Central Asia: Celebutards Wanted

by Sarah Kendzior on 4/29/2010 · 52 comments

For years, I have watched activists vainly attempt to focus a spotlight on the problems of Central Asia, only to be thwarted by the media’s steadfast refusal to, as CNN put it, “learn the stans”. Corruption, poverty, torture, mass violence — what does it take for Central Asia to merit real coverage, the kind which does not involve being measured against the portable Playstation (and found lacking) or having borders redrawn by CNN “anchor”-cum-inadvertent Tajik nationalist Josh Levs?

My friends, I give you Sting.

In November 2009, Sting was paid two million dollars to perform a concert in Tashkent in honor of Islam Karimov’s daughter, Gulnora Karimova, a tea magnate turned J. Lo-esque pop star and possible heir to the throne. Tickets were priced at $1000-2000 each. Sting later said that the concert was sponsored by UNICEF — a claim that UNICEF was very surprised to hear.

In February 2010, the Sting saga exploded in the international press, with dozens of media outlets accusing Sting, a spokesman for Amnesty International, of hypocrisy regarding his public stance on human rights and the environment. “Sting in the pay of tyrannical Uzbekistan regime”, “Sting wrapped around Uzbek dictator’s finger” went the more subtle headlines; “Sting plays concert for daughter of ‘boil your enemies’ dictator” screamed the Daily Mail. (The story is a particular favorite of the British press — apparently British people still care about Sting, whom I last dimly recall trying to sell me a Jaguar a decade ago.) Even the reliably apathetic Fox News got in on the act, blasting Karimov as a “little known dictator who burst upon the international scene in 2005” by killing “up to 5000 people” in Andijon.

Suddenly, the media were outraged by what was happening in Uzbekistan. This outrage, of course, was focused squarely on the takedown of their Tantric tabloid target. But in their quest to vilify Sting, the media ended up accidentally covering the following issues: the plight of the Aral Sea, the use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, corruption and nepotism in the Uzbek government, the use of torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons, the arrest of photographer Umida Akhmedova, poverty and low wages among Uzbek workers, and the 2005 Andijon events. I know many Uzbek activists who have been working to bring these issues to international attention for years. Apparently all they really needed was two million dollars to send a washed-up pop star into the fray.

Recently Sting issued a self-aggrandizing apology in which he insisted that “cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counter-productive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art and as a result become even more closed, paranoid and insular.” (Sting is, of course, known for masterfully bridging cultural divides in the former Soviet sphere— how else would we Westerners ever have learned that “the Russians love their children too”?) Far from placating his critics, the apology has fueled the fire, prolonging the controversy — and the subsequent coverage of Uzbekistan required to chastise him properly — in the international media.

In many ways, this seems like a crass celebrified version of the Great Game — an UZ Weekly world in which Central Asia functions as the playground of pompous pop stars and their disingenuously righteous foes. However, there just may be an upside.

In condemning Sting’s decision to profit from a dictator, media outlets sent a clear message to the world’s fallen pop elite: play Uzbekistan, or other authoritarian regimes, and risk international outcry.

But this is entirely the wrong message to send. If anything, we should be encouraging our C and D-listers to travel to dictatorial regimes, bringing back with them a barrage of media coverage on the issues that human rights activists futilely attempt to publicize.

On that note, I propose the following: Heidi Montag, ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what you can do for Uzbekistan.

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This post was written by...

– author of 21 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who studies politics and the internet in the former Soviet Union. She has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Washington University in Saint Louis and an MA in Central Eurasian Studies from Indiana University. Her research has been published in many academic journals and media outlets, including American Ethnologist, Central Asian Survey, Demokratizatsiya and the Atlantic. She is currently an instructor at Washington University, where she teaches a course called "The Internet, Politics, and Society." Follow her on Twitter.

