-friendly climate.
As well, the country is very close to finally joining the World Trade Organization, hoping to increase its engagement with the international trading community.
A view of Astana taken from the Bayterek tower. The tower stands in the middle of a 2-km boulevard that serves as the core of the city.
“I am impressed with the attitude. The challenge will be to define achievable milestones. This cannot come overnight; it has to be clear and straightforward. The Kazakhstan public must be patient and do it step by step,” said Robert Seiter, clean technology leader for EMEIA (Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa) with Ernst and Young.
The concept of green technologies has developed tremendously in the past five to 10 years, said Mr Seiter. It began as a political consideration and then became an element of marketing, but now most organisations and producers understand the importance of being green and the long-term positive effects it can bring about.
“We know that we will find customers not only if we work in compliance with laws, but also if we follow the standards that they use,” he said. “These concepts are for both the organisation and the country itself.
“Ultimately, they need to find money to make the transition [to a green economy] happen. Close monitoring and heavy subsidisation from the government are very essential elements.”
Built from scratch over the past decade, Astana represents a symbol of aspiration for other emerging Central Asian nations. The city’s futuristic architecture reflects the vision of President Nursultan Nazarbayev to build a new capital that would differentiate itself from the drab Soviet-era concrete design of Communist times. It is now the second largest city in Kazakhstan with an estimated population of about 700,000, with ample room to be expanded in all directions.
Behind the great development of Astana’s skyscrapers is its people. Helped by a huge push to develop the education system, young people are eager to take on the challenges of the future and to ready to be part of a fast-changing world.
Mr Kapparov said a high concentration on education was needed to create better public awareness of the green economy.
“Educational propaganda is vital. All citizens in this country will have to be informed about what the green economy is and which way we are heading,” he said. “This must start from the kindergarten level — children should be able to tell their parents how to behave greener.
Raising the level of consciousness among the public still has some way to go, observed Maira Salykova, the president of the Central Asia Foundation of Systemic Research of Russia.
“I think it is really about the mindset of the people. Kazakhstan has been moving along with infrastructure and industrialisation, but going forward to a green economy is another step ahead,” she said.
“Negligence of street dirt must be eradicated. People must start coming out and cleaning up the mess, thinking that they all are the owners of these areas.”
Other issues discussed during the forum included water resources, waste management and renewable energy, including serious regulations to make sure everyone in society behaves in a more environment-friendly manner.
Astana will be the host city of the international Expo 2017 under the theme “Future Energy”, which is expected to give a big push to Kazakhstan’s economic development. The capital already is trying to emulate the practices of leading European countries in the fields of energy saving and renewable energy sources.
Astana today can be likened to a new graduate with great enthusiasm and a craving to develop the skills to land a well-paid job. However, like other new cities of rising Asia, it is still a work in progress.
However, after a first-hand opportunity to witness how Astana has developed so far, one has to feel confident that this futuristic city symbolises what the hopeful destiny of Central Asia will be.