Accessibility links

Breaking News

Qishloq Ovozi

A blind Uzbek musician sings traditional songs while playing a tar at a bazaar in Tashkent.

When the five independent countries of Central Asia emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were faced with a challenge -- creating a national identity.

For the most part it was not such a difficult task. The region has been inhabited for thousands of years and even the most recent arrivals among the titular peoples can trace their history back hundreds of years.

Still, there was an urgency for the five governments to invent a national character, one that was distinct from the colonial master since the 19th century (or earlier), Russia, and also distinct from one another.

To reinforce this sense of national identity, the authorities step in to provide rulings or interpretations of proper behavior, clothing, and, on occasions, entertainment.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, has learned there is a ban on the use of a stringed instrument called a "tar," which literally translates as "string." Officials believe the tar is not part of the orchestration of traditional Uzbek music.

Verbal instructions have come "from above" that the tar is not to be seen in television programs or music videos. During the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Tashkent, a concert given for the attending heads of state featured the Eshchonov brothers from Khorezm who usually play traditional Uzbek songs on the tar. The Eshchonovs appeared singing a traditional Uzbekistan song (while cameras showed President Islam Karimov dancing) but without the tars they usually play.

It turns out the tar is a foreign musical instrument. Many believe it is an Azerbaijani instrument, though Iran makes a claim to the stringed instrument being a purely Persian creation. Wherever the tar does come from, in the view of Uzbekistan's authorities it does not come from Uzbek culture, so no tars on television.

Ozodlik contacted an official at Uzbekistan's Ministry of Culture and Sports. Speaking under condition of anonymity, the official denied there was a ban on the tar. "No one has forbidden [playing the tar], it is simply that the tar is not on the list of our instruments," he said. The official explained that anyone could play the tar if they wished, "but they should remember the tar is not an Uzbek, but rather an Azerbaijani instrument."

Ozodlik contacted someone in the military band. Also under condition of anonymity, the armed forces musician said, "Command said that the tar is an Azerbaijani instrument...therefore we do not need it."

As the official from the Culture Ministry noted, there is no ban on playing the tar at home or, seemingly, at small local concerts or performance that will not be filmed. Music schools can no longer teach students how to play the tar but people are not forbidden from picking it up on their own.

And Ozodlik found out it's not only the tar that is "off the air." The accordion has also fallen into the category of "foreign" or "non-Uzbek" musical instruments. Again, people can play the accordion at home or at parties with friends, but accordions cannot be included in performances of Uzbek songs on television.

How far the authorities intend to go to enforce the use of only Uzbek instruments for playing Uzbek songs, or even all of what qualifies as a traditional Uzbek song is unclear (Look out Flyin' Up).

Ozodlik discovered some other new regulations outside the music world -- and don't ask us why, we don't make these rules.

From now on, television newscasters are forbidden from using hair dye. Also, women newscasters are not supposed to appear on air wearing an "adras" (look it up, you'll recognize it if you've been in Uzbekistan).

Ozodlik contributed to this report. The original Ozodlik report on this topic can be found here
The fact that so many oil workers decided to hold a brief, two-hour strike on July 28, in defiance of rules against unsanctioned demonstrations and illegal strikes, is a disquieting development for the government.

The name means more than just an oil town in western Kazakhstan. To people in Kazakhstan, especially government officials, Zhanaozen is synonymous with civil unrest, protest, and bloodshed.

Which is why the news that hundreds of oil workers went on strike on July 28 must surely be generating concern in the halls of government in Astana. The complaints of these workers are likely to resonate widely in Kazakhstan during these hard economic times in the country.

Zhanaozen was a little-known backwater until 2011, when oil workers went on strike demanding wage increases. The workers said they were paid less than foreign employees, mainly Chinese workers, who were performing the same tasks.

The protest lasted more than six months until on December 16, Kazakhstan's Independence Day, unrest erupted at celebrations in Zhanaozen and police fired on the crowd. At least 16 people were killed in what was at the time the most violent episode in Kazakhstan's brief history as an independent country.

In the aftermath, Kazakh authorities first worked to defuse the situation, rehiring fired workers, promising better pay and benefits, and chastising and often dismissing local officials, both from the government and the oil companies, for failing to appreciate the seriousness of the situation in western Kazakhstan.

The government then moved to weaken labor unions that had played a large role in the protest, and also tightened laws on holding unsanctioned demonstrations, rallies, and protests.

So the fact that so many oil workers decided to hold a brief, two-hour strike on July 28, in defiance of rules against unsanctioned demonstrations and illegal strikes, is a disquieting development. The workers from the Burgylau company, which engages in drilling operations, are objecting to plans to reduce working hours, effectively making them part-time employees with the accompanying decrease in salaries.

The protesters also complained about 66 of their fellow workers being laid off earlier this year and demanded the dismissal of Burgylau general director Askhat Sariev, whom employees accuse of orchestrating dismissals and the reduction in work hours.

And, the protesters said they have no confidence in the union representing them and demanded their choice to lead the union, Saduakas Bekkaliev, be appointed as its head.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, reported that Bekkaliev was not at the protest in Zhanaozen on July 28. Some of the protesters said he was being questioned by the police, although he appeared later as the protest was winding down. Bekkaliev said a written statement of the workers' demands had been presented to the Burgylau leadership and the local government administration.

The deputy mayor of Zhanaozen, Isakhan Sagimbaev, and officials from labor unions in the Mangistau region, where Zhanaozen is located, met with the protesters. Azattyq reported they had a heated discussion with the workers, the latter accusing the officials of failing to pay sufficient attention to their plight.

The workers then boarded buses and went to work.

Kazakhstan's economy is based on oil exports. The strike in 2011 cost the government a lot of money but the price of oil back then was high enough that the authorities were able to keep the country running without much noticeable effect.

The situation now is very different and as a result, Kazakhstan has already slashed many state programs, including funding for housing and education. A strike now like the one in 2011 would have a significant effect on the country's already ailing economic situation.

The government also cannot afford to sit and watch as the situation escalates. Already this year there have been unsanctioned protests against planned land reforms. And separately, violence has broken out twice, leaving more than 30 people dead.

That said, Kazakhstan's government has tried to avoid mass layoffs, which is why workers in Burgylau are being moved to part-time shifts rather than solving the problem by cutting back on the workforce. Akylbek Nurlybaev, a representative of the Zhanaozen protesters, told Azattyq that 66 Burgylau employees were fired in the first half of 2016, but Azattyq reported there are some 2,200 employees at Burgylau.

Similar processes have been under way in many sectors in Kazakhstan, with the government opting to move people from full-time to part-time employment to prevent mass dismissals that would likely lead to further unrest.

There is little more that Kazakh authorities can do as long as world oil prices remain low but the specter of events in Zhanaozen in 2011 has now risen again and Kazakh authorities will need to neutralize it quickly in a way that does not stoke popular unrest.

Worse may be yet to come. In a separate report on July 28, Azattyq noted that Deputy Energy Minister Aset Magauov said at a meeting in Astana that 36 of the country's 60 companies involved in oil production ended 2015 in the red. Magauov said work would be cut back at about half the drilling operations at the country's oil fields this year, meaning more layoffs or reductions in work hours can be expected.

Based on reporting by Azattyq

Load more

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



Majlis Podcast: The Coronavirus In Central Asia
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:41:39 0:00
Podcast: Majlis
Latest episode
Majlis Podcast: The Coronavirus In Central Asia
Podcast: Majlis