Kazakh energy expo sapped by rows over costs, visitors


Astana (Kazakhstan) (AFP)

Kazakhstan sought a place in the sun when it bid to host a glitzy international energy expo, but a spat over visitor numbers has strengthened criticism that the multi-billion dollar showpiece was money thrown to the wind.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Spain's King Felipe VI were among the dignitaries taking in the festive opening on June 9 of the Future Energy expo in the Central Asian country's futuristic new capital of Astana.

Dancers in golden bodysuits hoisted imitation solar panels skywards, spacemen swung on ropes between suspended models of the planets and Kazakh children sketched a "city of the future" on a giant screen to impress the VIPs.

But just over a week into the event, fresh controversy broke out as internet service providers in the country appeared to block the Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine following a critical article claiming weak visitor numbers, while authorities engaged in an unseemly spat with the author.

Graft scandals and an economic crisis cast long shadows over ex-Soviet Kazakhstan's decision to hold the event in the showpiece city of Astana, which is costly to reach from most European and Asian capitals.

Officials have continued to trumpet it as a branding coup, however.

"People call Astana a city of the future. Well, this (expo) area will become like a city of the future within the city of the future," Astana's Mayor Asset Issekeshev told AFP in an interview in his office.

"The area where the expo is now will host a museum and centres of technical and financial excellence. These centres can be put to use by the city, the country, and hopefully the whole region," he added.

- Glass half empty? -

When an AFP correspondent visited the expo territory on the outskirts of Astana on its June 10 opening to the public, the event appeared well-attended with large queues coming out of major pavilions.

But reporters who visited the following day, including an AFP photographer, reported a clear drop in numbers despite Kazakh authorities claiming Monday that more than 86,000 people have already visited the expo's main pavilion.

James Palmer, Asia editor for Washington-based Foreign Policy claimed in his article entitled "Kazakhstan Spent $5 Billion on a Death Star and It Doesn't Even Shoot Lasers" that many pavilions at the expo "were barren of anyone except staff" during his recent visit.

The PR-sensitive country's information minister, who denied ordering a block on the Foreign Policy website, said Palmer was guilty of "untruths and misinterpreting facts".

Palmer was even forced to respond to a claim by organisers that he had not visited Kazakhstan by tweeting photographs of his passport showing entry and exit stamps as well as a ticket stub from the event.

The government says the expo cost Kazakhstan 400 billion tenge, $1.3 billion at present rates but close to double that figure prior to the battering received by the national currency following the collapse of global energy prices in 2014.

Criticism of spending on the expo only grew after chief organiser Talgat Ermegiyayev, a former sports minister, was arrested in 2015 and jailed for 14 years in 2016 for embezzling some 5.9 billion tenge from the event's budget.

- Future energy focus -

Some 115 countries including China, Russia and the United States are participating in the event which runs into September.

While some of the pavilions wowed visitors, many had a more token feel.

Kazakhstan's neighbour Russia used its pavilion to promote its new generation of nuclear-powered ice-breakers, for instance.

"No other country in the world has a fleet like this," boasted Maria Nikolayeva, a guide, standing by a water tank representing the Arctic Sea patrolled by model versions of the boats.

Costa Rica's display, surrounded by other similarly threadbare Latin American pavilions, consisted simply of a video highlighting the country's natural habitat and renewable energy use.

"It is important for us to be here and show people what we are about," said Arturo Fournier-Facio, the country's ambassador to Russia who had travelled down for the occasion.

World's fairs and specialised expos like the one in Astana originated in the 19th century industrial era to showcase mankind's achievements. Legacies of the events include major tourist attractions such as the Eiffel tower in Paris and the Space Needle in Seattle, but in recent times the events have taken on a more corporate vibe.

"If this expo brings us closer to using clean energy and recycling, then great, but really, we shouldn't need an expo to do those things," said Aidos Sarym, a political scientist based in Almaty, Kazakhstan's second largest city and its capital up to 1997.

"I think, given the social and economic problems we have, there were other things to spend this money on."

"Hopefully this experience (hosting the expo) will act as a kind of inoculation and in the future we will not need to host such grand events," he told AFP.