All of this will take foreign investors, and not enough of them have reached for their checkbooks yet. As a share of the country’s gross domestic product, net foreign investment has dropped to 3.5 percent, from a high of 13 percent in 2004, the World Bank reports.
Experts say that, despite talk of reform and transparency, Kazakhstan is still quietly controlled by shifting alliances among elites, all of them angling for prestige and riches in a soap opera scripted by the president. “You have to carefully assess who your Kazakh partners are and where they fit into the elite structure,” said Livia Paggi, a director at GPW, a political risk firm. “They can be bright and well connected, but if they fall out of political favor and lose their status, your business is at serious risk. In the worst case scenario, your asset could be seized.”
When Mr. Nazarbayev, 77, isn’t refereeing the never-ending tournament of clans, he is the nation’s stern and loving grandfather, a ruler whose style might be described as autocrat lite. He has many of the trappings of an old-school authoritarian, including a self-mythologizing museum, a spotty record on human rights and a glaring absence of genuine political opposition. The last time he ran for re-election, in 2015, he won 98 percent of the vote — a figure so high that he apologized the next day.
“But I could do nothing,” he said, during an Orwellian press conference at the time. “If I had intervened, I would have looked undemocratic, right?”