Cheap materials raise questions over Kazakhstan's expensive new urban development

Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkistan. Photo by Ken and Nyetta, Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0.

The city of Turkistan, in southern Kazakhstan, was named “the spiritual capital of the Turkic world” by the Turkic Council, an international organization comprising Turkey, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan at the end of March 2021.

Prime minister Askar Mamin inaugurated Karavansaray, one of the city's new flagship construction projects just ten days later.

But, less than three months after its opening, Karavansaray showed the first signs of decay.

In mid-June, a video emerged across social media showing a child detaching a piece of wall from the Karavansaray complex with his bare hands. The video revealed that the wall was made of polystyrene, a type of styrofoam commonly used in packaging and building insulation.

Citizens speak out against wasteful spending

Chingiz Lepizbayev, project manager at Qorgau, a government-affiliated human rights organization, said on Facebook that the new complex in Turkistan (also spelled Turkestan) would wear down in just two years, as it is unlikely to weather more than a few winters.

I saw with my own eyes that Karavansaray, the main new attraction of Turkestan, (which our ancestors built 1200 years ago) […] was built not from dung and sticks, but from foam and plaster.

Facebook user Ilyas Mynzhasarov joked that the potential savings from building Karavansaray with cheap materials could be a graft scheme, referencing “Money Heist,” a Spanish TV series (the Spanish title, “La casa de papel,” which translates to “the paper house”).

Money Heist — Shukeyev original series
“We will extract money from there undetected.”
“How exactly?”
“We will build a football pitch and a building out of polystyrene”
“And we call this ‘Operation Turkistan'”

Booming tourism investment

Turkistan became the capital of the newly-renamed Turkistan region three years ago, after former president Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a decree upgrading Shymkent, the former capital of the then-South Kazakhstan region, to a metropolis with its own governor.

Since then, the authorities have rushed to develop the city's infrastructure, which hosts a UNESCO-listed heritage site, the 14th-century mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a 12th-century Sufi master.

The construction spree changed the urban landscape, which developed exponentially. Residents now refer to the “old city” and “new city” when discussing Turkistan. In fact, the city has seen sharp demographic growth, as its population increased to 200,000 in May 2021, compared to 160,000 in 2018.

In the heart of the old city, Karavansaray was built to resemble an ancient settlement, a crossroads along the Silk Road.

The new Karavansaray complex was inaugurated on April 10, 2021. Photo by Paolo Sorbello (May 29, 2021), used with permission

According to the governor of the Turkistan region, Umirzak Shukeyev, since 2018, the government and private investors have poured around 1.5 billion US dollars into projects in the city, including an ice rink, an arena for equestrian sports, and a futuristic theater.

For Karavansaray, architects and designers from Chris Lange Creative Studio Berlin were in charge of drafting the layout.

The construction project was set up by Turkistan Silk Way Harbor LLP, which is owned by two investors: the Kazakhstan Investment Development Fund (KIDF) and FTG Development, a Turkish real estate company. KIDF is owned by the ministry of finance and has invested around 1 billion US dollars into projects outside of the extractive sector.

FTG is a long-time partner of Kazakhstan, having built several hotels and the Kazakhstan pavilion at the 2017 EXPO, a futuristic sphere that Foreign Policy dubbed “The Death Star” in one article.

Keeping up with the over-the-top projects, the developers built a system of waterways across the Karavansaray complex, which tourists called “Kazakhstan’s Venice.”

A tourist filming a fountain show along the Karavansaray waterway. Photo by Paolo Sorbello (May 29, 2021), used with permission.

To build the waterways, investors spent 87 billion tenge (around 203 million US dollars). Turkistan Silk Way Harbor invested 47 billion tenge (about 110 million US dollars), while the Development Bank of Kazakhstan provided a loan for an additional 40 billion tenge (93 million US dollars).

Authorities dismiss the scandal as “hype”

The scandal erupted just one week after a new city mayor was appointed. Nurbol Turashbekov, a long-time bureaucrat in regional cadastral offices, replaced Rashid Ayupov, who became the mayor of Turkistan as it gained the status of the regional capital.

Citizens are angered and dismayed that such a sum resulted in poor quality construction and materials. One Facebook user, Dmitry Popoff, shared concerns about Turkistan, asking whether President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has his finger on the country's pulse.

Turkistan made of polystyrene, a phony car industry, carrots for 700 tenge, disappearing rivers, lack of water for irrigation, queues at empty gas stations – where is Tokayev's reaction? Is he aware of what is happening in the country?

After the video and the ensuing criticism from social media users became viral, Shukeyev dismissed it as much ado about nothing.

“In the modern world, everything is made of plastic: The chair you sit on, this pen, this microphone. They made such a hype from nothing.”

Notably, in 2018, Kazakhstan’s government designated several areas of the city of Turkistan and its surroundings as a Special Economic Zone, a classification that grants tax breaks and incentives to companies willing to invest.

As developers and businesses flock to Turkistan to seize the opportunity of tax-free investment, residents and tourists continue to ask themselves whether this boom would be as fragile as the styrofoam walls of Karavansaray.

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