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