Kyrgyzstan’s Eternal Flame Ignites Media’s Mockery

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by Matthew Kupfer on 4/27/2012 · 15 comments

Economic problems and energy shortages in Kyrgyzstan usually don’t pique the interest of the American press. As the saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads”—and poor Kyrgyzstanis shivering in austere Soviet-era apartments after the heat is shut off don’t hold the audience’s interest for long.

But yesterday something “extraordinary” happened in Bishkek: Kyrgyzstan’s eternal flame, a gas-powered monument in honor of the Soviet soldiers who gave their lives fighting Nazi Germany, was snuffed out. The Kyrgyzgas utilities company, which powers the monument, pulled the plug, announcing that it was tired of waiting for the impoverished nation’s disorganized government to pay the $9,400 in debt it had accumulated over the past three years. But, a few hours later, the utilities company had a change of heart and relit the monument (probably because of the bad PR it was getting).

End of story, right?

Apparently not. The story was picked up by Time, Fox News, Business Week, Business Insider, and even Britain’s Daily Telegraph—news outlets that otherwise probably wouldn’t bat an eye at the “vowel-challenged republic” unless more interethnic conflict broke out or the population decided to have another Tulip Revolution. And the coverage was far from serious. Time’s subheadline read “When you said “eternal,” you didn’t really mean, like, forever, did you?” Fox News began its article by asking, “When is an “Eternal Flame” not eternal? In Kyrgyzstan, it’s when you don’t pay the gas bill.”

I can’t help feeling that there’s something very inappropriate about this coverage. Thanks to the Western media’s apathy towards Central Asia, very few Americans even know that Kyrgyzstan is a real country, let alone anything about it. If they ever heard its name, it was during the 2010 revolution and the interethnic unrest in Osh and Jalalabad that took the lives of 470 people. And then Kyrgyzstan disappeared back into the void of ex-Soviet backwater. As Sarah Kendzior noted in a 2010 Registan post, Central Asia is “the black hole of international media. It is not the “other” but the other’s “other” — Russia’s orient, a region whose history and political complexities are poorly understood even by some who proclaim to be experts.”

My problem with the media’s coverage of this issue is that it reinforces this lack of knowledge and understanding. It plays into a common, uninformed stereotype of the post-Soviet “-stans”—poor, backwards, and incomprehensible, with all the tropes of the post-Soviet region: monolithic cement apartment blocks, oversized grey monuments, soldiers marching in comically large hats (a common image used in many of these stories about the eternal flame). Of course, some of these stereotypes are based in truth, but Kyrgyzstan is much more than that. It is a country with many progressive youth, an active civil society, and the most democratic government in the region. But the media is helping to otherize it, to present it as an “absurdistan.” And that’s where the humor comes from. We’re laughing because a country is so poor that it couldn’t pay its miniscule gas bill. We’re laughing because it has a funny name and we’ve never heard of it. We’re laughing because, if Americans don’t take vacations there and things don’t blow up, why should we ever be interested?

But it’s funny! you may be thinking. And, as someone who has spent time in Kyrgyzstan, I’ll admit I had a chuckle when I first read the about the not-so-eternal flame on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (which consistently covers Kyrgyzstani political and economic developments). But there’s a difference between one guy in Boston laughing to himself and a news website broadcasting this occurrence to millions of people and intentionally framing it as humorous.

So to borrow an idea from the ever-controversial Bill Maher, I’d like to propose a “new rule” for the media: If it takes hundreds of deaths or a revolution to make you report on a country, don’t cover its “humorous” political and economic failures.

Underdeveloped countries—where the population suffers from poverty, corruption, political instability, and even violence—deserve our respect, even if their governments seem to be a part of the problem. Their people endure conditions most Americans and Westerners find unimaginable. They have learned to live with less. As any visitor to Kyrgyzstan will quickly discover, many of them are also willing to share what they have with others.

We all recognize that the media doesn’t simply report the news; it also shapes the way we see the world. So, if you aren’t seriously interested in the persistent problems that allowed Kyrgyzstan’s eternal flame to burn out, don’t mock the country when it does. At least let Kyrgyzstan have a respectable anonymity.

