Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dear World: Central Asia Exists

I am accustomed to receiving confused looks and awkward “oh’s” and “that’s different” when I tell people I study Central Asia. First, they ask where is that or suggest any country from Iraq to China (I wish I was kidding). I then correct them and name the five Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They then ask, “where are they?” My response, “on the Eurasian landmass, in between China, Russia and the Caucuses.” The confused look remains plastered on their face at which point they usually comment, “that’s interesting.” Another common response is, “oh, that’s where Borat is from!”

The release of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan in 2006 put the country on the radar of the mass public. For many people, this was the first time they even heard of a place called Kazakhstan. While Sasha Baron Cohen depicts Kazakhstan as a backward nation with such outdated and ridiculous practices as the running of the Jew egg, the irony of Borat is that the film’s real objective of the movie is to showcase the cultural ignorance of the American population.  Cohen’s depiction of the U.S. is much more negative and humiliating than his (highly inaccurate) personification of Kazakhstan.

After the Borat hype, Kazakhstan left the international mainstream media for quite some time until a few days ago. While Maria Dmitrienko was standing atop the podium receiving a gold medal at the Arab Shooting Championships in Kuwait on Thursday, the false, satirical Borat version of Kazakhstan’s national anthem was played instead of the real national anthem.

Since Thursday, I have received several emails, Facebook messages and texts on the incident at the Asian games. I am using my blog to share my opinion on the matter.

When I heard about this incident, I initially brushed it off as a pathetic mistake by the event organizers and a phenomenal manifestation of their impotence. Playing the incorrect national anthem at an awards ceremony is not rocket science and is a simple task that any event organizer should be able to accomplish. While the Asian Shooting Federation and Sheikh Salman have apologized for the mix-up, the incident is humiliating for both the Federation and Kuwait.

Any country in the world would be offended if an incorrect version of their national anthem played during the awards ceremony of a major sporting event. Playing an incorrect version is an insult to the athletes and the country. Imagine if during the awards ceremony of the Olympic games, Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” instead of “The Star Spangled Banner.” How outlandish! That would certainly spark backlash from the American public.

The bottom line is that any sovereign state should not be mocked in such a public and pathetic manner. The international community should respect the national anthems, national symbols and customs for all states equally.

Unfortunately, Central Asian states have received a disproportionate brunt of snippy, inappropriate and frivolous comments. Last October, during an interview when asked to name the President of Uzbekistan, then Presidential hopeful Herman Cain responded:

“You know, when they ask me who is the President of Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know? And then I’m going to say, how is that going to create one job?”

Okay (deep breath). Where do I begin?

First and foremost, a candidate for the Presidency of the United States does NOT mock the name of another sovereign state. You need not like Uzbekistan but you do not make fun of the country’s name. That is diplomacy 101.

Second, you should care about Uzbekistan and you should know its President is Islam Karimov. The Northern Distribution Network that supplies material support to American and ISAF troops fighting in Afghanistan transits the Central Asian republics, converging in Uzbekistan. Approximately 75% of ground sustainment cargo for U.S. operations is shipped via the NDN and nearly 70% of goods transiting the NDN enter through Uzbekistan’s Hairaton Gate. Uzbekistan hosts the K2 base and under President Obama, Congress passed legislation allowing for increased U.S. assistance to the country (which was previously suspended following the Andijan events of 2005) in order to allow for the more efficient and successful operation of the NDN. If you care about our troops in Afghanistan, then you certainly care about Uzbekistan.

Fortunately, the American public had enough sense to not Mr.Cain.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is the most international, mainstream press coverage the Central Asian Republics (the “stans”) have received in recent years. And yet, there is news coming out of the region everyday. What’s worse is that international perceptions of Central Asian are defined by these random media moments and quick Wikipedia search.

Having spent time in Kazakhstan and several Kazakh friends who I regularly communicate with, I can personally attest to the overwhelming warmth, generosity and hospitality of the Kazakh people. As a student of international politics and security with a passion for Central Asia, I started this blog to disprove Borat and prove that there is so much more to Kazakhstan.

The message of this blog post is three-fold.

First, Central Asia (the ‘stans’) exists. They are sovereign states with rich histories, cultures and traditions and should not be mocked in such a disgraceful fashion.

Second, Central Asian states are rich in natural resources and are quietly influencing international political and economic events everyday. Simply Google “Eurasian pipelines” or the “Northern Distribution Network” and you will only begin to penetrate the wealth of information and news on the region. Central Asia is a region of strategic interest to the U.S., China and Russia. The promulgation of the “New Silk Road” ensures that the country will play a major role in the future. Central Asia as a whole will be important in fostering a stable Afghanistan integrated into the regional political economy post-2014. Dismissing Central Asia as a strategically irrelevant country is a shortsighted observation.

Third, stop making fun of Central Asia! Play the proper national anthems at sporting events and do not butcher country names. At minimum, give Central Asian states this respect.

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