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Kazakh capital seeks center stage with Syria peace talks

Nazarbayev promotes Astana as venue for international negotiations

Delegates at the fourth round of the Astana Peace Process on the Syrian conflict which met in May. (Courtesy Government of Kazakhstan)

ASTANA -- In its 20 years as Kazakhstan's capital, Astana has attracted a range of labels. Some observers have described its high-rise office blocks and themed shopping malls as a futuristic vision for urban living amid the harsh steppes of central Asia. Others have thought the city bizarre, focusing on its mock Arc de Triomphe and neoclassical opera house.

Now Astana, a little-known regional administrative center called Tselinograd when Kazakhstan was part of the former Soviet Union, can add another name to the list: Local commentators have dubbed the city a "global center for peacemaking," seeing it as a sort of second Geneva.

Over coffee in May at a European-style cafe near the Foreign Ministry, Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko told the Nikkei Asian Review why some people have been talking up Astana as an alternative venue to the Swiss city often seen as the preferred neutral location for conflict resolution.

A few weeks earlier, Astana had hosted the fourth round of talks this year aimed at finding a resolution to the fighting in Syria, with participants from Russia, Turkey and Iran, as well as groups from Syria's government and rebel factions. A fifth round was held in July, and a sixth is now expected in mid-September.

"What Kazakhstan basically seeks from it is nothing more than having an opportunity to end the bloody war in Syria," said Vassilenko, one of five Kazakh deputy foreign ministers. "We are not direct participants in the talks. Our role is to be as gracious a host as possible. This is what we are famous for, and this is why we are implementing this diplomatic weapon, so to speak."

The Astana Peace Process was started in January at the behest of Turkey and Russia. Their influence over events in Syria has grown over the last few years, as the West's has waned, and they wanted an alternative forum for peace talks to Geneva, where negotiations involving the various parties, Western powers and Russia are continuing.

Astana, Vassilenko said, was the obvious choice. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev had helped to mediate a resolution to a stand-off between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2015 and 2016 after a Turkish aircraft shot down a Russian fighter over Syria, he added.

"That created an interesting opening for Turkey and Russia to interact with each other in Syria. They also invited Iran, so they needed a neutral ground, something new, something fresh," he said. "Kazakhstan was just that neutral country with good relations with Turkey, with Russia, with Iran and with the West."

The talks have typically finished after a day or two, with incremental results. However, Nazarbayev has been relishing the spotlight for himself and for Astana, the capital he dotes on.

The 77-year-old was the first president of independent Kazakhstan, leading it with a vice-like grip out of the Soviet Union in 1991 and forging it into a relatively stable petro-state with a veneer of modernity and democracy. But he wants history to see him as an international peacemaker.

Nuclear arsenal

Nazarbayev's foreign policy priorities have focused on balancing the competing interests of neighboring powers and maintaining neutrality in international disputes. At the start of the year, Kazakhstan also took a coveted two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The president's biggest ace in international affairs was played in the 1990s when he surrendered an arsenal of nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union. It has long been suspected that Nazarbayev hoped to win the Nobel Peace Prize for this action.

The president has also launched a peace prize of his own: The inaugural annual Prize for Nuclear Disarmament and Global Security, complete with a $1 million check, was awarded last year to King Abdullah of Jordan for taking in 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

Camilla Hagelund, an analyst with Verisk Maplecroft, a U.K.-based risk consultancy, said the Syria talks in Astana were a continuation of this image building. "It helps promote Nazarbayev's personal image as a force for peace, domestically as well as internationally. It follows other moves designed to put Kazakhstan on the world map," she said.

This view was reinforced, possibly inadvertently, by Kazakh officials just before Kazakhstan hosted Syrian talks for a fifth time on July 4. Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry released a new book marking the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Kazakh diplomatic corps. The cover beamed out its message. It was dominated by a smiling Nazarbayev and called "Peacemaker: The Syrian Knot."

Kazakhstan does have some recent history as a neutral venue for negotiations in international affairs. In 2013, Almaty, the former capital, hosted talks between Iran and a Western bloc led by the U.S. over the Iranian nuclear program. Western analysts have also welcomed the Astana Peace Process as a way of pushing the drive for a solution to the conflict in Syria, and for putting Central Asia firmly on the geopolitical map.

Chris Tooke, an analyst at the London-based consultancy GPW, said Kazakhstan had strong credentials as a venue, but noted a major problem. "Even if Astana takes a passive role, hosting peace talks rather than directly participating in them, it will be difficult for Astana to shake off this image as ultimately relying on Russia for its own security, and [it] is therefore compromised as a neutral host."

Max Lambertson, an analyst at the U.K.-based Economist Intelligence Unit, agreed. Kazakhstan's closeness to Russia "will limit Astana's prospects to play a global role in conflict resolution or rival Geneva in this regard," he said.

In addition to hosting the Syrian talks, Nazarbayev has also floated the prospect of mediating between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Kazakh officials have been careful to play down comparisons between Astana and Geneva, referring to the Astana Peace Process as supplementary to the Geneva talks. Still, it is difficult to ignore the symbolism built into the city.

One of the glass and steel buildings that dominate the city's skyline is a high-rise pyramid, designed by the British architect Norman Foster and built in 2006 for a reported $58 million. The building is called the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, and at the top visitors can gaze out over Astana, the city that Nazarbayev built, through windows decorated with doves.

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