Kazakhstan: The Perils of Spinning in Central Asia
Some people have no sense of irony. How can you whitewash a corrupt autocracy’s dodgy credentials, while passing yourself off as a news operation, and then complain you got cheated, alleging corruption by that country’s officials?
But that’s exactly what the man behind Central Asia Newswire – until recently, a slick, Washington D.C.-based, pro-Kazakhstan “news service” – seems to be doing through his new website.
Citing no one by name but its owner, Thomas Cromwell, the website, Universal Newswires (which until August, was called Central Asia Newswire), writes that, early this year, Cromwell’s lucrative spin contract with the Kazakh government got hijacked by his former partner, who abandoned him to start a new venture in Cyprus. The editorialized screed, bearing the byline “Staff Report,” implies that the ex-partner was able to do so through kickbacks to a high-level Kazakh government figure.
Besides prompting the obvious question – “What did you expect?” – the lurid tale adds a little more dirt to the growing pile of reports about Kazakhstan’s adventures in international PR. From the Universal Newswires “staff report”:
How is it, you might ask, that a small, unknown Cypriot company is the lucky recipient of so much business from Kazakhstan? According to reliable sources, the answer lies in the special relationship between [Cromwell’s former partner, Savvas] Hadjikyriacou and Roman Vassilenko, chairman of the International Information Committee of Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry. The IIC has a significant budget to promote Kazakhstan. […] To seal the deal, in August 2010 Hadjikyriacou and his Russian wife, Marina Ivanova, took Vassilenko and his family on an all-expenses-paid, two-week vacation at a luxury resort in Cyprus.
We don’t know what Hadjikyriacou and Vassilenko make of these accusations, as the tirade doesn’t quote them. But just what kind of outlet is Central Asia/Universal Newswires? Should we take what it says at face value?
Probably not. We know a bit about the website’s idea of “news” thanks to an excellent investigation by Ethan Wilensky-Lanford, who last spring exposed CAN as part of Astana’s marketing strategy, linking it to Cromwell’s Cyprus-based PR firm East West Communications.
The outfit was actually the spawn of a nation-branding company employed by the Kazakhstan government and The Washington Times. CAN, as the newswire is called, listed its stateside operations in a K-Street suite offering administrative services and hourly conference room rentals to a host of clients. The company’s Astana operations were equally dubious.
In 2010, Wilensky-Lanford writes, when Astana took over the annual rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), it “hired East West Communications for more elaborate branding purposes,” such as helping deflect criticism that a country that had never held a free and fair election wasn’t a great candidate to lead a group promoting democracy.
To raise its standing, Kazakhstan pumped more money into its D.C. lobbying and PR machine. When President Nazarbayev came to Washington for a nuclear summit in April 2010, East West Communications plastered bus stops around the city with glorifying pictures of the man. Around the same time, halfway around the world, the country’s Foreign Ministry was apparently heavily involved in the launch of CAN.
And to Mr. Cromwell, a word of advice from Benjamin Franklin: “Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas.”
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.