Old Clothes for New Khans

(Continued from ¹22(440))

ALMATY, March 23

(«Akela-group» Specially for THE GLOBE)

II. New mythology of the

authorities' legitimacy

From time immemorial, the territory of modern Central Asia has been integrated into a wider historical area, considered «Great» Central Asia, and as such has been a historical arena for complex ethnic and cultural issues. Thus, all ethnic groups of the region, especially those that were fortunate enough to have shared their names with their Soviet republic, may and do pretend to have ancient forefathers. Their desires for ethnicity may be satisfied with this concept that they somehow are heirs of ancient traditions. However, they are simultaneously preferring to create new mythology.

Reference to some sort of historic background is becoming more significant as each authoritarian regime is established in the region and a speedy regeneration of totalitarianism is achieved. Each country has its own model, though they have a range of similar features. As a rule, the function of presidential councils are hypertrophied; puppet parliaments are manipulated; the court system is dependent on the President; elected bodies are being controlled by regimes; heads of local managerial bodies are being appointed to higher echelons. The policy of selecting personnel according to their degree of clan loyalty is practised and tentative "precautionary" rearrangements of power structures are being undertaken.

In Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, from the beginning of their independence, the countries' leaders have been trying to rest upon the symbiosis of a traditional and a more stylised propagandised system of charismatic legitimacy. To further this aim, various types of heroes have been created, but here, as during medieval times, "imperial" or "heroic" figures are most admired. For example, the Uzbek President is considered a descendant of Tamerlan, the creator of the great empire, obviously with appropriate ficticious family genealogies to prove this fact. The Kazakh President, Nazarbaev, is believed to be an offspring of batyr Karasai, who originated from the Dulat clan. According to legend, batyr struggled against the Djungars who tormented the Kazakhs, therefore making him an official freedom fighter for Kazakhstan's independence. Recently a book was published in Turkmenistan, which presented Turkmenbashi as a scion of Alexander the Great, who left ancient Merva in the 4th century BC yet his progeny remained…

At present such instances of the authorities self-legitimising are becoming increasingly absolute and even have symbolic attributes – they mirror the evolution of a state where all its functions are usurped by a regime that proclaims to represent the state.

Often the regimes use clerical sanctions for show. They try to demonstrate presidential power and state security agencies co-operating simultaneously with Muslim and Orthodox churches. At the same time, the states desiring to simplify the situation choose a rigid position in respect to "untraditional" faiths that do not suit the supposedly commonly accepted system. The practice of the latter has become a cause to strengthen group solidarity among CA governments.

References to power precedents of Khans, Emirs and so on and their corresponding symbolic attributes have become popular. So much so that "treasure troves" are also being assembled: recently it was proposed to bring together in one place archaeological gold and silver articles found over a period of 150 years in different regions of Kazakhstan. They proposed the following locations: the Almaty residence of the Kazakhstani President; his residence in Astana; a special museum in Astana…

In the Middle Ages or under similar feudal systems, where the population has no rights and possibilities to control the authorities' actions and cannot move in the class structure, if circumstances are favourable, the symbol can replace even the ruler. By means of a number of signs, a similar thing is happening now to the "mythologised" genealogies of the present elite in Central Asian countries and Kazakhstan. In this respect, the region seems to be living in 15-16th century. Europe passed this phase of despots, impostors, and trade for titles and "iron masks" long ago.

Strange as it may seem, this scenario has modern implications with both political and ethnological interest.

As in the Middle Ages, the current ties of the Kazakh President with a batyr, a fighter against the mythological Djungars, and with Mirza Muhammed Haidar and with Duglati Karkani are proving more tenous than previously thought. The latter was "a son-in-law" of the Chagatais, «keepers» of purity of the Yasa – the Chingisids' Constitution. Kazakhstani ideology makers are also claiming that Nazarbayev's clan belongs to the Duglat branch, Shaprashty, and speculative equalling of the Kazakh Duglats to the Mogul, i.e. Mongolian (!) tribes is not a problem!. Naturally, monuments to batyrs were at once erected everywhere, where they had and hadn't been , including near the President's headquarters in Astana. A monument to Mirza Haidar was rapidly built in Taraz, until the Uzbeks claimed him. They should have built the monument in Kashgar, where his forefathers had winter camp, or near Tashkent or Ura-tobe, where he was born; or in Kashmir, where he was killed and where a grave-stone with his name stands. But "who has no time to do this, is too late» and the Kazakhs were the first to do this.

