Nation Branding in Kazakhstan and Central Asia: From Post-Soviet Periphery to New Silk Road

For much of the past thirty years, the five post-Soviet countries of Central Asia have been regarded, if at all, by much of the rest of the world as an altogether remote, exotic, and peripheral region. They have been largely inaccessible due to both geographic distance and limited connectivity. The so-called “five stans” were little known outside a small group of dedicated scholars, policymakers, and travel enthusiasts, and understood even less by the general public. Indeed, much of Central Asia has been widely overlooked and ignored for years, if not decades. 

Michael Rossi.

This is despite the fact that the region possesses more than two thousand years of history, shared cultural exchanges in language, literature, art, music, food, and religion. Central Asia not only possesses some of the oldest inhabited places in the world that formed part of the extensive Silk Road network of trade routes between China and Rome, but also some of the youngest populations

The last two to three years have seen several potentially positive changes in the region, opening it up to the rest of the world. More than just becoming a geostrategic location for an emerging multipolar world and more than a byproduct of the “multivector foreign policy” models of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, all five governments, in some form or another, have been undergoing a form of “nation branding.” This process seeks to identify and promote positive images of the country, its people, and its locations for tourism, business investment, and educational development. 

In its simplest understanding, “nation branding” is a way in which a country presents itself to the rest of the world. Like maintaining a public image, nation branding is closely associated with marketing techniques and strategies that link image with reputation. While it has roots in the business world, nation branding is most importantly a way for a country to create and maintain a good reputation in the international community. By earning a good reputation, a country attracts attention and relevance. It is a type of “soft power” that influences how people perceive a country to be: the better the reputation, the more positive the image; and the better the image, the more likely opportunities for growth, affluence, and global influence. 

Nation branding has been associated with soft power state diplomacy at least since the early twentieth century, but its practice in Central Asia is barely less than a decade old. This is not surprising given the various security dilemmas that formed in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Coupled with top-heavy managerial presidential leadership focused more on internal stability and institutional consolidation, considerations of nation branding were more cosmetic than critically essential. However, as stated, the last few years have produced a myriad of changes in the region, particularly in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Perhaps the most important event marking a change in both countries’ images was the transition in leadership with new presidents Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Kazakhstan and Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan. While Kazakhstan was comparatively more economically open under Nursultan Nazarbayev than Uzbekistan under Islam Karimov, both presidents prioritized national security and state-building. Tokayev and Mirziyoyev have both focused on economic reforms, concluding that the twenty-five years since 1991 have achieved sufficient internal security for new governments to emerge and consolidate, ensuring stability and growth. 

Second, changing geopolitical realities in a new and emerging multipolar world have placed both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan squarely in the middle of an increasingly important Eurasian landmass. As I have written earlier, the increasing importance of transnational infrastructural development projects like the Belt and Road Initiative, connected with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, is turning the Central Asian region into a major transportation hub. Cities like Astana and Tashkent are at the forefront, transforming themselves into major urban centers of business, entrepreneurialism, and education. While Astana is a relatively new city built largely from scratch, Tashkent has historically been a major urban center in the region since the Soviet period. 

Third, new leadership and increased geopolitical importance have directly contributed to the relaxing of restrictions in Uzbekistan previously placed on social media platforms. YouTube, Instagram, X (formerly Twitter), and Facebook are all readily available, and YouTube and Instagram especially have been instrumental in promoting each country’s image through food, cultural sites, people, music, art, and nature. 

These efforts seem to have significantly paid off, as videos about the region on YouTube have increased and become trending hashtags for travel, nature, food, music, and even humor on Instagram and TikTok. Recently, the Uzbek government allocated $5 million for the promotion of tourism in the country for foreign bloggers with social media profiles and channels of more than 10 million followers. As part of what it sees as promoting a “national tourism brand,” the focus on national cuisine in each major city is meant to attract tourists not just to Tashkent, but also to places like Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Andijan

While nation branding is not and should not be seen as a panacea for a country’s economic goals, it is an important first step in gaining the attention of a wider public audience, and creating a narrative of a country and people as welcoming, hospitable, dynamic, and – most importantly – relatable. Nation branding replaces stereotypes with travel itineraries for what are being seen as the next best travel destinations to some of the world’s “most underrated places.” And in addition to promoting and crafting an image of a people and a culture in their home country, nation branding can improve the attraction of communities abroad. In the United States, Uzbek restaurants are either opening up or long-established ones are gaining popularity outside the traditional post-Soviet clientele. 

By emphasizing a country’s historical landmarks, natural landscape, national cuisine, and local artistic talents, nation branding turns previously obscure countries on the map into identifiable and well-known locations, and, as the name implies, gives them reputable “brands.” And like any well-known identifiable brand, customer satisfaction is predicated on continued dedication to excellence and reliability. While there is little direct connection between studies on nation branding and measures of good government, it can be inferred that if a country wishes to maintain a reputable “brand” on the world stage, continued investment in national resources is directly associated with successive governments’ wish to remain economically attractive, publicly accessible, and politically important. If nothing else, recent investments in nation branding will greatly contribute to dispelling any lingering stereotypes of Central Asia being a collection of unknown and remote “-stan countries” outside global importance. 

The author is Michael Rossi, a professor at Rutgers University in the United States, and University Instructor at Webster University Tashkent. His academic interests cover studies in Comparative Politics and International Relations of Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Astana Times. 

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