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Qishloq Ovozi

A debut presentation of the new Russian news agency Sputnik in Moscow on November 10, 2014

The Kremlin surprised nearly everyone when it unleashed its media machine on the world after the pro-Moscow president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was chased from power in February 2014 and Ukraine fell into division and conflict.

Moscow's version of events was available on television, radio, and in print media in dozens of languages in dozens of countries and the selective storytelling of these outlets succeeded in raising doubts in some peoples' minds as to who was telling the truth about events in Ukraine: Western media or Russian media.

One area that was bound to be susceptible to this Kremlin spin was Central Asia with its five former Soviet republics.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to discuss Russia's use of soft power in Central Asia, its effectiveness, and its durability.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Participating were Kyrgyz parliament member Ravshan Djeenbekov; Casey Michel, one of the up-and-coming scholars of Central Asian affairs and an author of numerous articles on the region; and Bradley Jardine, our intern from Glasgow University. I said a few things, too.

Market Saturation

Russia, of course, has some clear advantages in getting its message through to people in Central Asia. The region was under Russian rule since roughly the last half of the 19th century, and despite being independent for nearly 25 years, many people in the countries of Central Asia still speak Russian and are familiar with Russian culture.

More recently, several million Central Asian citizens have gone to Russia to find work and been exposed to the Russian language.

Additionally there are still several million ethnic Russians living in Central Asia, and since 1991 they have helped ensure that Russian television and radio are broadcast to the region.

Russia's new government-run Sputnik news agency recently moved to advance this edge, as Michel noted.

"What we've seen happen with Sputnik, in especially Kyrgyzstan and especially Tajikistan, is the usage of local journalists, very talented journalists, very qualified journalists, who have gone over to Sputnik recently and Sputnik...toes a very pro-Kremlin line," Michel said.

Jardine said, "Most cable TV packages in Kazakhstan offer the Russian channels...activists in Kazakhstan refer to it as a 'zombie box' and it's promoting the Kremlin line."

And Jardine added that Russia is using more than television to sway public opinion in Kazakhstan toward its version of events. "In Kazakhstan, Russia uses a lot of its social networks to promote its agenda as well as [to] spread its cultural influence...for instance, Moi Mir is the most popular social-networking site; they also have Vkontakte, [and] another one called Odnoklassniki."

Victory Or Failure?

Michel pointed out one result of this. "I was looking at a poll just the other day...a Gallop poll examining anti-American, anti-Western attitudes worldwide, and the country that saw the largest drop-off in terms of views on the West, especially on America, in the entire world was Kazakhstan...and Tajikistan was also in the top five. And I think that helps highlight some of the efficacy of the recent soft power approach from Moscow."

Djeenbekov conceded that Russia has "a very big impact, a very big influence to Central Asia, especially on Kyrgyzstan." But he said Russian soft power had failed in Kyrgyzstan.

Djeenbekov said, "Russia wants to repeat Western or American experience on using soft power in Central Asia, and especially in Kyrgyzstan they wanted to make some projects regarding culture, regarding mass media, regarding education; but I know that they couldn't reach their goals and they failed."

The Kyrgyz deputy said that instead "the Russian government works in Kyrgyzstan [by] just bribing Kyrgyz politicians, Kyrgyz political parties, and the Kyrgyz government and instead of using soft power.... [T]hey just use propaganda, bribing, and energy as pressure to solve their problems in Kyrgyzstan."

It is difficult for any other outside or domestic source to penetrate this potent combination of historical, including linguistic, ties, a prepositioned media reach into Central Asia, and the tactics Djeenbekov alleged do exist. Yet still, others do try -- my organization being one of them -- though it is certainly an uphill battle. Jardine suggested the West, for example, had become "a bit passive and it sees its entertainment industry almost as a substitute for effective diplomacy."

Djeenbekov said Russia's soft-power strategy is "short-term" and that the Kremlin really does not have a long-term plan.

Western "Too Soft" Power

It was noted that the Kremlin-managed media have become adept at lumping facts, perceptions, and outright disinformation into one package -- and it has proven effective in Central Asia and elsewhere.

