Out of Kazakhstan: West tempted to take a bite in apple city

ALMA-ATA - Miranda Craddock-Watson allowed that the would-be estate agents of Kazakhstan had a curious style. But nothing seems to break the stride of a generation of business people and diplomats forging a new way of life in this former Soviet Central Asian republic.

'I was to look for a man in a silvery coat standing on a certain corner and recognisable by his red moustache. He furtively took us on to a house elsewhere. It was like something out of John Le Carre,' Mrs Craddock-Watson said, cradling a glass of malt whisky after a day on the icebound streets of the Kazakh capital.

That is not the only adjustment new arrivals must make: private schools are run on disciplinarian lines and the weekly shopping is not at the supermarket but in bazaars selling pigs' snouts and whole skinned horse heads.

Much has changed from the days when the only foreigners were strictly watched tourists to this handsome Soviet-built city on the mountainous southern edge of the central Asian steppe. Ethnic Russians are gradually heading off to Mother Russia and foreigners are flooding in to fill the gap.

The American embassy counts 60 US companies established already. Kazakhstan is now home to the two single biggest foreign business deals in the former Soviet Union, oil extraction at the Tengiz Field by Chevron and the privatisation of a cigarette factory, bought by Philip Morris.

British Gas plans to develop a huge natural-gas field close to the Russian border and British Petroleum is part of a consortium to explore Kazakhstan's north-eastern corner of the Caspian Sea. London-based accounting firms have set up large offices and the lawyers are not far behind.

Chinese goods are flooding in, a Korean restaurant charges dollars 100 ( pounds 68) a table and even the Japanese have put their toes in the water.

There are still many 'ifs' of course, not least the question of Russian goodwill in allowing the export of the huge mineral wealth of its landlocked neighbour, a country bigger than Western Europe. But in the meantime nobody wants to be left out of the race for a good place on the starting-grid. 'People look at this place like Kuwait, Zaire and South Africa combined,' one diplomat said. As a result, Alma-Ata is overtaking even Moscow as an expensive place to live and do business. Rents are shooting up, English-speaking secretaries are hard to find, and hotel rooms can cost pounds 100 a night. 'We know what those translators from Moscow are getting and we want the same,' said one Kazakh woman.

To keep costs down, Germany, France and Britain share their embassy facilities in a former institute. The unique experiment has imported a true flavour of the European Union.

In a joint entrance hall, three receptionists sit-side-by side with their national flags as if at an international conference and look suitably underemployed. The playing field between the three old European rivals is further levelled by the fact that when the telephones go down, they all go down together.

A benign-looking German ambassador presides from a large austere office, talking hopefully of the day when even visa offices will be shared. His lead role is due to Germany's wealth and a special interest in Kazakhstan because of its million ethnic Germans, scores of whom cluster at the embassy door each day.

Not to be outdone, the French ambassador has set up a small museum in his palatial suite. The friendly British embassy is on a smaller scale, with perhaps half the staff of the other two missions. Britain's first resident ambassador to Kazakhstan, Noel Jones, modestly receives guests in a study smaller than the offices of his colleagues' secretaries. A veteran of two years in Mongolia, he puts on a brave face and simply says: 'Costs, costs, you know. One simply has to be stoic.'

Integration does have its limits. When the time comes to meet the Lufthansa plane from Europe, three separate cars still head out to the airport to pick up the ciphers from the three capitals. The Americans and Turks have more regal spreads in pretty Tsarist-era buildings near the city centre. In the pragmatic Kazakh style, name-changing of the main boulevards has spared those of Marx and Lenin. That is small comfort for the Russians, who are still struggling to come to terms at finding themselves envoys to what was once a second-rung Soviet republic.

'We waited nine months for our building and were given a terrible place far from the centre. We are still waiting for the money from Moscow to renovate it, and meanwhile we receive up to 200 applications a day for help to go to Russia,' said one former Soviet diplomat. 'Prices here have become shocking. Alma-Ata may mean 'Father of Apples', but even they are not affordable for us any more.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'