Usually elders, whose names are not mentioned and mystified, point to graves of batyrs, saints, etc. The history of the origin of current presidents is also enigmatic, according to medieval laws.

Nevertheless, memorials to batyrs are being rapidly built, and even impoverished districts do not begrudge the money for them.

However being the offspring of a batyr may is not so prestigious. They want more.

During the last dramatised (ritual) Presidential "election" in Kazakhstan, the ruling President in his TV-interview for the program «Hero without a tie» said that people in the countryside had considered him "padsha" – Padishah and tried to touch him (first of all to obtain "barakat" – grace from Sufi saints, aulie and pirs – AA.). It seems that this tradition pleased the President.

According to stories released to the press by the Kyrgyz President's daughter, he is a gifted mathematician, Professor – mugalim ("teacher"), but also a relative of a Kyrgys khan. The genealogy of the Uzbek President is, however, the most successful fabrication. He is linked to the Tajiks and the Uzbeks and at the same time belongs to the Tamerlan's clan, i.e. he is a Timurid! Timur Museum statements from the Emir of Timur are complimented by extracts from Karimov's speeches (or vice versa?).

The cult of Turkmenbashi S. Niyazov has gained a high-flown and unbelievable character.

The legitimacy of many Central Asian leaders, except A. Akaev, is constitutionally doubtful yet all of them are going to govern for a long time to come.

(To be continued in the next issue )

Kazakhstani Press Struggles with Newfound Freedoms

By Scott Hogenson

CNS Executive Editor

24 March

Correction: Clarifies Representation of Independents in the Majilis

(Editor's Note: The author is representing CNSNews.com as part of a Visiting Writers Delegation to Kazakhstan at the invitation of the administration of the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan.)

Almaty, Kazakhstan


Kazakhstan's transition from communism to democracy has resulted in both benefits and challenges on numerous fronts, not the least of which is freedom of the press.

The extent to which the news media are free to report on events in this central Asian country is difficult to precisely gauge, based on numerous interviews with government officials, opposition party members and working press professionals.

But the picture that emerges is one of a growing corps of independent news agencies and a discernable level of commitment by the administration to a free and open press in a nation that is still grappling with the ability to report critically on government.

One particular incident, which took place earlier this month, illustrates the sometimes-countervailing forces at play in making the move to a free and open press here.

During the first week of March, Lyazzat Kiinov, the regional governor of Mangistau, Kazakhstan, closed certain government meetings there to members of the independent press.

When news of the suspension of press freedoms reached the capital city of Astana, aides to President Nursultan Nazarbayev described the president's reaction as «angry.» He then instructed his appointed ministers and governors to ensure access to government meetings for all reporters.

The governor of the Mangistau Region was also contacted and reminded that in barring certain reporters from attending meetings there, he was in violation of federal laws allowing free access to most government functions in Kazakhstan, and the press ban was quickly lifted.

During the nearly nine years since Kazakhstan declared its independence from the former Soviet Union, there have been «some difficulties in this period, in this new society,» said Minister of Culture, Information and Public Accord Altynbeck Sarsenbayev, who described the Mangistau incident as «a holdover» from the communist era.

The question of a free press in a new democracy drew a mixed response during numerous discussions with nearly two dozen journalists in Astana and Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city.

»The ability to talk candidly is a true fact of this new independence,» said Vladimir Ivanovich Boiko, a reporter for the newspaper Express K, which had been named Lenin's Change before Kazakhstan's break with the old USSR in 1991.

Boiko was among 20 reporters and news photographers present Thursday at a meeting in the administration Press Center in Astana. The meeting was designed to offer an exchange of ideas and perspectives on press freedoms between Kazakhstani reporters and the members of the American Writers Delegation, which traveled to Kazakhstan at the invitation of the administration.

In comparing freedom of the press today with press freedoms under communist rule in Kazakhstan, one unidentified reporter said through a translator that it was «like a dream from which I do not want to awaken.»

But when asked if the media in Kazakhstan have unfettered freedom to criticize the government and its policies, several journalists chuckled.

