Aiming to be a world player despite the many challenges

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon was there. So too were Jordan's King Abdullah II and Finland's President Sauli Niinisto. In fact, 80 delegations from 42 countries attended the fifth Congress of World and Traditional Religions in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, on June 10 and 11.

The Norman Foster-designed, pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Accord in Kazakhstan's capital was the stage for promoting common ground and dialogue among religions worldwide. The congress, held in Astana every three years, is 12 years old this year. And over the years, it has truly established itself as a bridge linking East and West, North and South, and helps find shared solutions for disputes that afflict the globe.

That political and religious leaders, such as the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel and the head of the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought, take this congress seriously is not a surprise since Kazakhstan is the cradle of civilisations that links Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. But more significant is that the Central Asian country has made a determined effort through events such as this to usher the comparatively young former Soviet republic into a new global era.

Welcome to Kazakhstan, once famous for its nomadic tribes, daring horsemen, and as a place of exile for the likes of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn.

Today, the right bank of Astana, set amid thousands of square kilometres of steppe and just 17 years old, resembles a mini- Singapore or Dubai with its gleaming buildings and stately architecture, all structured carefully and fuelled by an oil boom.

A 35-member delegation from the Singapore Press Club (SPC), which visited the capital last month on a goodwill mission to the country, saw creatively designed buildings, smoothly functioning boulevards, modern, well-stocked malls and construction work expanding into the horizon.

Government officials in the modern part of the city, designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, were eager to highlight that Astana will host the Expo 2017. It revealed the strides the nation has made since independence in December 1991 and how the unusual move in 1997 to establish its new capital in the heartland of the country has turned out to be a success.

The expo, which will cover 70ha and have pavilions for more than 100 countries, is a cause for celebration, but the start of more to come. The next fervent wish is to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Almaty, the old capital some 1,200km from Astana.

For a country which was ridiculed in the 2006 movie Borat, Kazakhstan presents a vastly different picture, having made swift developmental progress since independence and well on the path to becoming one of the top 30 economies in the world. Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov, who was in 2006 Kazakhstan's ambassador in London, famously said then:

"We survived Stalin. We will certainly survive Borat."

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there were many who doubted if Kazakhstan could survive, given its fragile economy and limited ability to secure its borders. It did experience a free fall for a few years but, since 1999, it has made remarkable progress and vastly improved the lives of its 17 million citizens.

Strategy 2030, launched in 1997 at the initiative of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has had a galvanising effect. It has created a market-oriented economy and a modern multi-ethnic society. Good ties with neighbours, especially Russia, China and Western European nations, have led to strong trade development. "Our focus is on turning our land-locked curse into a land-linked advantage," Mr Idrissov, 56, told the SPC delegation.

High growth in the 2000s has created jobs and reduced poverty. Kazakhstan is now an upper middle-income country, having benefited from strong international demand for petroleum, its main export. But the leadership is aware that high oil prices may not last for long. So, it is putting together a strategy to utilise its revenues from natural resources - from uranium and ferrochrome to gold and titanium - to support investments to diversify the economy.

With a GDP of more than US$230 billion (S$315 billion), Kazakhstan's economy surpasses those of its neighbours (for example, Turkmenistan, US$ 41 billion; Uzbekistan, US$56 billion) and its ambitions are higher yet. In 2012, Mr Nazarbayev, now 75, who has been in power since 1991 and was re-elected for another five-year term in April, has rolled out a grand strategy to establish Kazakhstan as one of the world's top 30 economies by 2050.

Called "Kazakhstan 2050", it has been augmented in recent months by the unveiling of the "100 concrete steps" to achieve five key institutional reforms - improving governance and rule of law, diversification of economy, building national identity and making the government more accountable.

Many of his national development strategies have been modelled on Singapore's, Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Massimov, 50, told the SPC delegation. "The plan is to turn Astana into an international financial centre," he said. "And for the government to function more transparently with some of the President's powers to be shifted to Parliament and government."

In September, the President will give a speech in Parliament to set the agenda. "From January there will be a new era. Over the next five years results should show."

However, there are challenges. Security issues in Central Asia linger, and illegal immigration, the emergence of Islamic extremism, potential for conflict and political instability in the south and regional water and resource controversies have yet to be resolved. Moreover, the Kazakh economy has been hit by the decline in global oil prices. The World Bank last month lowered the country's GDP growth to 1.7 per cent this year from an initial forecast of 4 per cent and the lower oil prices are expected to result in a current account deficit, the first since 2009.

Mr Shigeo Katsu, president of Nazarbayev University in Astana and a close observer of Kazakhstan's development, spoke of the need to pay special attention to governance, particularly control of corruption, increase in accountability and transparency, and development of civil society. "Importantly, Kazakhstan has to avoid pitfalls associated with the so-called 'resource curse' that have held back progress in the majority of economies heavily dependent on the exploitation of their natural resources and avoid getting mired in the 'middle-income trap'."

Furthermore, the country remains under-exposed in the media, with its success stories coming out in dribs and drabs. None of the major wire agencies has an office in the country.

But Kazakhstan is ready to overcome these challenges and seize the future opportunities. National Bank governor Kairat Kelimbetov is confident the GDP per capita, which stood at US$13,609 in 2013, will improve to US$18,000 by 2020.

Mr Idrissov is more optimistic. "In 50 years, Kazakhstan will be a major player on the world stage," he observed. "There will be massive changes in all walks of life."

  • The writer, an executive sub-editor with The Straits Times, is honorary secretary of the Singapore Press Club.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2015, with the headline 'Aiming to be a world player despite the many challenges'. Print Edition | Subscribe