Looking At Modern Day Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is the central Asian country that was the final part of the Soviet Union to declare independence in 1991. Independence was originally tough for the steppe covered country, and over one million people migrated from Kazakhstan in the early years of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Economic challenges and political turmoil were factors that saw many ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Germans leave to head back to their respective countries.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former Prime Minister of Kazakhstan since those Communist days, finally stepped down this spring. His rule has taken Kazakhstan through a period of huge economic growth, with mineral wealth including oil sales, a large driving force in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increases averaging 10 % at the start of the 21st century.
World Bank data on Kazakhstan’s GDP since 1990 (Source: World Bank)
As the above graph shows that GDP growth has stagnated in recent years. Before resigning, Nursultan Nazarbayev dismissed the Kazakh government for failing to diversify the economy sufficiently to continue their impressive growth.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has increased co-operation with Kazakhstan in recent years. Part of that co-operation has been to guide Kazakhstan in ‘shifting from a resource-intensive growth model to one that is cleaner, more innovative and more diversified.’ The goals are in the correct place, but the results have yet to been seen.
That is not without the will to try. In their capital Astana (now named Nursultan after their outgoing President) the 2017 World Expo was held with over 100 countries and 3 million people being a part of the Future Energy themed event. The architectural highlight was the $19 million Nur Alem Pavillion, the world’s largest spherical building which is a museum of Future Energy, including exhibitions on wind, solar and wave power. The building is a clear symbol of Kazakhstani will to reach away from their unreliable economic and energy history and to be a bigger part of global developments.
Logistics has received similar levels of investment, with Kazakhstan the centre of multi-billion dollar investment from China to transport goods to Europe. The most notable infrastructure piece is the Khorgos Gateway, which will be the largest railway dry dock in the world to manage the movement of goods.
Kazakhstan was very close to hosting another major event in global soft politics, the 2022 Winter Olympics. Almaty, the former capital located at the base of the Zailiyskiy Alatau mountain range, was only two votes behind Beijing in the race to host the games. A Kazakhstan hosting of 2022 would have worked wonders for demonstrating the country has the infrastructure and skills required to be a major player globally.
Being close is no longer sufficient for the country of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan needs to continue economic growth, and needs to attract new people to the country to do so. Many steps have been made to make Kazakhstan more welcoming to those skeptical from the outside. One of the most dramatic is a policy to fully switch the Kazakh language away from the Cyrillic script and instead into Latin script. Such a move is seen to be an example of Kazakhstan looking away from Russian influence and to instead make Kazakhstan more accessible to global markets.
But what does all this have to do with Junior Eurovision?
Fighting For The Right To Take Part
Kazakhstan is represented here at Junior Eurovision by Khabar Agency, a state-majority owned Kazakh broadcaster. In 2018 Kazakhstan joined in with 19 other countries in Minsk to take part for the very first time.
This was not a simple case of asking to take part and being accepted. Khabar Agency first became an Associate Member of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in 2016. Only Full Members of the EBU have an automatic right to take part in events such as Junior Eurovision, and thus Kazakhstan planned a PR mission. During the 2017 Junior Eurovision in Tbilisi, a delegation from Kazakhstan visited and young stars gave performances in a bid to impress.
And impress they did. Head of Delegation for Georgia, Natia Mshvenieradze, witnessed some of these performances. She confirmed that witnessing just how talented the Kazakh performers were was part of the reason she supported Kazakhstan’s debut as a member of the Junior Eurovision Steering Group.
The 2018 debut was relatively successful. Daneliya Tuleshova, previous winner of The Voice Kids in Ukraine, finished in 6th place, including third from the online vote. From the music video to the stage show and Daneliya’s performance, each part was professionally done, and has resulted in the invitation being extended once again for 2019.
This year 12-year-old Yerzhan Maksim competes for Kazakhstan. His song ‘Armanyńnan Qalma’ has one of the biggest musical and visual productions of the entire competition. Musically the song starts off with that very Disney feeling, but swiftly moves into full orchestration and has levels of crescendo I’ve never heard from any Eurovision entry before, Junior or otherwise. Yerzhan manages to make it every time. On stage there are many details to the three minute performance including projections, and comes from the same team that managed Kazakhstan’s Turkvision victory in 2014.
Kazakhstan are throwing everything they can at this on stage.
Joining the Kazakh team in Gliwice is Rinat Kertayev. Rinat is the First Deputy Chairman of Khabar Agency, and acting as Head of Delegation here in Poland. His presence is part of the wider strategic picture of engagement with the EBU.
I asked Rinat about what the current relationship with the EBU entails:
“For Khabar working with EBU is not only about Junior Eurovision. It is also about co-operation and about getting more experience. For example our employees can take part in EBU seminars and masterclasses. It is a really good opportunity for us.
Rinat Kertayev, First Deputy Chairman of Khabar Agency, with ESC Insight’s Ben Robertson
“One of the difficulties was that Kazakhstan was not totally located in Europe. Khabar is also a part of the Asian Broadcasting Union and that was also taken into account when it became as Associated Member.”
Yet Kazakhstan craves more from the EBU than their current status. Rinat expresses that Khabar Agency’s strategy is to become a Full EBU Member, expressing that ‘it will only take a matter of time.’
That is not a view shared by the EBU currently. To become a Full EBU Member broadcasters must fit into one of two main criteria. The first is that broadcasters must lie within the European Broadcasting Area. Despite some of Kazakhstan, including Yerzhan Maksim’s hometown, being in the small European section, this north-western area is not included in the formal definition of the broadcast area. Secondly, countries may also join if they are members of the Council for Europe.
