As 2010 draws to a close and Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) winds down, the country is shifting the focus of its image-shaping efforts from politics to sports. The country’s next big project – hosting the seventh Asian Winter Games -- will run from January 30 to February 6.
Kazakhstan has in recent years worked hard to project a global image of an up-and-coming nation. Hosting high-profile international events gives it the platform to sell itself to the world. “The formation of a national brand for Kazakhstan as a country aspiring to be among the leading countries is a key task,” Zhanat Zakiyeva, an official from the Kazakh Foreign Ministry, told a roundtable at the Institute of Political Solutions (IPS) in Almaty in October.
In addition to chairing the OSCE and hosting the Asian Winter Games, the country seeks recognition through other projects. It is the home to the Congress of World and Traditional Religions and will chair the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in 2011.
Analysts say this is all part of a deliberate strategy to cement a regional leadership role. “It demonstrates that Kazakhstan has emerged as the key power in the Central Asian region. … [President Nursultan] Nazarbayev’s proven himself to be a very skillful politician and diplomat and part of his domestic legitimacy rests on his perceived success in the international sphere,” Rico Isaacs, a lecturer in International Studies at the UK’s Oxford Brookes University, told EurasiaNet.org.
“The fact they’ve lobbied hard to get all these prestige events is illustrative of the fact that not only have they emerged as the key power in Central Asia, but also that they’re seen as the focal state in the region that it’s possible for major powers to do business with,” Isaacs added.
Astana is still basking in the glow of hosting the OSCE summit held at the beginning of December -- despite disputes that prevented any meaningful achievements at it. The upcoming games will give authorities another opportunity to garner positive PR. The Asian Winter Games are the biggest sporting event ever to be held in Kazakhstan, and will bring together over 1,000 athletes from 27 Asian countries.
Irbi, the games’ mascot, has become a ubiquitous presence around the host cities, with the cheeky snow leopard grinning down from billboards inviting people to the games and wishing them a Happy New Year.
Sport has played an important role in Kazakhstan’s promotion abroad. The Astana Cycling Team, sponsored by Kazakhstan’s state asset holding company Samruk-Kazyna, has brought wide recognition to Astana via back-to-back Tour de France victories for Alberto Contador, although it has also brought controversy in its wake with doping scandals.
In the hockey world, Barys Astana, sponsored by the state railroad company Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, competes in the Continental Hockey League, which features teams from Russia, Belarus and Latvia.
The Asian Winter Games, which will play out at 10 separate sites, prompted the construction of new sporting venues and the upgrading of existing facilities. The state has invested more than $1 billion in developing the infrastructure to host the games.
Astana, Kazakhstan’s glitzy new capital, will host the hockey, speed skating, and figure skating competitions, as well as the opening ceremony on January 30 in the state-of-the-art Astana Arena. At the foot of the Tien Shan Mountains, Almaty will welcome ski jumping, downhill skiing and the closing ceremony.
One of the aims of the games' organizers was to make it easy for ordinary citizens to attend events by keeping ticket costs down: tickets for the opening ceremony are relatively pricey, running from $50 to $100; but tickets for individual events are more affordable, costing between $5 and $15.
There will also be a torch relay. The flame will arrive from Kuwait on January 12 and will tour all the regions of Kazakhstan before arriving in Astana for the opening ceremony. Running concurrently with the games will be a cultural festival, with Astana hosting exhibitions of ice sculpture, music and dance and circus art.
The games will leave the country with a legacy of world-class sports facilities for its athletes to train in, which will also attract winter sports tourists. The games could also act as a springboard to a bigger prize -- the Winter Olympics. Having failed in a bid for the 2014 Olympics, a successful Asian Winter Games may enhance future chances. Kazakhstan is already mulling a bid for the 2018 or 2022 games.
Paul Bartlett is an Almaty-based freelance writer specializing in education issues.