2017: The Lure of the Silk Road

March 3. White House Chronicle. ASTANA

By Linda Gasparello

2017: The Lure of the Silk RoadLooking at Astana’s futuristic skyline, you’d think that an international exposition had already come and gone. But Astana is competing aggressively with Liege, Belgium, to host Expo 2017, a three-month-long, themed world’s fair.

The competition is pitting a young, dynamic Central Asian capital against an old, industrial European city. The Paris-based International Exhibitions Bureau (BIE) will decide the winner in December.

Astana has proposed “Future Energy” as its theme for the expo, which would take place from June 10 to Sept. 10; Liege, which last hosted a world’s fair in 1939, has proposed “Connecting the World, Linking People.”

“We chose energy because of global warming. You can see its effects here – -35 C is normal and today it’s -3 C,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Roman Vassilenko told reporters on a mid-January day in Astana. “Also, Kazakhstan is rich in fossil fuels and uranium, but we want to develop alternative energy sources.”

Energy is an integral part of Kazakhstan’s future growth, Vassilenko added, and the country considers Expo 2017 to be “another step on its route to a new type of economy based on environmentally clean energy resources.”

Kazakhstan’s commitment to the development of alternative energy sources also stems from its “tragic nuclear test past,” Uzmirzak Shukeyev, first deputy minister and chairman of the Expo 2017 Organizing Committee, told a session of the BIE’s General Assembly in Paris last November. And for that reason, he said, “No one understands the importance of environmental issues and the future role of renewable energy better than the people of Kazakhstan.”

Shukeyev, who is a former Astana mayor, also said that “since ancient times, the land of Kazakhstan has connected all people of the world through trade links of the old Silk Road. During the last 20 years, the growth in trade and cultural links between Europe and Asia has been enormous. And Kazakhstan and Astana have been at the heart of these new relationships both economically and culturally.”

Zhanar Aizkhanova, a member of the delegation presenting Kazakhstan’s case to the 157 BIE member nations, emphasized that “by choosing Kazakhstan, you are also choosing not only multicultural, multilingual and multi-ethnic diversity, but also diversity of future energy resources for sustainable development.”

Astana’s Expo 2017 bid has even more going for it, according to Vassilenko. “An international exhibition has never been held in a Central Asian capital. But Astana has already hosted major world events, including the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the 2011 Asian Winter Games,” at which an estimated 30,000 people attended the opening ceremony.”

Vassilenko said Astana is up to the challenge of hosting Expo 2017, which is expected to attract 100 participating nations and about 5 million visitors.

“This is a dynamically developing country and its young population is enthusiastic about Astana’s bid to host the expo and the opportunity to build a big exhibition center,” he said.

Fueled by Kazakhstan’s energy wealth, Astana is in the midst of a construction boom. Since becoming the capital of country in 1997, about $1.4 billion has been invested in building educational, healthcare and cultural facilities.

A 279-acre area in southeast Astana has been designated for the Expo site. By the end of 2016, a 26-mile-long light rail system will be operating, connecting the international airport and the Expo site, and all the city’s cultural spots and residential districts.

As part of Astana’s Expo 2017 bid promotion campaign, Kazakhstan has been participating in international trade shows. Last November, for example, the country set up an Expo 2017 bid booth at the India International Trade Exhibition.

Kazakhstan is also participating in a BIE-supported traveling exhibition, entitled “EXPO x EXPO.” Currently in Astana, this exhibition-of-exhibitions tells the history of international exhibitions (which goes back to the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park in 1851) and seeks to strengthen relations among the BIE member countries.

Liege, its competitor, is mounting a strong Expo 2017 campaign. Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme argued, “All the strengths of my country are with Liege in this beautiful challenge. This expo should be seen as an ideal opportunity to foster dialogue with the entire international community about the development, access and use of new communication and information technologies.”

Hosting Expo 2017 on the Coronmeuse (the 61-acre site where the 1939 special world expo on water treatment was held) would be a superb opportunity for Liege to showcase its transformation from a steel-making city to a high-technology center, according to its Belgian bid-promotion campaigners.

For many reasons, Kazakhstan feels the time is right for Astana to host Expo 2017. But there’s a really proud one: the city will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2017.