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Kazakh free press is being censored into oblivion, but was it ever really free to begin with?
Written by , Saturday, 8 Dec, 2012 – 18:25 | One Comment

So, last week a court in Kazakhstan banned Stan.tv from operating on the charge of extremism — and in a few weeks, Astana shall ascend to the UN Human Rights Council. There’s a full-on censorhip tsunami sweeping the country, taking out news agencies, websites, broadcasters, political parties and even the US Peace Corps, and one way or another, it seems the epicentre of the earthquake is in the 2011 Zhanoazen riots.

Of course, I don’t want to diminish the huge concern the world should have about this situation, but at the same time, I don’t want us captured by illusion either. “Free press” in Kazakhstan has always been a flexible, philosophical concept. As Freedom House (and others) note, “Kazakhstan’s media outlets are privately owned but firmly under the control of major financial groups affiliated with the regime.” In other words, the media is under the control of national elites, and what we on the outside see as “opposition” is frequently just disagreements and feuds between them (not to mention the fact that opposition and independence are not the same concept). This situation includes several of the agencies that have been recently drowned.

We should never forget that few regimes are as skilled at the spectacle of neo-liberalism as Kazakhstan’s. The “opposition” voices that shall survive this tsunami will be those pre-selected/pre-filtered, thereby giving a veneer of modernization to the country. And in the aftermath, they shall all be sounding the same cry as on Kazakhstan’s official new holiday, 1 December, “First President’s Day”, proclaiming: “One Country! One Destiny! One Leader!”

Who controls the image of rural Kyrgyzstan?
Written by , Thursday, 6 Dec, 2012 – 17:33 | 9 Comments

Photograph by Fergana.ru's Ekaterina Ivashenko. Used without permission.

Editor’s Note: A recent photo-report published on Facebook and Ferghana.ru has caused a furor in Kyrgyzstan about the conditions of the country’s rural poor. But according to guest blogger Damira Umetbaeva, it also raises difficult and important ethical questions about the nature of the photo-report itself.

[Update, 7 December: There was a problem with the links in this post, but they're fixed now. Sorry about that! Also: this post has sparked a really big discussion on the Facebook page of Ferghana.ru editor Daniil Kislov. If you're on Facebook, add your voice and opinion!]

Back in November, a Ferghana.ru reporter posted on her Facebook profile some photographs of everyday life for rural folks in Kyrgyzstan. Here are two remarks she made in the comments section:

“I saw for the first time what kind of pauperism people can live in.”

“…I never understood how these people can live in such dirty conditions?!… [They] eat, sleep, have children… after all it is your house!…”

Now, here’s the kicker: her photos were then published on Ferghana.ru with the full names of the subjects! The comments sections were filled with terribly humiliating remarks, and even outright racism, as some viewers saw in the photos proof of “Kyrgyzness” and “Asianness”.

This is what bothers me: the reporter was coming from the perspective of a social class that I strongly suspect was her own — urban, educated, relative rich (at least, compared to the people in her photographs), and “progressive”. Moreover, the photo-report probably never made it back to a Kyrgyzstani audience, as Ferghana.ru has been blocked in the country since February 2012. The audience the photo-report ended up applauding the reporter, and even re-posted her shots and added more commentary on social networks, calling them “wonderful”, “marvelous”, and so on.

There’s a pro and a con here, which overlap. Maybe through the social networks, the photos were able made their way back to the Kyrgyzstani government — the reporter’s stated goal — and so maybe that will embarrass them enough to do something to help our the rural poor. But why? Because these photos have embarrassed the country; they have hurt its reputation (what little it has), and by extension, the reputation of its leaders.

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Sms-divorcing: the new shariah in Central Asia?
Written by , Friday, 30 Nov, 2012 – 19:59 | 3 Comments

Editor’s note: It’s becoming a truism that mobile phone technology could reshape Central Asia for the better, but there’s also a dark side, even a ridiculous side. NewEurasia’s Marat discusses the problem of shariah-backed sms-divorcing.

Modern technology is not only improving lives in Central Asia. Lately, short message services, emails, and other technical means are being utilized by male heads of family to dissolve that very family. Husbands are divorcing their wives thousands of kilometers away with one SMS message, reading “Talaq.” The word is an Arabic term for “divorced” and is the prerogative of the husband, according to Islamic teachings. While talaq is a permissible act in Islam, it is strongly discouraged for the sake of the family and society.

