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 of Kazakhstan.
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.
In addition to the seven heads of state, Kazakhstan's entire parliament and much of the country's diplomatic corps was in attendance, along with several thousand invited guests, with many more watching on big screens in a park behind the reviewing stand. The event was also broadcast on national television. Andrea Bocelli sang, Kazakh folk and classical ensembles performed, and hundreds of performers on horseback enacted an elaborate pageant honoring Kazakhstan's nomadic past. There was a laser show, featuring Kazakh motifs, like horses and eagles, projected onto the Khan Shatyr's exterior.
I had finagled an invitation and watched the spectacle from the far end of the bleachers. Although the invitation specified that guests were supposed to wear business attire, and many of the VIPs were in formalwear, most of the people in my section were casually dressed. We could see the proceedings only on closed-circuit television, which cut out frequently, and before long the crowd began to lose interest and started to stream out. I joined them, and when I got back to my hotel room, I caught the end of the ceremony on television. After a fireworks show, the heads of state and a handful of other VIPs left their seats on the reviewing stand and walked up the steps toward the main entrance of the Khan Shatyr. Tantalizingly, the broadcast cut off just as the lucky few were about to enter the building.
The next day, though, the mall opened to the general public, and I (along with massive throngs of Kazakhs) checked it out for myself. The most impressive feature, a feat comparable in its climate-altering ambition to the indoor ski resort of Dubai, is a beach and heated wave pool on the top floor: Astana suffers from brutal Siberian winters and the second-coldest temperatures (behind Mongolia's Ulaan Baatar) of any capital city in the world.
But the spectacular exterior and the hype surrounding the building had obscured the fact that it is, after all, a mall, a fact that is inescapable as soon as you step inside and see the Polo outlet and a Cinnabon. It would fail to impress the average suburban American teen—there are nicer malls in Astana itself. Most of the shops weren't yet open, their windows papered over. A bucket of white paint left out in one hallway suggested some frenzied last-minute preparations to get the mall ready in time.
While I was strolling around the shopping center, I happened across the pop band Morandi (Wikipedia describes them as "a Romanian europop music group") in the tent's giant atrium; they were giving a press conference to promote their concert that night, part of the ongoing celebrations. A local journalist asked the band members what they thought of the mall. "It looks really good from far away," one said. He answered another Astana-related question more artfully: Asked what song he thought best represented Astana, he confidently replied, "Superfly."
It wasn't hard to imagine Abdullah, Medvedev, and the other presidents walking into the mall the night before, seeing the Cinnabon, and wondering, "What exactly am I doing here?" Technically, most of them were in town for a regional economic summit that happened to be going on at the same time, but no one I talked to in Kazakhstan believed the timing was a coincidence: The opening of Khan Shatyr was the main event.
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.
Given what little it had to work with when it gained independence from the Soviet Union 20 years ago, Nazarbayev has led what is probably a more impressive development than any of its former co-republics. According to the IMF, Kazakhstan's per capita gross domestic product in 2010 was nearly $9,000, behind only Russia and the Baltic states among post-Soviet states, and double that of the next richest 'stan, Turkmenistan. There is a legitimate middle class, which can buy Polo clothes, frolic in indoor water parks, and go to stadium pop concerts.
What Kazakhs can't do (easily, anyway) is publish a newspaper critical of the government or vote for any serious political candidate who isn't Nazarbayev. It has taken a unique path among the post-Soviet states: While the Baltic states have fully embraced the Western model of open markets and political systems, and most of the rest remain stagnant, corrupt autocracies, Kazakhstan has tried to marry economic dynamism with political authoritarianism—the "Asian values" model popularized by Singapore. And so far it has been successful. But its success, while impressive, is fragile, and it faces challenges like economic inequality, under-the-surface ethnic tension, its citizens' rising expectations, and the fragility of one-party rule. The coming years will show whether Kazakhstan will be able to manage these challenges—and countries trying to sell their populaces on similar compromises, like neighboring China, will surely be watching.
I spent five weeks traveling around Kazakhstan to get a look at this experiment, to assess how much of a success story the country really is. Its most audacious bid for glory is Astana itself.