Almaty: Kazakhstan is aspiring to host the 2022 Winter Olympics but many in the Central Asian nation view the bid as yet another vanity project of long-ruling President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Almaty, the financial capital, will go head-to-head with the Chinese metropolis Beijing on Friday when the International Olympic Committee elects the winner at its session in Malaysia.
The city, lying at the foothills of the snow-capped Tien Shan mountains, co-hosted the 2011 Asian Winter Games with the capital Astana and will host the 2017 Winter Universiade.
The Olympics is a pet project of Nazarbayev, a 75-year-old former steelworker who has ruled this country nation of 17.5 million with a strong hand for 26 years.
"We would like to hold such Olympic Games so that the names of Kazakhstan and Almaty ring out worldwide," he told state televison.
The authorities hope the global sports event will put the nation -- which is five times the size of France -- firmly on the map.
They say the games will help upgrade Almaty`s infrastructure and give a facelift to the still Soviet-looking city which was originally built as a Cossack fortress to guard the Russian empire`s border with China 161 years ago.
Almaty, where winters are frosty and snowy, believes its bid is strong because 70 percent of the venues for the Games have already been built, including the Medeu skating oval where more than 120 world records have been broken since the 1950s.
Official optimism, however, contrasts with pessimism among many Almaty residents.
"The Olympic Games are needed only for those in power to demonstrate to the world that the country lives according to democratic standards, while in fact it has nothing to do with democracy," said Saken Bektiyar, a painter aged 54.
"The authorities and the people exist in parallel worlds, and the Olympic Games will be just an extra bonus for those in power."
Nazarbayev, allowed by law to be elected as many times as he wants, has overseen market reforms and attracted more than $200 billion in foreign direct investment. But he has faced criticism from the West and human rights bodies for backtracking on democratic reforms and his tough treatment of the small and disparate opposition in the mainly Muslim nation.
"As an Almaty resident and patriot of my city, I would certainly want the Games to be held here," political analyst Aidos Sarym said. "But there are concerns over corruption which exists here."
"In most of Kazakhstan`s gigantic projects, we see mainly marginal interests of a small group of people or officials."
Opposition politician Amirzhan Kosanov said society in Kazakhstan is split by the 2022 Winter Games just as it is split by the EXPO-2017 international exibition to be hosted by Astana, another ambitious project of Nazarbayev.
"Such cash-guzzlings project are usually accompanied by ubiquitous corruption," he said.