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Kazakhstan President Chews the Cud on US-Style Talk Show

Screen grab from President Nursultan Nazarbayev's appearance on Kazakhstan late night comedy talk show Tungi Studiya Nurlan Koyanbayevpen

“We have a great show tonight!” (Applause and cheers). “And our first guest tonight is Kazakhstan’s president and leader of the nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev!” (Wild applause and cheers).

No, this is not the opening to a recent edition of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but it is pretty much what was said over at his Kazakhstani imitators on Late Night in the Nurlan Koyanbayev Studio.

A trailer posted on the Koyanbayev show Facebook page on November 29 has offered a glimpse of what appears to be the latest wheeze by the Nazarbayev entourage to make the ageing authoritarian leader seem to more relatable and down-to-earth.

Such populist antics are, of course, old hat for television viewers in the West, who have become used to seeing their presidents and prime ministers pop up in popular shows for some light banter.

Even before he ascended to the US presidency, Barack Obama energetically courted the housewife vote by appearing on The Ellen Degeneres Show and performing a dance. Ever since taking office, Obama has routinely cropped up in comedic talk shows, drawing criticism from some quarters that he was demeaning the office of the president.

Politicians tend as a rule to keep away from comedy shows for fear of falling prey to mockery, but Obama has done the circuit in relatively certain knowledge he would likely face only gentle ribbing at most.

As for Nazarbayev, although the full show has not yet been aired, it is probably safe to say that Koyanbayev is unlikely to have made too many gags at the 76-year old’s expense. Earlier this week, a court in the city of Atyrau sentenced two activists to five years in jail for organizing peaceful anti-land reform rallies, ending a trial Human Rights Watch described as the response to “a negative opinion about government policy.” Criticism of the government — and certainly of Nazarbayev — is best avoided.

Only brief snippets of the show have been made available so far, but some elements suggest the Kazakhstani leadership struggles to understand how to convey an image of a president at ease. Instead of coming onto Koyanbayev’s set alone, Nazarbayev for some reason emerges with an entire phalanx of besuited top officials and aides.

The trailer offers a brief snippet of chat in which Nazarbayev appears to be talking how difficult it was for the people of Kazakhstan in the early years after independence. Koyanbayev asks if there was a shortage of electricity at the time (using the Russian word “свет,” or svet). Nazarbayev mishears the world “свет” as the Kazakh word “ет” (meat) and, mildly befuddled, asks: “No meat?” Laughs all around. “If you said ‘no meat,’ I would say you were a real Kazakh,” the president then quips.

The visit to Koyanbayev’s show came on the same day as Nazarbayev met the heads of state media, on November 28, to discuss pressing matters of the day. The president quoted by his office as saying that “state media should work on carving out their position in the media market.”

“We need more interesting and informative content, including on world culture and history,” he said.

It is hard not to agree. The daily wrap-up bulletin on state television station Khabar on November 28 did not open with arguably the most sensational news of the day: the sentencing of radical Islamists who went on a deadly shooting spree in Aktobe in June. Instead, it focused heavily in its first item on… Nazarbayev’s meeting with the heads of state media!

Indeed, the news program found no space in its allocated half-hour slot to speak about the Aktobe trial or even the sentencing of the two anti-land reform protests, which took place on the same day.

Nazarbayev’s excursion to the Koyanbayev show looks likely to be the work of Dauren Abayev, the head of the Information and Communications Ministry created after the wave of protests that broke out this spring. That ministry was formed ostensibly to implement a more efficient mechanism of communicating government policy to the population. But although Abayev appears to possess a little more media savvy than his Soviet-acculturated antecedents, he does not seem any more committed to reforming a state media system interested in conveying actual news to its consumers.

The Koyanbayev show is an interesting case study in how post-Soviet authoritarian governments eagerly and slavishly copy Western models of light entertainment, but carefully steer away from anything looking like journalism. 

Kazakhstan President Chews the Cud on US-Style Talk Show

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