Photo by travlr

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This post was written by...

– author of 13 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Matthew Kupfer is a writer focused on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and a graduate student at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. A witness to the 2010 interethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan, he is particularly interested in conflicts and interethnic relations in the former Soviet Union. Matthew's research and writing has covered topics as diverse as the interethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan, women's rights in Central Asia, the history of genocide accusations in the former Soviet Union, and the Ukraine Crisis. His work has been published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Moscow Times, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,, and Follow him on Twitter at @Matthew_Kupfer.

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Amira April 27, 2012 at 9:36 pm

The coverage bothered me too. I thought it was ironic that the flame had been relit before the story hit the Western media. I was on Victory Square and saw the relit flame before I saw the earliest English-language news stories about it.

Albert R. April 28, 2012 at 8:19 am

I’d like to agree with you, but this article drips with a little hypocrisy. If you yourself chuckled when you heard it, it doesn’t make it any better that you’ve lived there. That’s like saying you get to tell racist jokes because you have a minority friend.

I agree Kyrgyzstan suffers from low self esteem and a litany of issues, but how is “respected anonymity” something good for Kyrgyzstan? Shame is a huge motivator in the country and I honestly believe that more international scrutiny would be better for the republic.

Admittedly though, this is a really unimportant and easily mocked example.

In short caring/not caring about Kyrgyzstan is independent of what is funny about Kyrgyzstan(which there is a lot)

Matthew Kupfer April 28, 2012 at 9:45 am

Hi Albert. Thanks for your comment. I’m not going to debate your whole argument, because it’s a legitimate point of view, if not exactly my own. But I would like to clarify that I’m not saying it’s okay for me to laugh about Kyrgyzstan’s eternal flame because I’ve spent time there. I’m saying it’s okay for me to laugh because I’m a person, not an international news outlet. If/when I laugh about something like this, that laughter is my personal response. It does not involve anyone else, unless I tell others around me about the thing making me laugh. But even if I did recount the eternal flame incident to a bunch to my friends in the most mean-spirited way possible, my ability to spread this information is pretty limited. Fox News and Time, on the other hand, are news outlets that reach millions of people. By nature of their brand name and recognition, what they publish carries a level of authority that one person’s opinion generally does not. Because of this, I am arguing that they should adhere to a higher standard than some guy reading a news story at home.

Albert R. April 29, 2012 at 11:32 am

Fair point, thanks for clarifying.

HumanRightsAdvocate April 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm

What happened?! The newly elected Kyrgyz President Atambayev wants the US military Manas Airbase out of Kyrgyzstan again?!
Yes, “-stans” are poor, backwards, and incomprehensible – especially for those who don’t have the energy resources as Kazakh-stan or Turkmeni-stan has, but at least, they didn’t do the slave trade in open market just 150 years ago, LOL!

Albert R. April 29, 2012 at 2:42 pm

You should check your facts, slavery existed in Central Asia until about 1870 when the Russian show up…5 years after it was ended in America.

HumanRightsAdvocate April 30, 2012 at 8:07 pm

Interesting! Probably you should tell us where you got your “facts”.

Ancient Egyptian pyramids, Hanging Garden of Babylon, Persian Persepolis Palace and Chinese Great Wall were not built by slaves. The ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia or China simply didn’t have the uncivilized idea of making other human being as “slave”. If you want to find the traces of slaves in human history, you have to go to the “Cradle of Western Civilization” — ancient Greece or Roman. 25% of the population in ancient Rome was slaves and that tells you how extensive the slavery was.

European slave trade was expanded to Byzantine Empire and Muslim world in Middle Ages, that was how Arabs and, later, Turks got onto the slave-trade wagon. Ancient Persians, Turkics and Mongols in Central Asia never have such uncivilized inhuman culture. Nomadic way of life simply doesn’t have any need for slaves.

The native American Indians didn’t have slave either when Europeans “discovered” their land in late 15th century. Anglo-Saxons wanted to enslave native Indians but failed repeatedly, that was why Anglo-Saxons took much greater effort to import slaves from Africa. Anglo-Saxons have continued to enslave black Africans long after the American “Civil War” till probably less than 50 years ago. Do the Google with the keyword “Slavery by Another Name” if you want to do some homework by yourself.

