Funny Things Are Happening In Kazakhstan Regarding Elena Rybakina – Analysis


Yes, they are. Funny things are happening in Kazakhstan regarding Elena Rybakina, the reigning champion at Wimbledon and women’s singles runner-up at the Australian Open this year. Her successes are a topic that finds huge resonance not only among Kazakh decision makers, but, with the help of the state-controlled television, print, and online outlets, as well as other media in Kazakhstan, with ordinary people. Kazakhstani government officials usually appear willing to walk into the light of her fame in the moments that matter. She was met at Astana Airport on returning to Kazakhstan following the victory at Wimbledon 2022 by not only cheering crowds of fans, but also Yeraly Togzhanov, then deputy prime minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan. He greeted Elena Rybakina by saying: “The President was rooting for you. The whole [Kazakh] country was rooting for you. Kazakhstan stands with you!”

After having been crowned the Wimbledon champion last year, Elena Rybakina reached her second Grand Slam final in less than seven months at the 2023 Australian Open, but was unable to get the win this time around. While delivering her Australian Open runner-up speech, she paid tribute to the president of the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation who had specially flown in to watch the final. This decisive match and the official ceremony of awarding its winner and runner-up would seemingly have been a spectacle so worthy of the whole Kazakhstani public’s regard. But here’s the odd thing about it: as far as is known, on this day none of the all-Kazakhstani public television channels, which are available to all groups of the population in all areas of the country, showed a live broadcast of the Australian Open women’s final match. KazSport, the main sports channel of the country, aired the VTB United League game between Astana and Yenisei live at the time.

In view of the aforesaid, it is tempting to conclude that statements like ‘The President was rooting for you. The whole [Kazakh] country was rooting for you. Kazakhstan stands with you!’, these are merely rhetoric, nice sounding words, politically correct messages motivated by considerations of the Kazakh ruling regime’s positive image-building, which, however, are not backed by concrete actions in the interests of the general Kazakhstani audience. One cannot help the impression that among the establishment in Kazakhstan, a country overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Kazakhs, there are want and resource for the practice of attracting promising athletes of Russian and White (Caucasian) origin engaged in such Europe’s, America’s and Australia’s most popular and favorite sports, as tennis and cycle race, but not for the purchase of the right to broadcast, say, the Australian Open and Tour de France events.

This author, anyway, doesn’t remember a case when some Grand Slam events or some Pro-Tour events would have been broadcasted live on this or that all-Kazakhstani public television channel. In this ‘remarkable’ story, one can guess not so much a wish by the Kazakh elite circles to make their country recognizable to the Western world,  as… a desire by them to gain authority and a high reputation through the successes of those costly foreign-born athletes in the eyes of Russia, as well as all other white nations. While the question of whether the general Kazakhstani audience have the opportunity to watch those costly athletes’ performance and successes, appears to be not so important for them. Sorry for bluntness, but how else can one explain the above situation?!

Here is something to think about, if one considers that, according to some experts in Kazakhstan, ‘in our country a huge number of officials are still in the grip of colonial thinking and watch Russia, the Russian ideology and media with open mouth’, and even ‘President Tokayev sees the situation in his country through the eyes of Russian propaganda media’. While Russia – as a state, a country, a nation and a society – project its own specific system of values primarily onto the Kazakh elite circles. There it, if to call things by their proper name, is accepted to despise everything [East] Asian, while marginalizing Asians (Kazakhs, Buryats, Kalmyks and their like) themselves living in the Russian Federation, and to love everything white Western, even despite the current confrontation between Russia and the West. 

And it must be said, Russian authorities often believe that racist insults against Russia’s citizens of [East] Asian origin should not be perceived as something offensive. Here is a vivid example of this. In July 2021, Anfisa Chekhov, a famous Russian socialite, TV host and model, compared Buryat women with ‘bomzhikhi’ (it means unpleasant looking female vagrants, sunk to the depths of poverty and squalor). It caused a storm of resentment among Buryatia’s titular ethnic group members. The Russian authorities in Moscow – officials and MPs – looked then like they could care less what the Buryats were saying. Buryat ombudswoman for human rights, Yulia Zhambalova, asked the investigative committee of Russia to check Chekhova’s speech for possible violations of law. But this appeal did not bring about any tangible results. In September that year, Roskomnadzor (the Russian federal executive agency responsible for monitoring, controlling and censoring Russian mass media) told Yulia Zhambalova: “Anfisa Chekhova’s statements do not contain signs of extremist speech actions aimed at inciting ethnic hatred”.