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Pavel April 29, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Great post, Sarah! Relatedly, Gulnara Karimov writes for Nationa Interest now. It’s a pity they don’t have a comments section. Her article is here: http://www.nationalinterest.org/Article.aspx?id=23302

P. Lee April 29, 2010 at 6:27 pm

I don’t wanna play in Sun City!
…Can most wankers spell Tashkent?
Be like James Brown and play in Kinshasa for Mobutu!!

DE Teodoru April 29, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Gee, I posted the EXACT same ideas to decry the pointlessness of our imperial venture into Central Asia via AfPak on this site that only an “in club” read instead of NATIONAL INTEREST– but then again no one reads that either so while we complain about the media, corporate avarice goes on playing the little people with DoS support and their paid-for NGOs “advising” on Civil society.” Of course, Russia and China rule their own backyard despite all the DNI’s claim of competition between them and the old “Prisoner’s Dilemma” goes on as tit-for-tat between the Pentagon and the Sino-Russian Shanghai Accord. With every turn of the worm things get worse because, really, everyone writes but no one reads and everyone who writes thinks that writing should support him/her in a fine style. That means corporate sponsorship and there you are, being like the corporate media folks you speak about except that what you get is called “fellowships” and “grants.”

Nathan Hamm April 29, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Even in brevity I have a hard time following. I think the key is the use of short, declarative sentences.

everybody lies April 29, 2010 at 6:39 pm

some of the latest interviews by Her Highness to FORBES magazine:

DE Teodoru April 29, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Thank you. It was very touching to see her interview. I didn’t realize that thanks to her Harvard education she has aquired a taste for writers, artists, musicians “and stuff.” Does that “stuff” go into the nose, inhaled deeply or under the tongue?

It’s amazing how retarded Central Asia seems compared to SE Asia!

It makes we wonder whether it has something to do with Soviet domination while Chicom domination never occured in SE Asia.

Reader April 29, 2010 at 8:00 pm

How many Central Asian scholars and as well as old men and women have you had conversations with, DE Teodoru? Have you read any of Chingiz Aitmatov’s books?

I think this blog is mostly for Central Asia lovers not haters.

everybody lies April 29, 2010 at 8:31 pm

While not saying that you are right or wrong, may I state that the habit of oversimplification and approximate (generalized) judgement is too predictable, trivial, boring and does no good service to anyone (including you). A thoughtful comment is always welcome (no matter what it contains) then the naive and worn out “know-it-all” attitude of some people.

DE Teodoru April 29, 2010 at 7:04 pm

“everybody lies,: you missed the URL for her James Bond movie!


jonathan p April 30, 2010 at 9:49 am


jonathan p April 30, 2010 at 10:13 am

Where’s the international outcry over Julio Iglesias’ apparent support for dictators everywhere?!? (smirk)

Turgai Sangar May 2, 2010 at 7:11 am
jonathan p May 3, 2010 at 9:45 am

Very smirk-worthy indeed! I love Uzbekistan. I also admire the apparent mind control that British tebloids hold over the nation’s pop singers: “… the singer was forced to make a statement that Karimov was a dictator…”

Metin May 3, 2010 at 10:38 am

Alleged ‘ban’ on Sting’s songs on Uzbek radio is not true. Radio Maxima was airing some of Sting’s songs yesterday, May 2.
Source (uznews) is unreliable – kind of ‘he said, she said’ info. ‘Experts’ here seam to have no problem with such info. As long as it suits their expectations of course.

Metin May 3, 2010 at 10:46 am
Turgai Sangar May 3, 2010 at 11:59 am

Metin has obviously not hear about sarcasm. Indeed, Style.Uz (which is a project of the suka herself) is a prime barometer for the mood in Uzbekistan. It kind of matches Uznews.net.

karaka April 29, 2010 at 7:28 pm

great brief. I hadn’t heard the story about Sting at all; good grief.

Joshua Foust April 29, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Guys, you should have heard of this. Umm, I wrote about it in February. Of course, Sarah managed to have something substantial to say about it, as compared to my “hahaha.” But still.


Sarah April 30, 2010 at 9:42 am

Apologies Josh — I also somehow missed your post. I should have mentioned it here.

