Slate has published a series of my dispatches from Kazakhstan. A sample from the introduction:
ASTANA, Kazakhstan—If Guinness were to keep a record of Greatest Number of Heads of State To Attend the Opening of a Shopping Mall, it's safe to assume that the standard was set last summer at the grand opening of the Khan Shatyr in Astana, the capital ofKazakhstan.
To be sure, this was not an ordinary mall. The Khan Shatyr (its name means king's tent in Kazakh) is a spectacular, shimmering silver structure sweeping up from the steppe. Designed by celebrated British architect Norman Foster to evoke the nomadic tradition that is only a couple of generations removed from today's Kazakhs, at 500 feet tall it qualifies—in a record that apparently does exist—as the tallest tent in the world.
Its inauguration was several years behind schedule and had been eagerly anticipated as the most impressive addition (to date, anyway) to this city that has sprouted up, with improbable speed and verve, here in the middle of nowhere. But it was not contemporary architecture that attracted the heads of state, including Russia's Dmitry Medvedev, King Abdullah of Jordan, Abdullah Gul of Turkey, and the presidents of Ukraine, Tajikistan, and Armenia.
The date of the Khan Shatyr's opening also happened to be the 70th birthday of Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who hosted the other six heads of state at the gala. Nazarbayev's 20-year rule has made extensive use of the grand spectacle. And although he is sensitive to the perception that he is fostering a cult of personality and had said publicly that he did not want an elaborate celebration for his 70th, it was obvious that this event was, implicitly, a birthday party....
Kazakhstan's history and geography would not seem to provide the ingredients for becoming a rising power. It's stuck in a location that is about as out of the way as you can get, in between Siberia, far western China, and the other 'stans. Kazakhs are traditionally nomads whose language wasn't written until the 19th century, and today the country's population stands at less than 16 million.
In spite of all those disadvantages, Kazakhstan is both far more modern and more dynamic than people think. But it is also highly sensitive about how it's seen abroad. Kazakhstan's effort to rope so many world leaders into attending a mall opening is of a piece with its ambitious—often shameless—desire to take a place on the world stage.
There are five parts, covering the new capital, some ambitious educational efforts, ethnic and socioeconomic tension, and the president's emerging cult of personality. And there's a photo gallery with a few of my photos.