Of course, now Sting has done it again:
Sting has thrown his support behind striking Kazakh oil and gas workers,
cancelling a gig that was to take place on Monday night in the
country's capital of Astana. At the last minute, the singer announced he
would not cross a "virtual picket line" to perform at the government's
Astana Day festival.
International Labor solidarity
notwithstanding, this is probably now a teaching moment for the world
media in Central Asia. The last six weeks have seen a growing wave of protests in Kazakhstan's western provinces. Ever since the Arab Spring, the tiniest hint of protest in the countries of the former Soviet Union have prompted comparisons
to Tahrir Square--regardless of whether the comparison makes the
slightest bit of sense or not. Since Sting has expressed solidarity with
the protesting Kazakh oil workers, maybe now the conversation can shift
a bit, just like when he was mocked for performing in Uzbekistan
eighteen months ago.
It won't be easy, and part of that is
Sting's fault. Rather than exercising any judgment about his tour dates,
the singer relied on Amnesty International to tell him that Kazakhstan
might not be an appropriate place for a birthday concert for
president-for-life Nursultan Nazarbayev--under their advice he also
canceled a tour date in Minsk, Belarus, for similar reasons in May. But
people aren't talking about Belarus, they're talking about
Kazakhstan--probably because the name sounds a bit more foreign, and
probably because it sounds almost like Uzbekistan (and Uzbeks are scary).
somewhat uncomfortable truth of the matter is, Kazakhstan is the least
abusive country in Central Asia (though that isn't saying much). Sting
making a high-profile cancellation for the striking oil workers is fine
as far as it goes, but completely misses the point of even complaining
about human rights abuses in the first place: oil workers shouldn't have
to protest in front of the media to draw attention to civil rights
issues in the country.
Groups like Amnesty International, Human
Rights Watch, and the UNHCR have been drawing attention to this region's
human rights abuses since the 1990s. They've recorded far worse than
low wages and a jailed lawyer--violently intimidated journalists, illegal deportation, and far more abusive
labor practices. While the oil workers certainly deserve support, it's
more than a bit silly that a union strike draws such global ire when the
more day-to-day oppression of the country goes unnoticed and unremarked
upon by the same emoting op-ed pages that have giggled at Sting's
Central Asian misadventures.
The practice of human rights in
Central Asia, including how to improve them, requires more than an aging
pop singer juggling around a concert or two. It takes consistent
international pressure, shame, even ostracism to get even minute changes
in posture. President Nazarbayev will treat Sting's snub like any
dictator would treat an artist's snub: by ignoring it and continuing on.
And the opinion writers who gleefully guffaw at Sting's continuing
issues with telling right from wrong will do the same--ignoring
everything else that's happening in the region, all the abuse and misery
and promise and hope--and not return until some other celebrity draws
our attention back once more.
Image: Andy Clark/Reuters