At times, such an attitude finds its continuation in Kazakhstan. As the saying goes, ‘a bad example is infectious’. Lukpan Akhmedyarov, a journalist based in Uralsk, names a pair of Kazakhstani ethnic Russians who publicly described ethnic Kazakhs as ‘monkeys’. Against such a background, Kazakhstan continues to financially support a number of sports clubs – specifically Astana Basketball Club, Hockey Club Barys and Astana Qazaqstan Cycling Team – where there are very few ethnic Kazakhs. The picture is quite similar in the Kazakh tennis.

This practice began in the second half of the 2000s. The Wall Street Journal, in an article entitled ‘Arena Ball – Back Before You Knew It Was Gone’ and published on April 15, 2009, said: “No talent? No problem. Kazakhstan is hiring. Kazakhstan is the latest post-Soviet state determined to become a tennis powerhouse, but there’s just problem: a lack of decent Kazakhstani players”.

So then, the country’s tennis federation began hiring promising athletes of other nationalities. These were mainly Russian tennis players. To illustrate the kind of a situation that has existed since then, we may consider the following excerpt from a NewsUnrolled article by Regina: “Changing citizenship in tennis is easy. Unlike many other sports, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) does not require athletes to be quarantined… Kazakhstan has been hosting Russian tennis players since 2008… In Davis Cup and Billie-Jean King Cup, only local tennis player Zarina Diyas is in Kazakhstan’s national teams. Yes, and she took tennis lessons in Prague, where her family has been working since 1999. Diyas was even called up to the Czech national team. All other Cossacks are former Russians and a few people from other republics of the former Soviet Union”. In the Central Asian country, the practice of attracting promising tennis players of other nationalities has lasted all these years. And one of them, Moscow-born Elena Rybakina, has become the first player representing Kazakhstan to win Wimbledon title last year and to qualify for the final at the Australian Open at the beginning of this year. 

It seems relying on foreign athletes is beginning to live up to expectation. And not just at tennis. Kenyan-born Norah Jeruto, who had begun representing Kazakhstan just a year ago, on 30 January, 2022, won Kazakhstan’s first world title in women’s 3000m steeplechase on July 20, 2022 in Eugene, Oregon. It would seem that something remarkable happened Kazakhs should be quite happy about. Yet actually, they do not appear very enthusiastic.

Business Online said the following on the matter: “Not everyone in the country is happy with Kenyan-born Jeruto’s victory at the World Athletics Championships [in Eugene, Oregon] and Moscow-born Rybakina’s Wimbledon triumph. In a group of social networking, ‘Novyi Kazakhstan / Zhana Kazakstan’, which is popular in Kazakhstan, Jeruto’s victory under the Kazakh flag became topic #1. The majority [of those commenting] are clearly not thrilled to see the Kazakh athletics team being represented by ‘non-native’ Kazakhstanis. And this is in spite of the fact that their black fellow citizen brought the country a real victory for the first time [at the World Athletics Championships]. ‘Kazakhstan has money for Africans.  But when it comes to a need to lower the retirement age, immediately it appears there is no money in the budget. God save Kazakhstan from its Government’, [some] commentators write. Discussants are obviously offended by the fact that there are almost no ethnic Kazakhs represented in the team”.

Well, this seems not be the sole example of this kind. In Astana Qazaqstan, a professional road bicycle racing team sponsored by the Samruk-Kazyna, a coalition of state-owned companies from Kazakhstan and named after its capital city Astana, there is only one ethnic Kazakh among its 30 riders. There are many more such cases. A long ago it became clear that excessive participation of foreign athletes in the Kazakhstani national teams and sports clubs does not help the development of Kazakh sports, but hampers it. Nobody can deny that. 

Abzal Azhgaliev, a Kazakh short tracker, who had showed the best result among Kazakhstanis at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and then told about his desire to prove that [ethnic] Kazakhs  were no worse than others at winter sports, later spoke about the challenges he and his teammates face in organizing trainings. “Those who pay more get more ice time [for practicing]. We don’t even have our own locker room”, he said.

The Kazakh authorities and society have agreed that such a situation is abnormal and requires correction by joint actions, but no real measures have been taken to remedy it. It seems that not so long ago, official Astana had some sort of an action plan on this matter. And it now appears that there are just basically empty promises from politicians and officials. People are strongly annoyed with this.

Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analysts from Kazakhstan.

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