When it first gained national sovereignty a quarter of a century ago, Kazakhstan had in its possession at least 1,400 nuclear warheads, a dubious legacy of the Soviet era, during which time it not only served as a warehouse for these weapons, but also the primary test site for Russian nuclear explosions in the Steppe region of Semipalatinsk.
But in its first decade of its independence, the Central Asian country, with financing from the U.S. government, took the daring and unprecedented step of dismantling and destroying all its nuclear-tipped missiles, repatriating its remaining radioactive military materials back to Russia in the mid-1990s.
Kazakhstan also signed a series of international nonproliferation treaties, becoming a pioneer in the movement to promote a nuclear-free world.
It was a big gamble for the country, which had in the past been known for its nuclear prowess.
But, overall, the wager paid off, and in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear brute force, Kazakhstan earned a reputation as a major international political mediator and model of peaceful regional coexistence.
Home to some of the world’s largest uranium deposits — it currently exports about 20,000 tons of uranium annually, mostly to Russia, Japan and China — Kazakhstan supports the use of clean nuclear energy sources (although, as yet, it does not generate nuclear power), but is adamantly opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Kazakhstan currently has 50 known uranium deposits in six provinces, and more than 20 operating uranium mines, and last year the country accounted for about 38 percent of the world’s total uranium production.
Its potential as a peaceful nuclear energy giant is undisputed.
And it is precisely Kazakhstan’s interest in harnessing the peaceful exploitation of nuclear energy that has inspired its first international trade expo, Astana Expo 2017, a massive, three-month-long exhibit focusing around the theme of “Future Energy.”
The lavish expo, which was inaugurated on June 10 by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev — with the likes of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Premier Narendra Modi and Spanish King Felipe VI in tow — has stands and representatives from some 110 countries, and is expected to be visited by no less than three million people this summer.
Every conceivable type of green energy source (including nuclear energy) is being spotlighted during the expo, but the exhibit is also an opportunity to showcase Kazakhstan itself, which is desperately courting foreign investors and vying for a key role as a geopolitical powerhouse in the region.
And despite a problematic reputation among international human rights organizations and a serious deficit in terms of democratic processes, Kazakhstan has consistently proven itself to be a regional prototype of political stability and economic prosperity, boasting a tenfold growth in GDP over the last 25 years.
Now, Kazakhstan is betting heavily on the expo to help elevate its international image even further, shining a light on its many accomplishments rather than its sketchy humanitarian issues.
Kazakhstan — the largest of the former Soviet republics with the exception of Russia itself — already has a lot of geopolitical clout.
In addition to its vast reserves of fossil fuel and mineral wealth, the so-called Land of the Great Steppe is a crucial territorial crossroads, geographically straddling Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and a large chunk of the Caspian Sea.
It has also shown itself to be a predominantly Muslim nation with a secular government that has, to a large extend, defended the rights of ethnic minorities and managed to keep Islamic radicalism in check.
Moreover, Kazakhstan’s economy is larger than all the other Central Asian states combined.
But the landlocked nation is now facing a serious economic turndown due to sluggish international hydrocarbon prices and overdependence on oil and extractive industries.
There are also concerns among potential investors about Kazakhstan’s reputation for corruption, excessive bureaucratic processes and arbitrary law enforcement policies, as well as uncertainty about whether the country’s 77-year-old president will run for office again in 2019, which, if he does not, could potentially rock the economy and destabilize the political landscape.
President Nazarbayev is hoping the Astana Expo will help to dispel any outside worries about Kazakhstan’s economic or political future, and he is banking big on its success, spending an estimated $16 million on lavish state-of-the-art pavilions and flashy futuristic technologies.
This is not the first time that Kazakhstan has taken a gamble, wagering its future on uncertain contingencies.
Astana is doing everything it can to promote the expo, encouraging governments, corporations, entrepreneurs and news media from around the world to make the trek to Kazakhstan and see just how far the country has come in its first 25 years.
If Astana Expo 2017 is the triumph that the Kazakh government is hoping for, it could open the door to a whole new era of economic growth and increased political influence for the Central Asian nation.
And, even if it is not, Kazakhstan will still be a major geopolitical force to be reckoned with, nuclear power or not.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].