Joseph Dart May 2, 2010 at 7:13 am

It officially never happened. It’s been thrown down the memory hole by the fanboiz.

TJM April 29, 2010 at 9:54 pm

I’m working on a paper on A’Stan now. I was hoping to be able to include Bono, Pitt, Jolie, and Shakira in my footnotes. Thus far, I’m still 0 for 4.

Reader April 29, 2010 at 9:59 pm
Turgai Sangar May 1, 2010 at 4:24 am
TJM May 1, 2010 at 5:39 pm

No. What I’m looking for is a good hefty insight on the wax and wane of state legal codes, customary law, and Sharia. I was hoping that Bono or Pitt would have articulated some kind of correlation between one or more of those three, with the change in some social dynamic such as “warlordism” or relative economic size of the narcotics industry. Alas, all that I have found is Bono’s jibber-jabber on Africa, Shakira’s blah blah blah about something in South America, and Brangelina trying to do good for good’s sake. Has Jay-Z taken up a cause?

Turgai Sangar May 2, 2010 at 7:15 am

There are celebrities who do find noble causes though:

J. Otto Pohl April 29, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Lee is right, the opposition to cultural boycotts line by Sting is bullshit. He would never had said that about South Africa under apartheid. Usually this line of hypocrisy is used to defend the apartheid regime in Israel from boycott. This is the first time I have seen the usual suspects use it to defend Karimov, but it does not surprise me.

Metin April 30, 2010 at 12:46 am

come on Otto, you can’t compare apartheid to what’s like in Uzbekistan. Have you been to Uzbekistan and seen any forms of racism there?? Sure, the regime is not democratic, but media has no problem when similar visits take place in non democratic post soviet countries like Russia or Kazahstan.

I think it is worth mentioning who is behind such critics – the one with odious personality – Craig Murray. Sometimes I think he is a racist, he is against any success related to Uzbek. Just remember how he ‘successfully’ related Russian billionaire with Uzbek origins Alisher Usmanov to Karimov in order to ‘defend’ FC Arsenal against foreigners.

It makes sense to evaluate deeds by their results – Sting’s arrival inspired hundreds if not thousands of youth get interested in art and music. Personally, I myself (though did not attend his performance) discovered Sting and Police due to this event. Sting did nothing wrong.

jonathan p April 30, 2010 at 10:12 am

Of course there are forms of racism in Uzb. Witness, if you will, the purge of ethnic Russians from upper management at NGMK. That said, it’s nothing like apartheid, of course. I’m just pointing out that racism is everywhere.

I personally think it was a bit hypocritical of Sting to go and play for GooGoosha’s “inspirational” shindig because of his past “human rights” activities. But the only reason people are taking a dig at Sting over this is becasue it’s fun to point out the hypocricy of someone as obnoxious and pompous as Sting often seems to be. That’s entertainment, folks!

Metin April 30, 2010 at 2:44 pm

GooGoosha is nowhere reported to be linked to any human rights abuses. The only link is she is the daughter of ‘dictator’ (who’s not dictator in former soviet countries anyway?), and that’s all.
But just think a bit – is it not marvelous what she’s been doing for her country so far? charity, support for youth education, patronage for culture and art – aren’t these wonderful things to be admired of?
It is indeed a bit hypocritical of those wishing good for Uzbekistan being against promotion of western art/culture by celebrities like Sting.

Turgai Sangar May 1, 2010 at 4:16 am

GooGoosha may not have ordered or committed human rights abuses straight away (as a good psychopath she’s manipulating her dad to do that), yet by her overall egotripping, posh lifestyle and decadent behaviour she’s a walking insult and a humiliation for the many Uzbekistani who suffer under the regime.

It somehow reminds the Shah of Iran, his Paris Match queen and their entourage in the seventies. What is worse, with all her bigoted mundane tralala GooGoosha also serves as a poster girl to give het father’s regime international acceptability.