Michel said this has led to debates in Western countries about how to counter Moscow's soft-power influence.

"Some people have discussed whether they should outright ban RT [the state-run international English-language TV channel formerly known as Russia Today] or Russian outlets. There have been some people who have said, 'Why don't we start our own Western news organization that does just exactly the same amount of spin, the exact same amount of production value as the Russian media?'"

However, it was suggested that part of Russia's success in sending its message to Central Asia derives from the withdrawal of Western militaries from Afghanistan and the accompanying diminution of interest in Central Asia on the part of the West, and from Russian concerns about its newest competitor in Central Asia -- China, which has gradually been financially supplanting Russian influence in Central Asia.

This current situation is unlikely to last for long. The phrase "ebb and flow" came up during the discussion, and new twists and turns will lead to new fortunes and opportunities for outside players to exert influence using soft power.

For now, Michel's advice is arguably the best counter to Russian soft power. "What a responsible journalist does: You check your facts, you check your sources, you check where you're getting your information from, and then you present it in an unbiased manner for the reader, or for the listener, or for the viewer. That's one of the things that Russian media certainly does not do, and that is to Russian media's eventual detriment."

The panel discussed all these issues in greater detail and touched on other matters concerning soft power in Central Asia. You can listen to an audio recording of the session here.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is known for wanting the places he visits to be spick- and-span. (file photo)

Pity the residents of Turkmenabat. The word went out some two months ago that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov would be visiting.

Unfortunately, that message did not specify exactly when the head of state would arrive.

Upon learning of the planned visit, local authorities leaped into action to make Turkmenabat presentable. There were preparations to be made for the arrival at the local airport, streets to be cleaned, walls to be painted, decorations for the route the presidential cortege would take and all the buildings that Arkadag (Protector), as he is called, would visit, as well as rehearsals for the obligatory performances required when Berdymukhammedov showed up to greet his, according to state media, adoring people.

After the initial announcement of Arkadag's impending visit, there was no clarification of the date until June 25, when he actually arrived.

The absence of a specific date forced officials to develop a daily routine of ensuring all the preparations made weeks ago were preserved.

Berdymukhammedov is known for wanting to see sparkling, immaculate buildings as he travels and smiling faces when he reaches his destination, and those who fail to ensure this quickly find out that the Protector only bestows his beneficence upon those who please him.

So in Turkmenabat every day the streets were cleaned, the walls of buildings along his route were inspected to see if they needed more cleaning or painting (and we have some good pictures of this below), decorations were checked again, and dozens of other details were reviewed one more time.

Before we feel too sorry for the local officials, let's consider the life of Turkmenabat's residents for the last two months.

They could not hang anything on balconies in areas the president would pass through, since Arkadag does not like laundry or anything else marring or masking the architecture.

The streets Berdymukhammedov was due to travel on, the main streets of the city, were closed for several hours every day for cleaning.

No one could park their car along those streets, something also true every day along Berdymukhammedov's route to and from work in the capital, Ashgabat.

Anyone participating in the performances -- of dance and song -- had to rehearse each day, another reason for areas being closed off to the public. It also meant these performers had to leave work or school each day for these rehearsals, which could last hours and were recently being conducted in temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius.

One thing was nearly certain: Now that Arkadag has shown up, he can expect to receive an enthusiastic greeting -- if for no other reason than the people of Turkmenabat know their lives are finally about to return to normal, or as normal as life can be in Turkmenistan today.

And now some photos. RFE/RL's Turkmen Service obtained some pictures of the route and the venues, and those pictures also provide us with a "Potemkin Village," Turkmen-style.

Street cleaning vehicles in Turkmenabat ahead of the president's visit
Street cleaning vehicles in Turkmenabat ahead of the president's visit
A street along Berdymukhammedov's route into Turkmenabat shows signs of a recent spruce-up.
A street along Berdymukhammedov's route into Turkmenabat shows signs of a recent spruce-up.
The back side of a building along Berdymukhammedov's route
The back side of a building along Berdymukhammedov's route

-- Turkmen Service Director Muhammad Tahir contributed to this report

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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. Content will draw 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.

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