International Integration

The puppet Paul McCartney at the International Puppet Festival

Since Kazakhstan’s independence, and especially since the country began an economic boom in 1999, it has become the wealthiest and most influential of the five formerly-Soviet Central Asian Republics. This was not always the case: during the Soviet period, Uzbekistan had always been the primus inter pares. While the reasons for this swap are complex and the subject of a book rather than a blog post, one of the ways in which Kazakhstan has marked and managed its ascendance is its enthusiastic accumulation of membership in international and multilateral organizations.

Kazakhstan’s theoretical allegiances are at times seemingly contradictory: it is a member of the OSCE, the SCO, NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the CIS and the new Customs Union with Russia and Belarus. It is also applying to the WTO. Kazakhstan also made a bid to host the Olympics and, when that failed, hosted the 2011 Winter Asian Games instead.

The government justifies this mess of memberships under the grand-sounding title: “multi-vector foreign policy,” which strikes me as a dressed up way of saying that the country is covering its bases and hedging its bets. For which I can hardly blame them. As a young, wealthy country with big neighbors on two sides and Afghanistan and Iran not far away, Kazakhstan lives in a tough neighborhood.

The absurd degree to which Kazakhstan has sought validation through hosting international events only really became clear to me last week when, on Tuesday, Shannon and I found ourselves at the ballet sitting in the midst of 40-some students from around the world gathering in Almaty for the International Astronomy Olympiad. Needless to say, 37 nerdy boys and 3 nerdy girls had no interest in the ballet Don Quixote. Then, last weekend, I attended the closing performance of the International Puppet Festival (IPF from here forward).

A Belorussian puppet master in knee-high gold boots and purple cape, performing to the tune of "All You Need is Love."

Almaty boasts the world’s only (supposedly) statue including all four of The Beatles. It was cast in 1997 as a recognition of the fact that the Fab Four’s music famously penetrated the Iron Curtain and became associated with the better aspects of life free of Communism. Anyway, the IPF organizing committee chose the site of the statue as the location for the final puppet performance: the puppet troupes, each representing their home country (21 countries were represented in total), performed a small scene while a different Beatle’s song played. Most of the troupes came either from the CIS countries and, amazingly, South America. The USA was also represented by a couple from Vallejo, CA – near where my mom grew up. Having gotten their late, Aigul, Danielle and I had to fight for a place to watch from the side.

The pictures I’ve included don’t do justice to how weird the IPF was. Most of the troupes seemed to have put only a few minutes of thought into their Beatles-inspired acts. Moreover, a puppet convention is to all appearances, at least, to be a weekend out for unemployed homosexuals and failed schoolteachers. But putting my cynicism aside, the parents and children who had come to watch seemed to thoroughly enjoy the performances. Best of all, the parents sang along to several of the songs, especially “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” testifying, I believe, to the influence that the boys from Liverpool had even this far into the heart of the Soviet Union.

No one seemed to notice, however, the sinister connotations implicit in the Russian troupe’s choice of song: “Back in the USSR.”

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