As for charity (btw, isn’t that more Lola’s pet passtime, not Gulnara’s): so what? It stresses the hypocrisy. That is a common pr-hobby for many an African dictator’s wife as well.

dadash May 1, 2010 at 10:58 am

go try then to open a charity of your own in uzbekistan and then see what happens. chances are you will be kept in interrogation room until you agree to fully comply and cooperate with mother of all charitis in uzbekistan. once you consent and act appropriately – you are free. of course many private charities are money making machines in their own scret ways and of course its better then getting boiled but it is still kind of not right way of “building an alliance” so to say.

Turgai Sangar May 1, 2010 at 4:22 am

“Sting did nothing wrong.”

Sting, like most who are winded around Karimova’s finger, is indeed an innocent in the negative sense of the word. Lenin allegedly called such people ‘useful idiots of the West’.

Metin May 1, 2010 at 5:14 am

just googled for and found out it is a behavior characterized by a lack of moral and intellectual discipline .
This more than best applies to those criticizing Sting’s concert in Uzbekistan (in this particular case Craig Murry), not to a person who promotes art and culture.
Posh lifestyle (or put it another way – fine taste) is not a good argument to justify call for isolation of the country either.

Turgai Sangar May 1, 2010 at 7:21 am

You googled for what, Metin-bey?

This being said, one thing we remotely agree on are, well, ‘mixed feelings’ towards CM: certainly he has his merrits in popularising the issue of Uzbekistan’s predicament and the nature of the regime. But at the same time he made a soap and a joke of it, with that woman etc…

Then again, it makes me laugh when regime satraps, sycophantic Euro diplotwats and mercenary academics suddenly rediscover ‘morality’ to condemn CM’s wine, song and dance lifestyle in Tashkent because their walk of life is often even worse.

Turgai Sangar May 1, 2010 at 7:54 am

What you call ‘promoting art and culture’ and ‘fine taste’ is, in practice, showing off the depraved cosmopolitan lifestyle of the happy few so as to spit in the face of Uzbekistan’s people which Karimova pathologically despises. And it’s not mere clumsyness. She knows very well what she’s doing.

Metin May 1, 2010 at 8:05 am

googled for “decadent behavior”
sorry for typo 🙂

Metin May 4, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Sting was not used to make the regime popular – hence ‘useful idiot’ is irrelevant. That was typical cultural event for beau-monde in Tashkent, no more.
However, Craig Murray, human rights activists, HRW and Amnesty as well as some western ‘experts’ are definitely playing ‘useful idiots’ for Islamists.

Ekspeditsya April 30, 2010 at 2:44 am

When you are all done patting yourselves on the back about your even-handed assessment of the Sting debacle, perhaps you could look forward to the next possible travesty of good sense.
Gulnara Karimova nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?! (link in Russian):


Nick April 30, 2010 at 12:51 pm

I agree with Metin – Uzbekistan is absolutely unlike South Africa …

… because while in South Africa only blacks were oppressed, in Uzbekistan everyone is oppressed. Equal oppression for all!

ten May 1, 2010 at 7:30 am

Oppression in South Africa was explicit. Selective oppression in Uzbekistan is implicit, vague, dispersed, hidden. Its very hard to pinpoint it but it’s definitely there.

Metin April 30, 2010 at 2:56 pm

it is pity that people are ‘oppressed’ anywhere in the world. But if to look at it from historical perspective – it seems to be natural. All countries, especially those newly emerged and poor, go through this. I read that in America (oldest functioning democracy) native indians were exterminated, blacks were oppressed till recently, racism manifestations are still strong among whites vs blacks and latinos (and vice-versa).
Instead of proving how ‘oppressive’ Uzbekistan is, it would be good to stress on as Ms Kendzior wrote:
“ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what you can do for Uzbekistan.”

Turgai Sangar May 1, 2010 at 4:30 am

“Ask what you can do for Uzbekistan.”