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“Uzbekistan Illustrated”: satire meets social networking
Written by , Thursday, 15 Nov, 2012 – 22:26 | 6 Comments

Editor’s Note: In the last few weeks, the Uzbek Facebook community has been roaring in laughter as a mysterious caricaturist unleashed his satirical vision of Uzbekistani society upon the social network. NewEurasia’s Eisenstein tells the amazing story and shares some of the hilarious art.

The Uzbek segment of Facebook is not the funniest place on earth. The state seeks to control all online social networks, so may users are afraid to use these platforms to speak their minds. But from time to time, there’s an explosion of satire.

The last two weeks, there’s been a craze among active Uzbek Facebook users about the “Uzbekistan Illustrated” page. It was launched on 17 October by an unknown artist, and in such a short time, it has gained enormous popularity. His page now has 2744 “likes”, and it seems that only the lazy aren’t participating in discussions on the page.

What is the basic idea of “Uzbekistan Illustrated”? Well, it’s actually really simple: make a new caricature everyday! Here are some of the choicest bits so far.

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Exclusive photos from Turkmenistan’s 21st Independence Day
Written by , Sunday, 28 Oct, 2012 – 17:01 | 3 Comments

Turkmenistan has celebrated its 21st Independence Day XXI in full martial pomp. Preparations had been underway for several months; I’ve managed to glean some screen captures from official state television for NewEurasia’s readers to see.

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Personality cultism — the performance enhancement drug of totalitarianism
Written by , Friday, 12 Oct, 2012 – 13:28 | 2 Comments

Totalitarian dictators always come first place. (Photographer unknown.)

Editor’s note: Turkmemistan’s president was recently awarded a black belt in Karate, sending NewEurasia’s Annasoltan into fits about the abysmal state of her country’s athletics. She reviews some of the more tragicomic sports-related elements of totalitarianism.

Our beloved “Arkadag” boasts a seventh dan black belt in Taekwondo. He also recently won the tenth dan black belt in Karate. This impressive feat was enshrined in a diploma awarded by the World Traditional Shotokan-Karate Fudokan Do Federation “[in] recognition of the importance of large scale activity in Turkmenistan regarding physical fitness and sports”, according to Turkmen state media.

Such an accolade seems absurd in light of our country’s abysmal performance at the Olympics this year. In almost all categories, Turkmen competitors were behind their rivals, scoring at the bottom in most sports, and generally doing the worst of all the Central Asian countries. Not even the kind of sport we should be good at, like wrestling or weightlifting, did we perform even a smidgen well.

The Olympic games were broadcast to the people of Turkmenistan via our nation’s official sports channel, but no amount of censorship – possibly our nation’s only true Olympic-level speciality – could cover up the humiliation.

The fiasco was topped by the outlandish performance of a Turkmen boxing judge presiding over a 56 kg boxing match between Azerbaijani and Japanese competitors. Although the Japenese boxer had clearly won, the judge declared the Azerbaijani the winner, sparking a scandal. His ruling was overturned in an appeal, and the judge was consequently disqualified and sent back home.

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I AM GOOGOOSHA! HEAR ME ROAR! (But not you. You shut up.)
Written by , Saturday, 29 Sep, 2012 – 16:38 | 2 Comments

Editor’s note: Earlier this week, Uzbekistan’s notorious First Daughter, Gulnara “Googoosha” Karimova, released the music video of her newest single, “Round Run”. NewEurasia’s newest blogger, Khayyam, shows us YouTube audience reactions, and asks a professional music video producer about the production quality, right down to the ominous Soviet-era ZIL. Get ready for some stinging criticism.

Gulnara Karimova is notorious for her desire to get “big” in show business as “Googoosha”. She released her eponymous album earlier this year over the Internet. The songs were written by one of the best Russian producers, Max Fadeev. And now, we have the “world premiere” of the album’s lead single, “Round Run”.

The video is set in ancient Bukhara. According to witnesses and news agency Uznews.net, the entire historical city center was closed during the shooting process. Avi Cohen, a music video director from USA who has worked with Godsmack, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and other bands, directed the video. It also starred the world-renowned parkour runner Daniel Ilabaca. So, in a sense, this is a pretty big deal for Uzbekistan. But what was the actual end result?

Viewer reactions

YouTube viewers are split between their adoration for Ilabaca and their loathing for Googoosha. Hmmm interesting. For posterity’s sake, I’ve screen-captured the YouTube page for the video before the negative comments gets censored.

