Valeriya Melnichuk – Graduate of the University of Cambridge Development Studies Program.
The author made three trips to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan over summer, with overall stay in Kazakhstan of around two months and in Kyrgyzstan of around two and a half weeks. She witnessed discussions in the streets and kitchens, watch and read local media and experience general public moods. Hence, the article presents a mix of first-hand experience and secondary data research.
“These banderovetses in Ukraine organized ethnic cleansing by killing and harassing Russian-speaking population; they have always been one nation with Russians and now they are puppets of the West…” “Kyiv junta aims to destroy part of its own people and the current regime is a reproduction of Nazi Germany, they are fascists. Our fathers and grandfathers (Russian, Ukrainian, Kazakh, in other words, Soviet) fought against fascists.Who could have thought that Ukraine will be taken over by a fascist government and that such horrible people as Bandera and Pravy Sector will become their role models?…” These are two excerpts from the conversations overheard in the streets of Almaty, Kazakhstan and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. During this summer I had a chance to hear many people in the two republics express their opinions on the current Ukrainian crisis that involves Russia’s politics. The opinions are vividly summarized by the two quotes.
Such kitchen talk on geo-politics and internal policies of the Ukrainian government almost identically reflects the rhetoric of the Russian media (1st Channel, Russia24 etc.). A general idea of who is responsible for the conflict and what is the nature of the conflict mirrors Russian news episodes. The terminology “junta,” “fascists,” and “banderovets” used to refer to the Poroshenkogovernment and the pro-Ukrainian forces which is paired with terms such as the “levee en masse” and “protesters”referring to the pro-Russian groups in the East of Ukraine and is copy-pasted from the Russian media.
Such unambiguous connection between thoughts of the regular Kyrgyzstanis and Kazakhstanis and the conflict view pushed for by the Russian Federation (RF) made it worthwhile to study media space in Central Asia and its independence from the RF. Central Asia, despite commonly accepted wholeness of the region, is diverse. The level of media independence from the Russian influence varies. Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan differ from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (RK) due to a historically less prominent immigration of Russians to the countries; therefore, fewer cultural and language ties allow more local channels broadcasting in local languages to function. Also, particularities of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan’s governing regimes and their relationships with the Russian Federation provide them with more room for maneuvering in avoiding the RF influence.
On the contrary, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have had problems with the status of the Russian language as these countries had the largest Russian minorities in the region. Kazakhstan remains home to a large Russian minority and Russian language remains important medium of communication in everyday life, business and state affairs in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Due to space constraints and larger exposure to the Kazakhstan’s realities and, hence, more first-hand experience and information, I chose to explore the Russian media influence on public opinion in Kazakhstan. Given current events, the example of the current Ukrainian conflict seemed to be an appropriate subject matter. Public opinion in Kazakhstan is manufactured by the Russian media which is made possible by language, ideological and political ties of the two countries and complemented by the absence of quality content in Kazakh media.
A more scientific explanation of the wide-spread anti-Ukrainian and supportive of Russia’s actions moods in Kazakhstan comes from statistical information on popularity of different media sources in the RK. Television and internet are two most popular sources of information.A study of Kazakhstanis’ attitude towards Russia’s annexation of Crimea found that most respondents sourced their information about the crisis in Ukraine from television and had positive feelings about the Crimea’s return to the RF. Ranking of the channels popularity among the RK residents clearly draws Russian channels domination: 1st Channel Eurasia leads, with Rossiya and NTV following; furthermore, KTK and 31st Channel, tightly controlled by the state, are the most popular Kazakh channels. With regards to the TV content, entertainment programs give their positions up to the news and informational programs. Hence, Kazakhstanis watch news and informational programs on Russian channels and on national channels with an openly pro-Russian position.
For the authenticity of the research I have watched news on the above-mentioned channels and other smaller Kazakh channels (e.g. Astana, Habar) throughout the summer. Watching Russian channels popular in Kazakhstan opened no new information about the objectivity of the Russian media. Interestingly, even entertainment programs on these channels are sometimes interrupted by the urgent news on Ukraine – such was my football watching experience interrupted by the reports of new examples of the Ukrainian army cruelty in Luhansk and Donetsk. Numerous repetition of the same or similar information signals open propaganda from the side of the Russia’s government and its controlled TV channels.
