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Kazakhstan Builds Futuristic City For World Expo, But Forgets To Invite Guests


Right now a world fair is going on in Kazakhstan, in the capital city of Astana. It has a grandiose architecture booth for more than a hundred countries, music, food. One thing it does not have is crowds.

JAMES PALMER: I arrived in Astana and found this, you know, huge, somewhat beautiful, almost entirely empty site.

SHAPIRO: Foreign Policy's James Palmer wrote about the expo and its lack of crowds in an article that made waves in the country. Nearly half the people in Kazakhstan live on $70 a month, and the government spent well over a billion dollars on the expo. I asked James Palmer what he thought the event meant to the Kazakh people.

PALMER: The mood I saw from ordinary Kazakhs was twofold. There were a lot of people who were genuinely proud about hosting the event, who were happy that the world was paying attention to Kazakhstan. But then there was an enormous amount of bitterness, too - lots of people who were angry about the waste of money, about the corruption, that security was being tightened. People were being moved out of their homes. The homeless were being shipped off to the steppe and abandoned there in order to make Astana look nicer.

SHAPIRO: Almost as interesting as your original story was the reaction to it. Tell us what happened after this was published.

PALMER: The piece came out. And for a couple of days, Kazakhstan became the second-largest source of visitors to the site, which is not normally the case.

SHAPIRO: No (laughter).

PALMER: Then Sunday that stopped. The Kazakh authorities blocked the whole site, though they wouldn't admit that they blocked it. And they began launching a PR campaign specifically against me. So the expo authorities and the Kazakh government accused me of never having come to Kazakhstan and of being a tool for foreign oligarchs and enemies of the Kazakh state. I responded by posting the evidence that I had been to Kazakhstan on Twitter, which they called a fake and claimed that somebody had to be leaking information to me and that I was clearly trying to besmirch the good name of Kazakhstan.

It was very strange. And because Kazakhs really quite strongly dislike the lying and hypocrisy that comes out of their authorities, over the course of the next few days, I got hundreds of messages of support from ordinary Kazakhstanis. Like, 500 Kazakhs added me on Facebook.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter)

PALMER: They did memes. People sent me all these other stories and lots and lots of information about what else was going on in Kazakhstan.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately if Kazakhstan hosts a World Expo and nobody shows up, who cares? Why does it matter?

PALMER: Well, a couple of reasons. First of all, of course one of the reasons that nobody showed up was because Kazakhstan has become a country really seized by authoritarianism and corruption. And that's a great shame because it doesn't have to be that - and secondly because these events, even though they take place in faraway countries with authoritarian states that don't matter to us directly, they're managed with a compliance of Western institutions.

So the World Expo is run by the International Exposition Bureau, which is a Paris-based group but one that has gone along with the corruption and has at this point in fact, like many other of these groups - like the Olympics, like FIFA - actively seeks out authoritarian governments because they comply more easily with the demands of these big events themselves.

SHAPIRO: The event goes on until September. Would you recommend that people check it out?

PALMER: I actually would. The expo itself - much of it is very boring, but Astana has got wonderful buildings, friendly people and is very near beautiful national parks. So as long as you don't say anything bad about the expo while there, I would strongly recommend it.

SHAPIRO: James Palmer is the Asia editor for Foreign Policy magazine. Thanks for joining us.

PALMER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.