OccupyAbai

I originally hoped to publish the below piece with another online Central Asia news and opinions site. That didn’t work out. It is therefore slightly out of date, but I wanted to share it here nonetheless.

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An incidental development in the anti-Putin protests in Moscow may have lasting implications for cultural connections between Russia and Kazakhstan.

Following Putin’s inauguration as president for a third term, and in a continuation of earlier protests, thousands in Moscow have taken to the streets. Several incidents last week ended in violence between police and protesters, and on 9 May two of the opposition’s leaders, Aleksei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, were arrested. Prior to his arrest, however, Navalny used Twitter to rally supporters to Moscow’s Chistye Prudy Park for an Occupy-style sit-in.

The crowd that gathered at Chistye Prudy took the name “OccupyAbai” after the nearby statue of the 19th century Kazakh poet-philosopher Abai Qunanbaiuli. To the Occupiers, the statue did not have any significance except as a geographic marker. Announcing the protest location, Navalny Tweeted that he was “going to #chistiyeprudy to the monument of an obscure Kazakh poet” (iPort.kz). An AP reporter later described the “OccupyAbai” name as “a random choice” (abcnews.com).

Abai is anything but obscure in Kazakhstan. His statue stands at the end of a main thoroughfare bearing his name. His poetry is still widely read, and Mukhtar Auezov’s novels Abai and The Path of Abai are modern classics of Kazakh literature. Moreover, were one so inclined, one could draw out resonances in the Moscow opposition’s choice of name. Like those in Chistye Prudy, Abai too wanted modernization and reform in his country.

That Navalny was ignorant of Abai illustrates the gulf that divides the formerly fraternal Soviet peoples, and especially the remove Muscovites feel from those in Russia’s former Central Asian colonies. Ironically, the statue was unveiled in 2006 by Putin and Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev as a symbol of the close cultural ties between their two countries. Those ties were evidently weak. But by and large, this is true in only one direction. It is hard to imagine a Kazakh as educated as Navalny not knowing Pushkin. Nonetheless, the lack of a cultural dialog leads to unpredictable interpretations of the signals being sent. Even as Kazakhs watch events in Moscow, they are reaching different conclusions about their significance.

On 11 May, #OccupyAbai was trending as the third most popular topic on Twitter globally and the first among the Russian-language Tweets. People were interested in the “unknown Kazakh.” Indicative of the different attitudes now prevailing in the two countries, this was not viewed as a bridge between the protest spirit in Moscow and any analogous feelings in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh Internet space seems more interested in the good PR for the country: one commentator of TengriNews.kz speculates on the increase in book sales; Murat Izhanov, proprietor of Kazakh.ru, wrote that this was an opportunity to popularize Kazakh culture.

In light of the Arab Spring, many in Kazakhstan have been wondering if the protest spirit in Moscow will spread. If the revolution will be Tweeted and Internet ephemera are a barometer of societal moods, then anyone hoping for a Central Asian Spring should not hold his breath. The cultural divide between Russia and Kazakhstan appears to be acting as a firebreak.

However, the OccupyAbai incident is spurring a cultural rapprochement with potential consequences for the future. Now that Navalny and Udaltsov are in prison, some reports suggest Abai has become the figurehead of the protest movement; others have begun referring to the protesters as the “independent government of Abai-stan” (yvision.ru). Protesters are also beginning to find inspiration in Abai’s poetry. One line in particular is being frequently quoted: “The worst man from any number of men is the man without convictions” (my translation). The longer Muscovites and Kazakhs consider this sentiment together, the more likely it is that future popular movements in Russia will find deeper resonance in Kazakhstan. Such concerns aside, though, the joint appreciation of Abai may be the first step in a greater sharing of cultural touchstones between these two neighboring countries.

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