[This is a guest post from another excellent new Central Asian author from the Kyrgyz Republic, Aijan Sharshenova. We're happy to host more talented young authors from the region and welcome more new submissions!]
By Aijan Sharshenova
Central Asian republics care about their international image. The level of caring varies from country to country, but virtually any debate on important issues goes hand in hand with a discussion of the country’s image or reputation. Some countries strive to prove their independence from external factors: e.g. “poor, but proud” Kyrgyzstan speaks against a gold mining corporation. Other countries struggle to be accepted: Kazakhstan hired at least four PR firms to promote its positive image abroad. For Central Asian authoritarian regimes the latter should prove to be difficult given some loud criticism over their poor human rights records and lack of all kinds of freedom. These criticisms usually come from the West, or are associated with the West: Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, International Crisis Group, individual European and North American politicians and activists. However, it seems that the task facing Central Asian authoritarian governments is not that difficult given a range of Western celebrities for hire, who can quickly rectify the “damage” to their reputation done by more principled fellow-Westerners. The recent news about Jennifer Lopez performing in Turkmenistan , and Tony Blair and David Cameron being praised for improving Kazakhstan’s image are notable in this regard.
What should an average Central Asian person perceive as the “Western” position, opinion, view, etc. if inconsistencies and contradictions exist not only in the rhetoric and action of European and US institutions, but also at the level of individual natives of the global West? One might argue that individuals are not necessarily representative of states, cultures, or broader geopolitical spaces. This is true in legal terms, but less so in terms of reality. One needs to understand that Central Asian politics often revolves around powerful individuals. Personality cults have not been abolished with the end of the USSR; in fact, it existed long before the Russians and Soviets came to the region.
Far too often we vote for a person behind a political party, and not a party behind that person. Unfortunately, for Europe and the US, Central Asian elites and the majority of the public extend this personalised view of reality to external actors. That is why when American pop-diva Jennifer Lopez serenades President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow, the head of the third most repressive regime in the world (according to Reporters without Borders), on the occasion of his birthday, the public in Turkmenistan and in Central Asia in general is likely to believe that “the West” turns a blind eye to the injustices of this regime, accepts and even supports it as it is. Miss Lopez hardly can claim to represent “the West” politically, but she does so in the eyes of the broader public. Not only that, but a regular exchange of pleasantries might be easily transformed into “cultural representatives of the US, Turkey… thanked the head of Turkmen state and the Turkmen people for the warmest reception” (Turkmenistan Today); or, “All performers wished happy birthday to the head of Turkmen state, and expressed warmest wishes of health, happiness, and success” (Ashgabat News). Lovely relations, aren’t they?
It gets even worse when heavy-weight politicians get involved in this game. A mere business visit of British Prime Minister David Cameron to Kazakhstan has already resulted in the country being “honoured and privileged by the support from Britain”. And, along the lines of the old good Soviet saying “We say party, we imply Lenin”, we say country, we imply Nazarbaeyev. And his 24-year old rule. And a long record of human rights abuse. And political prisoners. And many other things that neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Blair would like to mention.
Aijan is a PhD student at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds, UK. A native of the Kyrgyz Republic, Aijan is interested in Central Asian politics, security, and foreign policy. She holds Master degrees in International Studies, and European and Central Asian Studies. Aijan has previously worked for development projects in Kyrgyzstan and conducted a number of small-scale research projects.