One of the most unexpected aspects of living among the Kazakhstanis was the nationals’ focus on physical appearance. Indeed, Kazakhstanis are as preoccupied with a manicured appearance as any group I’ve ever known. That’s not to say that they sought only Tom Ford and Louis Vuitton – though their knockoffs were certainly popular – but, rather, that the Kazakhstanis, by and large, took their attire and approach far more seriously than I ever expected.
Before continuing, I should note that I hold most aspects of fashion – thoughts, trends, titular purpose – in disdain, indicative as anything of the wonton materialism that’s slowly tearing the fabric of community … or whatever the phrase is. I don’t really give two shits about fashion, and if I could wear my Ducks hat, Mariners sweatshirt, and brown corduroys for the rest of my life, I would.*
*Ironically, one of my favorite aspects of Kazakhstan actually came from a fashion choice. The men of the country jump at any opportunity to wear suits, but instead of opting for some dapper look, their choice often consists of a shiny, glimmering silver. It’s as if someone’s taken a can of silver spray paint and tagged their entire attire. It’s fantastic.
Alas, in Kazakhstan, public displays of sweatshirts and dirtied caps were treated as outfit non grata. As it is, if you have so much as a tenge-sized spot on your shirt, you’re chastised. If you have more than three stray facial hairs, you’re a Neanderthal. If you dirty your hands picking up one of the innumerable pieces of litter, you’re stuck without a handshake for days.*
*I can remember a half-dozen times when I sneezed into my hands and a student promptly came up and tried to shake in traditional greeting. I refused, and found a pinch of shame come from those who saw. It would seem that flu germs are allowed, but the thought of picking up a piece of garbage sends shudders the country over.
This would all be fine if you worked at a stock exchange, or if you lazed to work on Rodeo Drive. Such is the nature of the livelihood. But when you’re walking to school, striding through dumped manure and paths equal parts garbage and mud, and the only thing on your mind is the sheen of your shoes; or when you haven’t bathed in a week, but the press of your shirt preempts all else; or if your only worries stem from the hem of your dress while your 9th-grade students, those who’ve taken English for four years, struggle with answering “How are you?”; if you find yourself in any of these anecdotal instances, it may be time to look in the mirror, for an entirely different reason.
Naturally, this obsession isn’t localized in Kazakhstan, and I can only base these conclusions on the lives I led in both south and north. Everyone is an individual, and attempts at counter-culture and sartorial subversion exist. But, by and large, the focus on appearance within Kazakhstan was an abrupt shift from both my expectation and experience. I now think twice before leaving a house without cleaning my shoes, and I’ll never again wear a V-neck where a tie will suffice. Such are the lessons I learned in Kazakhstan.
But such fascination with image isn’t limited solely to clothing or clique. In fact, it would seem that this focus is concomitant with the efforts of those at the highest levels. The effects of such appearance-based efforts may not be top-down, but they’re certainly evident at every strata of Kazakhstani society.
Look, for instance, at the billboards of Nazarbayev peppering the highways and sidewalks in Kazakhstan. (One of my lone regrets is not taking more shots of these posters.) The dexterous leader can be found stone-faced, standing in a construction hat; pensive, striding through a wheat field; glowing, hugging a group of school-kids; curious, examining a patient while in full medical frock; calm, leading from his lectern; invigorated, spiking a volleyball or skiing down the double-diamonds of Medeo; and air-brushed, coaxing you to vote ”For the leader!” It’s as if his PR men brainstormed a dozen professions for this Renaissance man, and didn’t toss out a single one. The only thing that seems to be missing is a shot of the president sipping a gin-and-tonic in one of Almaty’s nightclubs … though I suppose that’s best left to his defense minister.