Very true. Everything is here: 😉

Toryalay Shirzay May 1, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Uzbekistan will gain nothing useful by resorting to Arab-islamic ideas,customs ,beliefs or sharia.In fact Uzbekistan has everything to lose if ever it followed the Arab-islamic path,witness Afghanistan ,Pakistan,Iran,Saudi Arabia.
At least in Uzbekistan you can travel where you want without fear of being blown up by IEDS,islamic terrorists suicide murderers or being kidnapped ,or waitresses rounded up and abused by the cops.And the Uzbek government now prosecutes big business criminals who rip off citizens.Uzbekistan faces many serious threats to its independence and sovereignty and foremost among these is Islamic fascism which is supported by Pakistan,Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Taliban.Thus Uzbekistan has no choice but to keep strict vigilance even at the cost of some liberties.The Uzbek government is concentrating on economic prosperity and maintaining law and order,how can they be blamed for this?
Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to keep a balanced view of Gulnara Krimova? She is more honorable than the British queen as she is not feasting on the theft of the wealth of tens of millions of people around the world whose lands were colonized by the Brits so they could enrich themselves.So relatively speaking,Gulnara is an honorable woman who is serving her country quite well not withstanding jealous persons with foul attitude and intention.Of course she is rich ,Uzbeks have rich people like any other people and if not she ,then who ?

Turgai Sangar May 2, 2010 at 7:12 am

Well, apply to be her gigolo then.

Metin May 2, 2010 at 8:48 am

Well, apply to be her gigolo then.
that sounds kinda ‘all women are whores’.

Turgai Sangar May 2, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Some are, yes. For the rest, I’m into gender equality: female evil must be treated like male evil. 😉

Toryalay Shirzay May 2, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Hey Turgai, Is it possible you may have an attitude toward accomplished Uzbeks? It may be helpful if you look in the mirror and ask yourself :who am I? Am i an Uzbek or a Brit or an Arab?You will gain nothing or accomplish anything by harboring ill will toward Gulnara Krimova who i am sure has done you no wrong.

Turgai Sangar May 2, 2010 at 2:04 pm

What she represents has done wrong to people dear to me. That should be enough.

Toryalay Shirzay May 2, 2010 at 1:31 pm

A Modest Proposal to All

Now the war in Afghanistan has been going on for 9 years and the accomplishment of the US/NATO has been sporadic at best;in other words, not very effective.There are many reasons for this which you already know.Therefore ,I highly recommend that the US/NATO hire the government of Uzbekistan to stop the Taliban in their tracks and for good.The Uzbek government is the most capable force in all of Central Asia and they have demonstrated their ability to defeat all religious fundamentalists and islamic fascists and to maintain law and order so to facilitate economic prosperity.I believe the Uzbek government is fully capable to accomplish peace and law and order in Afghanistan if the US/NATO give full support including all necessary financial,technical, and military hardware .They can do this with less money than what the US/NATO currently spend in Afghanistan;in other words,Uzbeks are far more cost effective than US/NATO.This will be a win-win situation for all especially for Afghanistan and US/NATO.The only issue is if the US/NATO will be good enough to persuade the Uzbek government to accept a contract to accomplish peace and security in the tortured land of Afghanistan.

Reader May 2, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Not doable. Uzbekistan still uses the Soviet citizen policing infrastructure, e.g. dom kom, checkpoints, unknown community members reporting up the chain, to control the population. They know everything about everyone at any day in time.

There is no such system in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan government would try to build it if they get support from the International Community but they would fail miserably due to ethno-political reasons and possibly have their own government collapse in the process.

How would Toryalay sleep then knowing his Russian gf in Tashkent is wearing a hijab by day and belly dancing for warlords by night.

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Toryalay Shirzay May 4, 2010 at 10:41 pm

Reader, Your motives don’t seem to jibe with the overwhelming desire of Afghans for peace and security not some bogus elections and bogus democracy.They are willing to forgo some liberties in exchange for genuine peace ,security and law and order.And the government of Uzbekistan has successfully accomplished peace,security and law and order which the Afghans so much cry for but can not have it due to ineffectiveness of US/NATO and the corrupt incompetent Afghan government.Your last paragraph also reveals your questionable motive.

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