Kazakhstan is not currently a member of the latter, but is making great strides to do so. A Council for Europe office is set to open in the country, and a three year plan in place to guide Kazakhstan closer to European principles. Improvements to human rights, the rule of law and democracy are needed. Should these goals be reached Council of Europe entry may be within sight.
With these limitations, the reality is that Junior Eurovision is one of the few ways for Kazakhstan to get positive exposure in Europe. Rinat informed us that the broadcaster would be very keen on having Eurovision come to Kazakhstan.
“In the future we would like to host Junior Eurovision, we would also like to host the adult competition as well. We have the infrastructure to host such events.
“This is a part of the way of promoting Kazakhstan to the bigger arena.
“Unfortunately there are some misunderstandings about Kazakhstan but Kazakhstan is a modern country, we have international hotels and airlines that come to our capital.
“Kazakhstan, if we win, and we get the right to host, the whole world can show we have what it takes.”
And Khabar Agency are doing everything in their power to win. A quick glance on the website for Khabar Agency the day before the Junior Eurovision Final is dominated by an image of a Yerzhan with a huge ‘vote now’ button. The news coverage aired on Friday evening didn’t just include rehearsal footage, but also an explanation of how to vote. Deputy Chairmen of TV stations don’t travel thousands of miles for glorious failure.
Homepage of Khabar Agency the day before the Junior Eurovision Final
What I find especially fascinating are how this Junior Eurovision part of the strategy is so alien to Khabar Agency. Rinat explained that traditionally it was other broadcasters in Kazakhstan that ran such children’s competitions. Indeed that promotional concert in Tbilisi two years ago was co-ordinated through a rival station. However Khabar are the ones with the EBU Associate Membership, and Junior Eurovision was the catalyst to diversify their broadcasting range.
That’s how important Junior Eurovision is as a bridge into the West.
The Current State of Affairs
During the EBU Press Conference on Friday 222nd November, I asked Jon Ola Sand to give an update on Kazakhstan’s position within the Eurovision Broadcasting Union.
This was his reply.
“First of all, we’re very happy to have the delegation from Kazakhstan here and they performed really well last year. They have a great act this year and they prepare thoroughly and send their best crew basically, so we’re very happy for that.
“For the time being, there is no discussion about bringing them into the Eurovision Song Contest but we are in constant dialogue with the broadcaster on several levels – not only when it comes to the events that we do but also when it comes to discussion around membership, about services we can offer.
Jon Ola Sand talking at the EBU Press Conference at the Gliwice Arena (Photo: Thomas Hanses, EBU)
“They have several times visited the EBU, not only me but other departments and people at the EBU, and we would like to continue a good dialogue with the broadcaster in Kazakhstan because they add value to, for instance, this contest and we’re very happy for that.”
Obviously it is outside of Jon Ola’s remit to decide if a country can become an EBU member. What is clear is that he, like many others, is impressed by what they offer – and few can argue their presence lessens the value of Junior Eurovision.
But the relationship currently is on the EBU’s terms, and Kazakhstan through Khabar Agency are hungry for far more influence than the EBU are currently offering.
For a reference point. Consider Kazakhstan’s effort and focus on Junior Eurovision as similar to two other modern examples in the Eurovision world. Azerbaijan’s debut in 2008 showcased a similar resource rich nation in Europe. Journalists were flown to their National Final and no expense was spared on preparing quality Eurovision act after quality Eurovision act. Eventually the formula hit the jackpot, and when Eurovision came to Baku money poured in to make hosting a stunning spectacle. Yet that cost was invested in infrastructure that has created a legacy of Baku being a global event destination, most notably as a stop of the annual Formula 1 circuit.
The other example I offer is from the other Associate Member allowed to take part in both Eurovision and Junior Eurovision; Australia. Their invitation to take part in Eurovision 2015 came after years being inside the Eurovision bubble through bringing over commentary teams and interval acts. When they were given a chance to enter as a competitor, Australia had internally selected high production pop songs to show how seriously they take the competition. It’s only after years of being given special dispensation each year that in early 2019 Australia got the green light to stay competing until 2023.
Both of these examples in different way show us through history how different countries have managed to latch onto the Eurovision Song Contest. Azerbaijan directed huge efforts towards winning and subsequently hosting the Contest to springboard the country into a different era. Australia showed if you took took advantage of every little opportunity eventually the right door would be opened for you. What Kazakhstan are doing isn’t any different.
And it’s incredibly important to the country. Kazakhstan needs to find ways to make the country’s perception not just about oil and minerals, but about culture, tourism and the service industry. If not, the economy will be reliant on global markets and the next government will probably find themselves fired as well when the boom becomes a bust. It just so happens that Junior Eurovision is one of the few platform’s Kazakhstan can access to lift their profile.
“There’s a miracle that comes from above
It will help you write your name in the stars
When you have a dream, you’ll go tirelessly
Don’t regret and hold it dear
Only then you’ll find the desire in your heart.
And if you pursue the dream that’s pure
Every soul will root for you.”
These are the words in the first verse of ‘Armanyńnan Qalma‘. Reading them through one more time now after writing this article is fascinating. It is almost like young Yerzhan is speaking as the mouthpiece for an entire nation – singing out to Europe and beyond, dreaming for others to accept and support their cause.
Yet underneath all this Yerzhan Maksim is oblivious to how much his performance could ultimately change the fate of his entire country.