Vladimir Kochenovi, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Astana in the Evening, said «we have a limit of freedom,» in reporting the news here, adding that «there may be consequences» for independent media who are too harsh in their criticism of the Nazarbayev Administration. Other reporters indicated that it was unwise to directly criticize Nazarbayev or Kazakhstan's constitution.

Some of those concerns are shared by political figures who oppose the policies of the current leadership in Kazakhstan. Serikbolsyn A. Abdilden, a Member of Parliament and leader of Kazakhstan's Communist Party, said «I tell the truth to journalists, but they do not have the freedom to report on the Communist Party.»

Abdilden claimed that the government exercises power over the press by freezing the assets of news organizations that are critical of the administration, and he accused the government of falsifying the results of the 1999 parliamentary elections, substantially depriving his party of the representation he said it deserves in the Majilis, or lower house of Parliament.

Communists hold four seats in the 77-member Majilis, with 32 held by the Otan Party, which supports Nazarbayev. Members of the Civil and Agrarian Parties hold the remaining seats, along with a number of independent candidates.

The Communist Party leader challenged Nazarbayev for the presidency in the last election also said that the media refused to report on exit polling data that showed more support for the Communist Party than the Parliament's makeup indicates.

Although CNSNews.com was unable to ascertain the reliability or methodology of the exit poll Abdildin referred to, some of that data was reported in the publication Let's Begin With Monday, a newspaper circulated in Astana and routinely reviewed by aides in the president's press office.

Also targeted for criticism by Abdildin was the state-owned Khabar Television, whose corporate president is one of Nazarbayev's daughters, and the Communist Party chief insinuated that the news operation at Khabar reported «only information that is favorable to the regime of Nazarbayev.»

Khabar is headquartered in Almaty and operates bureaus in Moscow and nearby Uzbekistan. A tour of its facilities revealed a news operation on a par with major network television news operations in Washington, DC, and the organization receives about $5 million per year in funding from the federal government, according to Khabar Vice President Vladimir Rerich.

Although Khabar is state owned, it has not shied away from controversy involving the government, including the suspension of press freedoms in Mangistau.

Rerich said it was his decision that Khabar report on the independent press being barred from certain meetings in Mangistau, a move ordered by a political ally of Nazarbayev. Rerich also said through a translator that he had «no fear of reprisal» because of his decision to broadcast the story.

One of the biggest problems facing Khabar and other news organizations in Kazakhstan, according to Rerich, is the difficulty in finding news reporters who have a solid grasp of the precepts of western journalism.

»This is a very serious problem because all of our reporters were brought up in the Communist era,» said Rerich, who hopes Kazakhstan's transformation to democracy will result in «the birth of a new type of journalism to be the watchdog,» of the government.

Rerich said part of this effort to become the "watchdog of government" involved reporting on an array of political ideas. As a result, Khabar Television broadcast a prime-time debate between various candidates for Parliament and profiles of leading politicians before last year's elections.

Rerich said the debate's order of presentation of candidates for Parliament, which numbered in the hundreds, was based on a first-come, first-served basis.

CNSNews.com reviewed part of the debate telecast, which included Abdildin and his supporters, who cheered him on from the studio audience during the broadcast of the debate. Time limits for the debate were instituted and signaled by a moderator banging a gong approximately the size of a dinner plate.

Also reviewed was a Khabar profile of Abdildin, which included a tour of his home, numerous photographs of him as a youth and personal political statements by him.

Rerich dismissed criticism of Nazarbayev's daughter being president of Khabar, saying «she does not control the news systematically,» and that she is not involved in making editorial decisions for the news operation.

The observations of working news professionals make it clear that journalists in Kazakhstan do not possess the degree of journalistic freedom enjoyed by their American counterparts, and those limitations have resulted in some criticism of press freedoms here.

Also evident are attempts to maintain a free press and open government to journalists representing as many as 1,000 newspapers, 70 percent of which are independent of the government.

»I think that the process of democracy is not an easy process,» said one unidentified reporter in Astana, who noted that after less than a decade of freedom, the Kazakhstani media had not established an American-style tradition of freedom of the press.

But his critique was tempered with a note of optimism for the news media in Kazakhstan, when he said through a translator «the democratic tradition in western mass media we will establish in our own country.»

All Over the Globe is published by IPA House.
© 1998 IPA House. All Rights Reserved.