Kazakhstan's Pricey, Sometimes Shady International Re-Branding Effort

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How much does a Western PR firm charge to edit a Wikipedia page?

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Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev kisses the national flag / Reuters

The government of Kazakhstan has spent substantial sums on global public relations, striving to shape an image as a modern, open and investment-friendly nation by relying on a stable of top-tier public relations firms and international advisors.

Firms that have helped Kazakhstan burnish its international profile, either presently or in the recent past, include Tony Blair Associates, BGR Gabara, Portland Communications, and Berlin-based Media Consulta.

Astana's recent PR push includes the placement of infomercials on global cable channels, including CNN International. And, using forensic investigative techniques, EurasiaNet.org also has uncovered evidence that suggests PR firms may have massaged Wikipedia entries in ways that cast the Kazakhstani government in a better light.

In recent years, Kazakhstan has faced a steady stream of criticism over its democratization record. Such criticism has been on prominent display in recent weeks, relating to both Zhanaozen-related events, in which at least 17 individuals died, and the country's January 15 parliamentary elections.

Kazakhstani officials seem eager to counter any negative perceptions about the Central Asian nation and maintain its standing as an attractive foreign investment destination, said Yevgeniya Plakhina, an internet freedom campaigner and media observer based in Almaty. "I think the government is trying to take care of its international reputation, instead of solving the internal problems that actually damage its reputation abroad," Plakhina said.

According to the US government's Foreign Agents Registration Act database, Kazakhstan, via its embassy in London, hired BGR Gabara to provide "relevant outreach to government officials, news outlets, and other individuals with the United States, as directed by the Embassy of Kazakhstan in London, United Kingdom." From last April 1 through the end of 2011, BGR Gabara paid BGR Government Affairs, a Delaware registered company, $45,000 per month for "assistance." The monthly rate that the Kazakhstani government paid BGR Gabara cannot be independently determined.

Separately, in 2011 the Kazakh government hired Portland to undertake "strategic and public affairs consulting and media activities" in the United States. At the time of registration, the fee was reportedly still under negotiation.

Web records indicate that Portland and at least one other firm, Media Consulta, appeared to tinker with Wikipedia entries concerning Kazakhstan and its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Wikipedia compiles a list of all changes made to the content of its pages. The IP address or user names of individuals who make edits are recorded, and it is possible to compare "before" and "after" versions of the pages. Users identified only by IP addresses are listed as frequent editors on a number of Kazakhstan-related Wikipedia entries. But those same IP addresses can be traced, using publicly available means, and they appear to be linked with Portland and Media Consulta.

An individual working from an IP address with apparent links to Media Consulta inserted new sections in President Nazarbayev's Wikipedia page, entitled "Dialogue Between Religions" and "Preventing Global Nuclear Threats." In all, the same IP address is linked to four changes - made May 6, 2010 -- to Kazakhstan's Wikpedia page, and four changes to Nazarbayev's page. An additional four changes were made to the Kazakhstan entry on September 30 and October 7 in 2010.

Nazarbayev's page was edited twice on September 30, 2010, and the Kazakhgate entry was edited four times from September 30-October 7, 2010.

Similarly, an IP address with a link to Portland was the source of changes to the Wikipedia entries for BTA Bank and for Mukhtar Ablyazov, the former BTA chairman, who is accused of defrauding the bank of billions of dollars.

BTA bank and Ablyazov are currently locked in a legal battle playing out in a London court. The case is so complex that it could drag on until 2013 and there is no guarantee that BTA will be able to recover any money, despite $172 million being spent in 2011 on "legal proceedings and the overall recovery process." The Kazakhstani government, via its Samruk Kazyna sovereign wealth fund, controls over 80 percent of the Bank's shares.

Concerning Ablyazov's Wikipedia entry, a user with an apparent Portland connection edited out phrases concerning the banker's departure from Kazakhstan. One such removed phrase was "forcing him to seek refuge." It was replaced by the term "fled." On January 31, 2011, a user with a Portland-related IP address removed references to a possible "political motivation" for the 2002 arrest and conviction of Ablyazov on abuse-of-power charges in Kazakhstan, and deleted links to articles containing expressions of concern over Ablyazov's conviction voiced by the European Parliament, the US State Department and the OSCE. Also deleted were references to a British news story
that suggested that Kazakhstan would seek revenge if Ablyazov was granted asylum in the UK.

Responding to a EurasiaNet.org query, a representative for Portland said the firm "was engaged by BTA Bank in May 2010 to support [its] communications around the large-scale litigation against its former Chairman and his associates for alleged fraud. Our role is to try and ensure an accurate public record in relation to the Bank's litigation. In that capacity, we refute any inaccurate reporting and provide factual, public and sourced information about the court case to relevant media."

This article originally appeared at EurasiaNet.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.

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