Nazarbayev, setting the tone, unveils himself and his government as the steward of industry, education, and livelihood within Kazakhstan. There is no job he cannot master. There is no image he cannot maintain.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the events that recently unfurled in Zhanaozen. This remarkable and disturbing footage shows exactly what Nazarbayev has managed to paint over during the last 20 years – the machinations of a police state, the dregs of his managed democracy, and the visceral impact that embezzlement (to the tune of hundreds of millions, according to Olcott) creates. On the deadliest day since independence, the world both in and out of Kazakhstan glimpsed what chains the administration has wrapped around its citizens.
For the first time in any meaningful capacity, the image the Nazarbayev government has been obsessed with was marred. More than the Giffen affair, more than Peace Corps’ graceless exit, more than the creeping cult of personality, these riots have turned any thoughts of Kazakhstan as an oasis, as a reprieve, on their heads. That image that Nazarbayev had fixated on, spent millions selling, was tossed aside, smashed alongside the administrative buildings and fake yurts now scorched in Zhanaozen.
Of course, for some, Kazakhstan’s image barely registers. A Borat backwater, another -stan with another dictator and another round of Islamo-backed bombings. As such, these riots likely change nothing, enforcing the views they already held. But for others, those who care about oil wealth and geo-politics, these riots rupture the image Kazakhstan knew pre-2011. As Pete Leonard said, “The state-nurtured illusion of universal contentedness had been shattered.” The riots change the image of complacency. They change the entire idea of haven in Central Asia, both piggy-backing and enhancing the idea of an Arab Spring forming across the steppe. They drag up ethnic wounds – Zhanaozen, as many are now reminded, was once the site of pre-independence ethnic riots – and dent the lifeblood of the Kazakhstan economy. These riots, with their 16 deaths and dozens injured, do more than merely prick the carefully cultivated image of the Nazarbayev administration. Indeed, they break any illusion of the placability of his government.
It’s not like the ensuing actions – the shut-down of Twitter, the refusal of the media’s entrance, the claim that it was “hooligans,” not oil workers, running amok – were an entire surprise. After all, with a preeminent concern with image, you have to save face somehow. This is but PR schtick, on a macro-scale. Kazakhstan is the regional leader and a hub for international investment, and, as such, must maintain a certain sense of decorum in its house. In order to thrive, it’s gotta be stable. “Facts” and “transparency” are merely buzzwords used to placate international investigators and investors.
As such, it’s clear that the country’s first loyalty is to image, rather than stability. For if Nazarbayev had desired the latter over the former, he would have dealt with the protesters long before. Instead, he opted for ignorance, with state-run media all but disregarding the plight and focusing instead on the trinkets that keep popping up around Astana. To note the strikes would have been a blight on Kazakhstan’s image. After all, we’d recently gotten a small glimpse into the air-brushed world of Nazarbayev’s PR machine, with the Independent exposing BGR Gabara’s plans to smear Sting. (It’d appear that the authorities eventually declined the idea, but that certainly didn’t stop the misinformation from moving forward.) It’s no leap to see why ignoring these protests bore the best method for image-maintenance.
Now, these actions have found their repercussion. This ignorance has come home to roost. It is all the more appropriate that the riots were sparked by the government’s attempts to by setting up celebratory decorations – the faked image was the spark for the riots.
We’ll likely never know the extent of the day’s actions, just as we’re still waiting for final count on the Zheltoksan riots. (Despite being set off by “hooligans,” Nazarbayev’s son-in-law was sacked as head of the Sovereign Wealth Fund, adding further confusion to the affair.) We have a handful of clips of the day, small frames of the events, and the Bez Kommentariev footage, as well as official reporting, highlights the pursuant anarchy that keeps the protesters from earning our entire sympathy. If nothing else, it’s clear that both sides share blame for the destruction incurred.
But in terms of image – if the cops are exonerated; if the workers’ jobs are returned; if the area remains calm through 2012 – such results are immaterial. The damage is done. Kazakhstan’s image, so well-cultivated through the two decades of independence, is changed, irrevocably. There’s no air-brushing Zhanaozen, and there’s no going back.