Over the weekend, those following public relations efforts of Central Asian autocracies were greeted to rare spectacle. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, hosted an Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit, allowing users to offer questions not asked prior. Before long, the conversation turned to Wales’ and Wikipedia’s checkered involvement with the Kazakhstani government. In addition to public relations firms’ history of manipulating Wikipedia entries to improve Kazakhstan’s image, Wales named Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, a Kazakhstan ex-government official, as the inaugural “Wikipedian of the Year” in 2011. The award came despite the Kazakhstani government’s help in funding Kenzhekhanuly’s NGO, with numerous articles subsequently toeing the government line.
At the time, Wales noted, “As far as I know, [Kenzhekhanuly’s NGO] organization is not politicized.” He also told me a few months ago that the NGO’s connections to the government have “absolutely no impact on the fact that they are completely independent of Wikipedia.” During the AMA, Wales attempted to place even more distance between Kenzhekhanuly and Astana, writing that “the Wikipedian of the Year was not a ‘government official’.” He further added that “I have absolutely no cooperation with the Kazahk government of any kind [sic]. I never have and I never will. I am a sharp critic of them and I condemn their human rights record and abuses.”
Wales is free to argue that Kenzhekhanuly, at the time of the award, did not work directly for the Kazakhstani government. But he is incorrect in stating that Kenzhekhanuly “was not a ‘government official'.” Just before receiving the award, Kenzhekhanuly worked as a policy adviser to one of Kazakhstan’s regional governors. He had also prior served as “first secretary (press secretary) at the embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan” in Moscow. It’s also worth noting that Kenzhekhanuly has returned to government since winning the award, with Astana recently tapping him as the deputy governor of the Kyzylorda region.
To sum: The inaugural Wikipedian of the Year held multiple positions within the Kazakhstani government prior to working for an NGO sponsored, in part, by the government – and promptly returned to working within government after receiving the award. Wales may claim that Kenzhekhanuly was not a government official at the time of the award, but attempting to spin Kenzhekhanuly as someone without any ties to Astana stands, at its best, thoroughly disingenuous.
Semantics aside, the most interesting part of Wales’ AMA may have come when he brought up Tony Blair’s involvement with the Kazakhstani government. Blair’s relationship with Astana runs deep, and has come concurrent to Kazakhstan’s steep civil rights backslide. New details have recently come forward, looking at the reported £8 million annual contract Blair signed to help buff President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s image, including working as Nazarbayev’s speechwriter and offering public relations advice. Wales, meanwhile, recently married Blair’s former diary secretary, with Blair and his wife Cherie – who also works for the Kazakhstani government – reportedly in attendance for the wedding.
By all accounts, Wales and Blair are friends. That friendship, however, may be coming to an end. In the AMA, Wales took Blair to task: “Tony Blair absolutely should be slammed for taking money from Kazakhstan. I condemn it without reservation.” (Wales also called out former British Home Secretary Jack Straw, currently in the employ of Astana.) Tony Blair Associates – the umbrella organization through which Blair works in Kazakhstan – has not yet commented on Wales’s denunciation.
As it is, this appears to be the largest flare-up between individuals tied to Astana’s image-management efforts. Wales has done all he can to distance himself from the “repressive” government in Kazakhstan, opting for semantic obfuscation. Blair, meanwhile, continues in his advisory role with Nazarbayev, described by New Statesman as “an ageing monster whose regime is mired in allegations of torture and murder.” While Kazakhstan may have opted for other image-management tools recently, watching the infighting between Wales and Blair only helps highlight the lengths to which Astana has gone to buff its image – and to how publicly it can fall apart.