The Russian channels present a highly distorted image of the Ukrainian crisis by manufacturing fake news and offering biased coverage. Different techniques are used to provide viewers with false reports: showing graphic photos of war and destruction in other parts of the world and presenting them as pictures of the conflict ridden Eastern Ukraine; cutting out episodes of videos from Ukrainian news to present one-sided story and even interviewing people with fake identities (e.g. an alleged resident of the Ukraine’s East suffering from the current conflict later turns out to be a resident of Kyiv appearing in different Russian news pieces in different roles). This brief uncovering story of the Russian news propaganda is just the top of the iceberg, and for more information on these and other fake news one may refer to the campaign “Stop Fake.”
Watching Kazakh channels in Russian and in Kazakh was more eye-opening: the rhetoric was more or less identical to the Russian media. Although, unlike the Russian media’s hysteria around the Ukrainian crisis with most news being either solely about Ukraine or mostly about Ukraine, Kazakh channels give comparatively less attention to the crisis and present more information on local issues. Yet, the episodes on the crisis are often taken from the Russian news episodes (few Kazakh journalists actually reported from Ukraine). Thus, Kazakhstanis receive biased information about the Ukrainian conflict from the popular Russian channels and the less conflict-obsessed but no more objective Kazakh television sources.
Internet, less controlled and abundant with alternative sources of information, seemed more promising for more objective reporting of the crisis. Nevertheless, Kazakh internet space is also colonized by pro-Russian propagandist websites which have occupied kzdomen and by Russian social networks (odnoklassniki and VKontakte) which outgrew their western counterparts.
My impression that the Kazakhstan’s media space is dominated by Russia was confirmed by different media specialists and opposition politicians in the RK. For example, a Kazakh political scientist DosymSatpaev raised concern with regards to Russian media prevalence in Kazakhstan and noted a threat for national security through media intervention and informational colonization. Kazbek Maigeldinov, an analyst in the area of security of the Nazarbaev Center, also pointed out Russian media influence on Kazakhstan’s information space in an interview given to the online publication FrAza.SeitkazyMataev, the chairman of the Kazakhstan’s Union of Journalists, outlined the need to restrict Russian media influence as it has become incredibly pervasive, able to shape public opinion and prevent Kazakh media from development. These are just few opinions of experts exemplifying the Kazakh information space take over by the Russian media.
On top of the statistical data showing popularity of the Russian media and informational dependence on the Russian news programs, websites and social networks, print media and radio, silencing of activists expressing opinions against the current Russian politics towards Ukraine demonstrates lack of freedom of speech and media in Kazakhstan and the media’s open pro-Russian focus. In March 2014, Denis Stadnichuk, the chairman of the Ukrainian Cultural Center Zhetysu in Almaty region, publicly disapproved of the Russia’s actions in Crimea and voiced concerns of the Ukrainian diaspora about the referendum in the semi-peninsula. Later, he has been removed from the position and official representatives insisted that he has never occupied such a position. Mr. Stadnichuk himself complained that he and his family were pressured by the “Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan” (the organization in charge of the cultural center he had been heading prior his unfortunate expression of thoughts on the Ukrainian conflict).
The Kazakhstan’s media space is dominated by Russia; majority of the Kazakhstanis openly support Russia and pro-Russian forces in the East of Ukraine and the minority publicly disapproving of the Big Brother’s destabilization of Ukraine is silenced.Russian media domination of the Kazakh information space is allowed by several factors. First, common ideology, history and language feed the existing connection between the two countries and the two people. Specifically, large Russian minority which does not speak Kazakh relies on the Russian media; Russian language domination in public and political space provides the Russian media sources with an easy access to masses; and the idea of the world in which post-soviet people should be cautious of the West and, in case there is some open rivalry, post-soviet states should stick with Russia is based on the past perception of the bipolar world. Second, politics rules out the possibility of unbiased media in Kazakhstan. Political and economic ties of the two states and Kazakhstan’s increasing move away from its prior multi-vectoral foreign policy leaves little space for critique of the large influential neighbor. Furthermore, the authoritarian regime of Kazakhstan does not allow freedom of speech and tightly controls themedia. It can be implied that the RK president would not want to spoil his lovely friendship with Putin by allowing objective information on the sensitive Ukraine issue into the Kazakh media space. As a larger implication for Kazakhstan such media dependence and informational colonization by Russia may be an issue for the state security. One of the pillars for receiving comprehensive political and ideological independence from Russia is informational independence or, at least, informational multivectoralism.
 Neither Western nor Ukrainian media uses such terminology to characterize the parties to the conflict.
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