A couple of days ago I saw a Facebook "status" from a Kazakh friend (who's enjoying his summer vacation back at home) where he complained about the fact that Kazakhstan - the free and democratic American friend in Central Asia (no, not the one Borat was talking about) - has blocked access to certain popular web platforms, such as LiveJournal and Google's Blogger.
Apparently, this is not news, especially in the light of Nazarbayev's near-official anointment as "Elbashi" (Nation's Leader) and the passage of the law granting him a "special" status, even after the expiration of his presidential term. (Although, after 21 years of occupying the Presidency, he doesn't seem all too eager to give it up.)
This, again, raises the question as to why, then, is Kazakhstan currently chairing the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE: or alternatively, the "Organization of Seriously Concerned Europeans")? I just find it all too ironic that Kazakhstan is going over and beyond in its attempts to prove "democratization and progress" to the world, coming up with various public diplomacy and "image-making" overtures, while not making any real attempts to improve the facts on the ground - substantially, that is.
Thus, for example, Kazakhstan made it to the global headlines yesterday, as it hosted an unofficial meeting of OSCE representatives in Almaty and facilitated the organization's decision to send 52-member police force to southern Kyrgyzstan. It was also throughout the course of this meeting that Kazakhstan was finally given the green light to hold an official OSCE leaders' summit later this year in its brand-new capital Astana: a summit that has not been held since 1999, and something the Kazakh authorities were apparently lobbying hard for. All in the name of a positive international image...
Since I'm at it, I also need to reference the following interview that Prime Minister Karim Massimov gave to Al Jazeera a couple of weeks ago, where he could not stress enough the high value that the authorities put on improving Kazakhstan's international image.
The only tiny detail that they failed to take note of is that any major effort to create "a positive international image" today will involve public diplomacy; while an increasingly larger part of public diplomacy is shifting to the truly "public" sphere and to people-to-people interactions. Vast energy resources might secure very profitable international business deals for Kazakhstan, but they will not, necessarily, guarantee a positive image.
There are many issues with regard to freedom in Kazakhstan (just as in all of the former Soviet states), but I would like to focus on my friend's particular concern about online freedom. Without a substantial public discourse, a major part of which increasingly takes place online - be it domestically or "with those abroad" - Kazakhstan will remain in the minds of the outside world as the "glorious" "-stan" country somewhere in Asia (or is it Europe?), with a ruling dynasty that is all too difficult to challenge. Apparently it still has to learn what "public" really means, especially in terms of international image-making.