This is your brief history of human slavery that the VOA, RFE or RFA will never tell you, LOL!

Naryn girl May 9, 2012 at 7:53 am

It really bothers me that all you americans care about is your military base. I would be happy if it was out. Why do you need a military base there if Obama is going to bring all the soldiers back.

Thank you Matthew for the article! There’s nothing funny about Kyrgyzstan not being able to afford a gas for the eternal fire, but it’s very sad that things are not improving there like people hoped. You don’t make a fun of a poor.

Nathan May 9, 2012 at 8:49 am

I’m pretty sure the person making that comment isn’t an American.

Naryn girl May 9, 2012 at 9:09 am

Not only him, but whenever there’s something going on in Kyrgyzstan the first thing I hear on american news discussions is that how it’s going to impact the military base.

If US bombs Iran, Iran is going to bomb Kyrgyzstan for helping them and Kyrgyzstan doesn’t want it of course. That’s is the only reason the government wants Russian and US military bases out of the country.

Matthew Kupfer May 9, 2012 at 9:20 am

Hi Naryn girl. Thank you for your comments.

I just wanted to say that the American news media’s focus on how events in Kyrgyzstan affect the Manas base is not entirely unique to Kyrgyzstan. In general, the American media tends to favor world events that have an influence on America. However, this probably seems more extreme in Kyrgyzstan because the US media seldom covers anything in Kyrgyzstan short of revolution or interethnic conflict.

I definitely agree this is a problem, but it is a broader issue in the US media, not one centered on Kyrgyzstan.

Nathan May 9, 2012 at 9:23 am

That’s not Americans, that’s the American media. Have you noticed how awful their coverage of international media is in general? We’re worse than some parts of the world on our international coverage, but plenty of other places also tend to be afflicted with coverage of the rest of the world filtered through some national lens.

I have this hunch that the Iran fear is overblown. The odds that the US would use Manas as a launching pad for attacks on Iran in contravention of existing agreements and without overflight agreements with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (or Tajikistan and Afghanistan) allowing attacks on Iran are essentially zero. America may do some stupid, shortsighted things, but it is rare that our military is comfortable with egregiously flouting defense cooperation agreements.

Keep in mind too that the math on this argument is a bit iffy. Why would Iran attack countries for helping the US in the abstract? That’d put Russia, future host to a US transit center, in their crosshairs too. And why not Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, or Azerbaijan? Why is Kyrgyzstan so uniquely threatened?

Naryn girl May 9, 2012 at 10:24 am

I agree with you about the flaw of US media on international coverage.
I was just speaking from personal experience here. I actually hate talking about politics and my knowledge of international politics has diminished since I moved to US, thanks to local news channels here, but right after Kyrgyzstan chose a new leader, the first thing my American family has asked me was if the new leader was going to let America keep the base or was he asking for more money. Also they asked the same question during the riots and ethnic war in Osh, because that’s what they heard on TV about Kyrgyzstan.
Media didn’t seem to care much about how many people had died during the riots, nor how the country was going to get back to normal life after all that.
I would like to point out that US base is not the first thing Kyrgyz government or people think during such situations.
Nathan, I think the government just wants to keep the country out of all these US military missions. That’s why they renamed the military base into Transit center, so it won’t sound so “military”.

Please forgive me if I sounded offensive or incorrect in any way.

Aida May 3, 2012 at 4:37 am

Dear Matthew! Thanks for your article/ It was great, because sometimes foreign mass media is not objeactive about our country/ you were absolutely right when you said, that Kyrgyzstan has progressive youth, active civil society and democratic government/ us and western mass media, probably, are not aware of problems, Kyrgyztsan has. I am glad that we have supporters like you, thanks a lot on behalf of my fellow kyrgyzstanis!

Schwartz May 5, 2012 at 11:59 am

Hey Matthew, thanks for posting this. You’re 100% dead-on about why Kyrgyzstan deserves our respect and not our snide ridicule.

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