As the states of Central Asia and the South Caucasus celebrate the sixteenth anniversary of independence this year, they are gradually moving toward appreciating their international images ahead of promoting national ideologies domestically. To date, Armenia, Georgia, and Kazakhstan have made the first conscious steps in promoting their national peculiarities in the international arena by designing recognizable images and slogans. But more extensive strategies are soon to be developed if these states choose to compete on the international market for tourists and investments.
BACKGROUND: Since the early 1990s, political elites in the newly independent states of Central Asia and the South Caucasus have worked hard to create national ideologies that emphasize the importance of post-Soviet independence, justify state borders, and increase the legitimacy of incumbent regimes. Importantly, states produced ideologies aimed at creating images that would distinguish themselves from their neighbors and boost domestic patriotism. Developing a national ideology was often an official task for public officers, the academic community, and publishers.
By reconstructing the history of the titular ethnic group, political elites tried to emphasize the importance of post-Soviet independence. Elites often competed with their neighbors over the ancientness of their ethnic history, and the richness of the tradition of statehood that existed prior to the establishment of the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan reincarnated the cult of Amir Timur (Tamerlane), while Kyrgyzstan celebrated the alleged 1,000th anniversary of the Manas epic, and Armenia promoted the symbols of Mount Ararat (despite this mountain being located on Turkeyâ€™s territory) and its roel as the first Christian nation. Tajikistan insisted that the Samanid dynasty of the eighth century advanced the idea of Tajik statehood, while Azerbaijan drew much of its inspiration for its post-Soviet independence from its 20-month experience as the first democratic republic in the Muslim world during 1918-1920.
However, though these images enjoyed some level of popularity domestically, they generally failed to be recognized by the international public. Developing international brands is a new trend for these states, still full of controversy. Among other former Soviet states, Georgia and Armenia have come up with a somewhat coherent promotion strategy. Georgia, aside from its label as the â€œcradle of wineâ€, is branding its red and white flag with five crosses in Western outlets, including The Economist newspaper. Armenia, in turn, emphasizes its Christian identity, by branding the country as â€Noahâ€™s Route, Your Routeâ€. Both countriesâ€™ efforts to do well in the annual Eurovision song contest illustrates their wish to be associated as belonging to Europe. Azerbaijan issued a number of commercials on CNN featuring colorful national dresses, food, and dances. In their international campaigns, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia primarily aim at the Western public.
Unlike the South Caucasus states, none of the Central Asian states has yet developed a distinctive product or a business brand to promote its image internationally. Only the Kyrgyz government has recently moved toward creating a national brand to attract more tourists and investors. The government developed the slogan â€Kyrgyzstan â€“ a land of wondersâ€, which captures the natural beauty and reflects upon the dynamic political situation in the country. But the Kyrgyz government has yet to find sufficient funds and incentive to promote the slogan internationally.
Indeed, accidental brands instead emerged for some former Soviet states. For instance, the colored revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia ascribed recognizable symbols to these countries. At least in the international policy world, the colors orange and rose are now closely associated with these two states. Recent debates in Western countries on the issue of the Armenian genocide have drawn international attention to the Armenian state and Diaspora. Finally, the British comedy film featuring Sasha Baron Cohen became an accidental international brand for Kazakhstan.
IMPLICATIONS: The national branding industry is still in a nascent stage of development both in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. One of the challenges for these states is to remind the international public that communist legacies are no longer sustained in their homelands, but that national peculiarity is instead flourishing. In particular, the Central Asian states will need to be creative in promoting themselves. The conventional technique of emphasizing the countryâ€™s pre-Soviet history may prove to be counter-productive, as it is likely to blur differences between the states. To say the least, such complex arguments on the historical development of the states may be hard to digest by the international public, which is often interested in instantly noticeable cross-national peculiarities. Instead, Central Asian elites and businessmen would find more success in choosing their distinctive traits in modernity, be it in the form of products, people, or places.
In the early 1990s, Kyrgyzstanâ€™s former president, Askar Akayev, was the first in Central Asia to introduce national brands for international consumption. He developed two distinctive brands for Kyrgyzstan: â€The Island of Democracyâ€ and â€The Switzerland of Central Asiaâ€. Akayevâ€™s projects enjoyed relative success for a short period of time, before his domestic policies became more authoritarian. Today, both Kyrgyzstanâ€™s government and civil society seem to be willing to design a national brand to promote foreign tourism and investment in the county, but they still lack a succinct strategy. Most current debates are staged around such vague issues as â€cultural uniquenessâ€, â€high literacy rateâ€, â€the most democratic and open society in Central Asiaâ€, etc.
Throughout last months, Kazakhstanâ€™s government has been preoccupied with countering the accidental image provoked by Cohenâ€™s movie. These attempts were rather clumsy, lacking a rigorous strategy. Significant financial resources were spent on a public campaign promoting Kazakhstan as the â€Heart of Eurasiaâ€ in the New York Times newspaper, BBC and CNN to divert attention from Cohenâ€™s movie in 2006-2007. On the ABC channel, Kazakhstan presented itself as a country â€committed to freedom and democracyâ€ and the â€Central Asian leader and a reliable strategic partner of the United Statesâ€. It also emphasized president Nursultan Nazarbayevâ€™s achievements in economy, international security, and politics.
There are nevertheless a few indirect brands already existing for each Central Asian state. These have developed independently of the efforts of the political elites and business communities. For instance, Kyrgyzstanâ€™s writer Chingiz Aitmatov is a recognizable brand name in Germany and the former Soviet states, where his books were especially popular. The city of Samarkand is internationally associated with Uzbekistan. The eccentric regime of former Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov makes Turkmenistan an intriguing place to visit. The Tajik governmentâ€™s ideological project on the Aryan identity has also attracted some international public attention. Georgian wine is slowly acquiring popularity in Western markets, mainly thanks to the Georgian Diaspora. Ironically, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan see their locally produced vodkas as a possibility for national branding internationally.
CONCLUSIONS: To date, Central Asian and South Caucasian states are far from enjoying internationally acclimatized brands similar to those developed by, for instance, Germany, Japan, and Sweden. But a combination of domestic factors such as businesses and political parties, and Borat-like accidental images, encourage the new independent states to consciously ameliorate their international reputations. Thus, the national branding industry is about to pick up in both regions. It is likely to become more competitive as countries will have to vie for tourists and investments. A successful international image might indeed become more expedient than national ideologies in promoting patriotism as well.
AUTHORâ€™S BIO: Erica Marat, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. The Joint Center is affiliated with Johns Hopkins University-SAIS and the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy.