Can Kazakhstan fill the world's leadership void?

By Gemma Ferst

The lack of global leadership, what we at Eurasia Group call the G-Zero, has become a common refrain among international thinkers. But while others wring their hands, over in his Ak Orda (White Horde) palace in windswept Astana, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev is planning to do something about it.

In February, he launched G-Global: a bid to hatch a new world order through the exchange of ideas. Styled as an "electronic Bretton Woods," G-Global will disseminate a plan for global reform in May. On hand to provide intellectual firepower is the Eurasian Economic Club, which, bringing together top economists from Tajikistan to Moldova, has already produced a draft.

The road to Utopia could be long, though. Although G-Global boasts 10,000 members from 28 countries, the vast majority (more than 40,000) of the posts on its forum emanate from a single doctoral candidate at Irkutsk State Technical University, formerly the Siberian Mining Institute. None of the 543 participants who signed up in the last month has so far weighed in, suggesting that global traction may still be a ways off.

Nazarbayev, a former metallurgist who has ruled his oil-rich country since Soviet times, has long been something of a blue-sky thinker. The absence of criticism from his citizenry, combined with plenty of petrodollars, has fed an apparently genuine belief that it is his destiny to solve more than just Kazakhstan's problems. Previous schemes include a new, as yet unrealized global currency dubbed the Akmetal and an annual Congress of World Religions in Astana. (Nazarbayev commissioned British architect Norman Foster to design the $58 million Palace of Peace and Reconciliation -- a pyramid housing an opera house in its basement -- just to host the event.) He also came up with the idea of a Eurasian Union, well before Putin took it up again last year

Nazarbayev cares greatly about how outsiders perceive him. He spends huge sums on Western public relations campaigns and has taken on Tony Blair as an adviser. Indeed, at 71, he is hoping to establish his legacy as an international statesman, peace-builder, and possible Nobel Peace Prize winner.

What G-Global really shows us, though, is what happens when authoritarian states try to innovate. Billed as a platform for free-wheeling discussion, G-Global comes with a code of conduct that is both granular and draconian. Contributors are forbidden to "maliciously non-adhere to the rules of the Russian language," for example, and are instructed to exclude any "political content" from their posts -- a practice that would seem to put the kibosh on serious attempts at revamping global governance.

This same autocratic reflex will hamper Kazakhstan's bid to become one of the world's most competitive economies by 2015. Nazarbayev refers to innovation as a "gigantic leap of the Kazakhstani snow leopard into the future" and has ordered the country's state-owned firms to modernize. But these firms -- even the start-ups -- are ruled with a centralized iron fist. And the government's response to unrest, notably the deadly violence in Zhanaozen last December, is always to tighten the leash.

With G-Global, Nazarbayev wants to "radically widen the number of participants in seeking anti-crisis solutions for the world." But he won't countenance a similar widening of Kazakhstan's own political process (letting the opposition stand in elections would be a start), which is why this particular snow leopard won't be influencing global leaders any time soon.

Gemma Ferst is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Eurasia practice.