So, for example, one viewer writes,

клип не рыба не мясо у нее нету дара .. наверное в узбекистане слушают из за того что это песня везде играет и включают по телеэфирам

[Literal translation:] clip is not fish meat in her no gift .. probably listen in Uzbekistan due to the fact that this song is everywhere on television time and include

Another waxes sarcastic:

прекрасный клип и энергичная музыка, не зря наша леди вошла в пятерку на Hot Dance Hits в Америке … Ну что же, так или иначе, она знаменита!

[Literal translation:] excellent video and energetic music, no wonder our lady entered the top five on the Hot Dance Hits in America … Well, anyway, she is famous!

Googoosha definitely has her defenders, particularly one Islom Yusupov, who sees this as a public relations coup for Bukhara and Uzbekistan. Others praise her physical beauty, or just the fact that Uzbekistan has the resources (i.e., money) to produce something of “Western” quality.

Meanwhile, on the Uzbek analog of Youtube, Mover.uz, negative opinions on the video were surpassing positive ones — until comments were abruptly disabled (along with the Like/Dislike function). Surprise, surprise.

I AM GOOGOOSHA! HEAR ME ROAR! (But not you. You shut up.)

Professional reaction

NewEurasia asked one well-known European video producer about his/her impressions of the video from a professional point of view (unfortunately, he/she has asked not to be named, lest he/she have problems on future visits to Uzbekistan). Here are his/her remarks:

I don’t know how much this probably expensive director costs, but he’s not worth his money, that much is for sure. The best example is the beginning: the director fails at setting up the story. From the editing in this first part, you get a feeling that the guy is running away from the car, not that the two people actually want to meet. See the scenes and their symbolism:

- He looks over the city;
- A black car drives through;
- He slides down a wall;
- He jumps off some building;
- Frontal view of the black car;
- He runs.

The symbolics are clear: He’s fleeing from the car. The edit as well as the way places/items are shown, including the car, make that quite clear. Now, sure, you could say that it’s a game, haha, you know, they want you to believe this [running away] in the beginning, and then surprise you with a twist to the story when it turns out that they actually want to meet. But that’s rubbish. Firstly, this is a music video, not a 45 minute TV serial. Secondly, this revealing of the real story comes only at the very end, and if that is intentional, then sorry, it’s also badly done. It comes out of nowhere. All of a sudden. That’s just badly built: If you want such a surprise effect, you’d have to go through with it and implement hints during the story, too. That’s not happening.

There are plenty of small details, like toward the end when you see the guy climbing up the Arc (clearly diagonal walls), and somehow he ends up on the roof of a completely different building (with vertical walls). I mean, come on. They’re not even trying to hide the bad jump from one place to another. Likewise, around 0:28, where we play the bad old game of ‘quick cuts’, almost stop motion: Okay, the stylistics are already old-fashioned since years, but if you decide to use them, then… eh… why does for example the running guy (frontal view) make a step back all of a sudden? Now that can’t be on purpose, can it. Because it does nothing to help the story, or the aesthetics. It’s just a dumb cut.

I think it’s sad for an amazingly beautiful city like Bukhara if it looks so crap in a video. It’s not because of the camera, that was certainly expensive enough. The post-production however introduces sometimes these fast-moving clouds (okay, nothing fundamentally wrong with them); it somehow manipulates the colors but not to their advantage, i.e. the picture seems quite flat and at times even sterile. Toward the end (evening mood), it becomes entirely artificial. Additional details like these permanent lens flares don’t make it look better, too. I really feel sorry for Bukhara. It has all the visual magic, and then these folks have nothing better to do than turn it into some sort of plastic-fantastic landscape?

The camera is somewhat too hectic, even for a video of such speed. Speed is fine, but it needs to find a balance that allows to find into the rhythm, that carries us through. Here, my impression is that some of the moves are really just random. They create imbalances by e.g. not connecting to previous shots, abruptly changing directions, and the like.

Okay, matter of taste to some extent, I admit I’m not into disco-clubby-popsy stuff that all sounds almost exactly the same. But matters of taste aside: The singer clearly can’t sing. This is kind of the Scooter (or how this band was called) of cheesy clubby-popsy music. Hardly any voice, that lady. Besides that, the song is predictable; bases on elements we’ve heard a million times before; it’s cheap and shallow. The content motif (lyrics) is also cheap and silly — I mean, a 13 year old who’s in love writes better poetry than this.

Then, by my best knowledge, you shouldn’t climb around historic monuments. It’s either forbidden anyway, or it’s simply a bad idea because you damage ancient building substance. Isn’t this an UNESCO world heritage site or something? Is the Arc really in a condition that we should encourage people to run all over it? Hmm.

