Blogs > CHooper's Post-Soviet Futures Blog > We Are Not Ukraine: Kazakhstan Stages a Show of National Reassurance

May 2, 2014 5:18 pm

We Are Not Ukraine: Kazakhstan Stages a Show of National Reassurance

tags: Ukraine, Kazakhstan

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- In Kazakhstan, the government is anxious to demonstrate to its people that the fighting that has riven Ukraine for the past four months could never happen at home – inside a country which has, since Soviet times, been advertised for its ethnic diversity. (As one state employee told me, tongue-in-cheek, Kazakhstan is routinely praised for its 150 different national and ethnic groups, although researchers have never actually discovered more than 80.) Today the regime of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, an autocrat who has led Kazakhstan since independence in 1991 via ritual “elections” held every five years, is, I am told, focusing its full public-relations powers on advertising not only the country’s vast diversity but also, and more importantly, its alleged harmony – exactly that which is missing, these days, in Ukraine.

In order to emphasize the country’s rock-solid level of peaceful coexistence, the government is, of course, relying on media censorship in which the conflict in Ukraine is barely mentioned on television, and when, then “gently and carefully” referenced, with an absence of dramatic pictures that show any fighting. (Their coverage varies tremendously with that found in Russia, where the government also controls most television media, but where state-sponsored reporting of the Ukraine crisis strives to be maximally sensational, and to upset and excite its viewers through exaggerated stories of anti-Russian conspiracy and persecution. One such example is the arson attack on Odessa's House of Trade Unions, in which at least 40 pro-Russian activists died: Russian television is not only blaming the tragedy on "Nazi-fascists" but also repeating, over and over again, elaborate tales of the attackers shooting and killing anyone who tried to jump out the windows of the burning building and later rifling through the charred corpses for valuables -- all echoes of genuine, well-known Nazi atrocities perpetrated during World War Two.) 

In addition to ignoring such events, the Nazarbayev regime is also focusing on what, in Soviet times, was referred to as “positive censorship,” staging ostentatious mass demonstrations of the love that all its citizens ostensibly share. Thus in the capital of Astana on May 1, Kazakhzan touted the “peace and harmony” of its citizenry through a succession of parades and performances in which official representatives of the country’s various ethnic groups dressed in their different national costumes, performed their different national dances, and shared their different national foods. All this took place on International Workers’ Day, a holiday observed in more than 80 countries and one which, in the Soviet Union, politicians had always associated with the turbulent struggle of the world’s poor for justice against the powerful and propertied.  In 1996, however, five years after the collapse of the USSR, a set of extremely powerful and well-propertied Kazakh leaders decided to re-make the holiday into a celebration of national (rather than international) strength, re-naming it the Day of Unity of the Peoples of Kazakhstan.  By focusing on an alleged constant state of “unity” rather than a one-time moment of “unification,” the holiday also emphasizes a condition of political stability rather than an instant of political change. This affirmation of the Kazakh status quo on the first of May is all the more ironic, of course, given that in the USSR, International Workers’ Day was always exalted as a tribute to revolution, and that worldwide, the holiday originated as an organized challenge to the established order. Then, on May 1, 1890, socialist leaders from number of different countries called on “all the workers of the world” to commemorate the so-called Haymarket Massacre, a violent clash in Chicago four years earlier between striking American laborers and police, by marching in global support of the eight-hour workday. (Then, too, United States leaders revealed a concern for political symbolism similar to that displayed by Kazakh rulers more than a century later, with President Grover Cleveland seeking to avoid sympathetic commemoration of the Haymarket struggle by announcing an alternate national “Labor Day” holiday designed to focus on the accomplishments of specifically American workers and their ostensibly “harmonious” relationship with U.S. business that would be celebrated not in May, but at the beginning of each September.)

Nevertheless, historical precedent aside, on Thursday a “great holiday weekend” began in Kazakhstan, during which time every citizen was encouraged to rejoice, as per the state news agency, “in the friendship and accord between different ethnic groups living under one sky.” President Nazarbayev proclaimed unity to be the core of the Kazakh state, pronouncing: “We are a country home to different nations and peoples. And our unity, our brotherhood is the essence of peace. When people live in friendship, peace, and harmony they achieve true happiness. I want people to develop this country together. Then life will be improved and our children will look toward the future with great confidence.” The multicultural celebrations that followed were scripted, and participation in them by low-level officials was required. Nazarbayev, who enjoys an elaborate “cult of personality” in Kazakhstan, spoke in an idiom dating back to the post-WWII Soviet period, when Josef Stalin was similarly heralded as the “father of all peoples” and the “gardener of human happiness.” Nazarbayev is not only skilled at holding on to power, but he is also an extremely wealthy man, siphoning off a share of the country’s oil and gas revenues every year, with a long record of corruption – documented in snippets such as those when in 1999, for instance, as Seymour Hersh noted in The New Yorker, “Swiss banking officials discovered $85 million intended for the Kazakh treasury in what seemed to be President Nazarbayev’s personal account.” Yet media laws designed for the "protection of the Presidency" forbid the domestic publication of any such charges.

Meanwhile, the news from Ukraine continues to worsen, with reports of more troops massing outside Slovyansk, pro-Russian rebels (somehow armed with shoulder-launch anti-aircraft missiles!) shooting down two government helicopters, more riots in Odessa, and economic breakdown across eastern Ukraine, where most workers report they are no longer being paid. Observers struggle to parse apart what is actually taking place on the ground, with both sides distorting facts and trading accusations. Separatists say the Ukrainians are bombing civilians, while Kiev authorities claim rebels are using those civilians as human shields. As Keith Darden recently wrote in The New York Times, “An absence of legitimate authority in eastern Ukraine has left an absence of transparent, agreed-upon facts — a breeding ground for suspicion and manipulative diplomatic games on the margins of the truth that may yet carry the region to war.” Darden’s “war on truth,” however, can come in many forms, generating pretty pictures of smiling faces as well as conflicting accounts of violence. As one political science student in Almaty commented, in a recent discussion about freedom of the press: "Why should I want to hear all the ugly details of the fighting in Ukraine when they will just upset me? And why should people here read about them? That kind of information will only make people from different groups think about fighting each other here. It's just unsettling, and why is that necessary?" It bears mentioning, that a number of his classmates took issue with his comments. Yet they illustrate how sometimes an absence of disagreement can be almost as disconcerting as a lack of any agreement at all. 

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