EXPO Astana: Behind the Glitz

An expensive billboard for Kazakhstan’s slow transition to clean energy.

EXPO Astana: Behind the Glitz
Credit: Mukhtar Kholdorbekov, Reuters

Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is hosting a specialized EXPO focusing on renewable energy sources and highlighting energy beyond traditional fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, which have been the staple of the country’s economy throughout its independence. The government hails the event as an occasion to show Kazakhstan’s modern look to the world; the EXPO’s flashy and futuristic buildings were erected on a barren lot in the outskirts of glitzy Astana. Several local residents, on the other hand, have instead described the EXPO as a wasteful exercise, especially in tough economic times.

Kazakhstan’s economic growth was down to a minimum after oil prices fell dramatically in 2014. In mid-2015, the government was forced to stop propping up its currency and abandon the peg to the U.S. dollar, a policy that immediately triggered a sharp depreciation of the tenge. This in turn depressed consumption, slashed savings, and made it harder for Kazakhs to repay their dollar-denominated mortgages. Galloping inflation and unsustainable debt also put pressure on the banking system, which found it tougher to finance enterprises and to recover credits. Against this backdrop, the government decided to go all in and spend between $3 billion and $5 billion on a rather frivolous spectacle, the coming together of over 100 countries displaying their efforts and achievements in their transition away from dependence on fossil fuel consumption.