Ouch.

As for me, I also can’t figure out the symbolism of this black car. It’s a Soviet “ZIL” (Завод имени Лихачёва — ЗиЛ) that was created only for Communist Party top-level bosses. It’s a very rare car. Perhaps this is an allusion to the song of Boris Grebenshikov “Blue Light”, in which he sings, “My death driving black car with a blue flame”? Unfortunately, it brings to mind corrupt aristocracy, just as it used to in Soviet days

World’s first-ever digital whistleblowing survey comes to Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan
Written by , Monday, 10 Sep, 2012 – 21:23 | One Comment

The survey is anonymous and open to everyone! https://whistleblowingsurvey.org

The sound and fury around whistleblowing has been deafening of late, between the trial proceedings of U.S. Private Bradley Manning and leaks allegedly coming from the White House about the Stuxnet computer worm and drone targeted killings.

Supporters of whistleblowing place it firmly as one of the most important pillars of resilient government integrity systems. They argue that if you want governments to be free of corruption or even just simple wrongdoing, you need strong protection for whistleblowers. Critics say it’s just another mechanism for bureaucrats and policy makers to complain about decisions they don’t like.

Our new international study is the first to gauge the general public’s view on whistleblowing in an online, multi-language format. The 15-minute survey is open to everyone in all countries regardless of whether they have blown the whistle nor not.

The first (English) edition of the World Online Whistleblowing Survey (WOWS) launched in Brisbane, Australia recently, and with NewEurasia’s help, is now available in Russian, Kyrgyz and (I’m quite proud to say) Turkmen!

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The Second (Tele)Coming of MTS in Turkmenistan
Written by , Wednesday, 5 Sep, 2012 – 1:00 | 2 Comments

Editor’s note: Last week, MTS returned to Turkmenistan two and a half years after its mysterious departure. But will this prove to be a Second (Tele)Coming? NewEurasia’s Annasoltan is skeptical.

In the first hours of August 30th, Turkmen who still possessed MTS SIM cards, two one and a half years after the company was mysteriously and unceremoniously booted out of Turkmenistan, reported receiving a signal. The long-awaited return of MTS to Turkmenistan has been greeted with widespread joy — and jokes.

Our state provider, Altyn Asyr, could not deal with the demand, although they did make strenuous efforts to prepare by offering a new variegated tariff regime with names like “100″ and “Go”. Yet, I’ve heard jokes about Altyn Asyr circulating in Turkmenistan. For example:

Re: “100″, “You try 99 times and only once you succeed in calling.”

Re: “Go”, “Rather than calling somebody, you better ‘go’ visit them, instead.”

Still, MTS is apparently rewarding loyal customers. Between August 30 and September 30, they are offering to old clients who have kept their SIM cards a 20% bonus on their accounts, plus 30 free minutes of calling within the MTS network every day.

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Turkmen on the turntables: the çyraçy vs. the aksakal
Written by , Monday, 3 Sep, 2012 – 1:00 | No Comment

In my last post, I talked about the political potential of Turkmen Hip Hop. What I meant by that wasn’t that the music is going to mobilize the young generation to rise up against their government — maybe it could, if the çyraçy ideal (fast cars, fast money, fast women) flounders against the hard realities of our country’s daily life – but that the authorities should listen to it, to understand the desires of the youth. Unfortunately, that’s probably not going to happen, but not just because our leaders seem too afraid to listen to anyone else. Hip Hop will probably continue to be rejected also because of the huge negative reaction from the general public to Hip Hop, and the fact that the çyraçy ideal challenges the very nature of our state at the moment. In fact, the two things — the negativity of the general public and the threat to our sense of nationalism — are connected.

The outside world makes fun of how our media is so censored, but they don’t completely understand. It’s no longer a top-down Stalinist system in which officials meet everyday to plan the propaganda machine; increasingly, people outside of the government can submit their own content to the media for broadcast. However, their content must meet very strict regulations set by the officials: you cannot criticize the government or be political in any way in your lyrics, and if you film a video clip to go with your song, you must wear decent, formal clothing, and girls especially cannot wear anything explicit. Restrictions like these are why you will not find Hip Hop on the official media outlets; the çyraçy ideal is not compatible with the “traditions” and “good morals” the authorities want to promote. The thing is, the older generations — the parents and grandparents of the rappers’ audiences — agree with the authorities.

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