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

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The Independent Online
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.'