Tuesday, July 02, 2013

tuesdays in turkmenistan: wither JLo

Turkmenistan made it into the U.S. news cycle! Albeit, only because it involved prominent popular culture figure, Jennifer Lopez, often known as JLo (or less desirably as Jenny from the Block).

As has been reported in many articles, JLo performed a concert at a hotel resort area known as Avaza which is near the city of Turkmenbasy (which is about a three hour drive north-northwest of Balkanabat). Of course, with the reputation Turkmenistan, JLo was roundly criticized for the performance, which some claim she was paid upwards of $1.5 million for.

Is the apparent outrage with her performance justified? Can she (or her management team) claim to have not realized the nature of the performance, what the country is like, and that the President would be there? Going back to that first question, I'm not sure I really care about the outrage or whether people should be upset. Partly because I also work here, thus lending credibility/support to the regime and partly because this is how capitalism works. You pay someone for a service or product and they provide said items. Is it blood money or something terrible? Well, probably, sort of, indirectly yes. The advantage for me is that I am but one tiny blip in the NSA's PRISM net and I do not work in an industry where public sentiment of me, as in my individual self, matters. JLo's professional well-being relies on her being popular and inoffensive enough to avoid any public outcry.

Now going back to that second question (or really set of questions) from the previous paragraph. Should JLo and her team have known better? I think so, but I am also far more familiar with the affairs of Turkmenistan than the average person, though that does not take much. Part of it will depend on just who they interacted with to organize the event. Was it with CNPC as most articles state? If that's the case, then they should have done some basic research into what CNPC does (oil and gas), where they are from (China), who owns them (Chinese government), and what specifically CNPC was doing organizing a party in Avaza. Perhaps not known to Team JLo, but CNPC operates on the other side of the country. But Avaza is the crown jewel of Turkmenistan vacation spots, or at least that's what the billions the Turkmen government puts into the project want it to be, so perhaps it's just a good place to have a party. What is generally well-known within Turkmenistan is that the President loves to have his picture taken. After all, he's on the front page (above the fold!) of the national paper every single day. He also likes to be at major events, in this case, the grand opening of recently-completed parts of Avaza. To everyone in Turkmenistan, it is totally logical and expected the President would be at such an event. To people on the outside, especially Americans, it seems odd, arguably unexpected. After all, U.S. Presidents do not show up to the grand openings of every major construction project. However, the comparison is best made to a state or large city, something with a population similar to Turkmenistan's roughly 5 million. Would the mayor or governor appear at such an event? Sure, there is a decent chance for an appearance. And is getting JLo to perform for the President effectively a subtle bribe by CNPC? Well, it's not even subtle, though not as blatant as gifting him a yacht or whoever bought him this Bugatti. JLo's presence both strokes his ego and gives him more legitimacy, as if to say, "See, big American stars sing Happy Birthday to me so I can't be a bad guy."

Quite interestingly is the reaction from people here who are reading about this. Understandably, many people, especially the younger women, were excited that JLo, as an internationally known entertainer, came to their country. This is a big deal to them as it somehow validates the importance of the country along with the validation it provides to the President. What locals here seem more surprised by is the characterization of their country as an oppressive dictatorship with in-name-only democracy and a poor human rights record. They find this so surprising because it is simply not true for much if the nation. Well, the in-name-only democracy part is true for everyone. After all, after the previous President died, the current one became interim President through the magic of having the person who was supposed to be the interim President arrested along with many others. Then, he changed the constitution to allow himself to run in the next election since the previous constitution forbade interim President's from becoming elected. And Bob's your uncle. Anyway, people here were surprised because conditions here are improving. In the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian countries in particular badly struggled. So far from everything, very poor, and often reliant on Russia for contact with the West. The country struggled for several years, but has slowly been gathering wealth from its natural resources. Of course the wealth is not evenly distributed, but most people are seeing basic needs (ie: housing, food, gas) provided so they are happy enough and certainly see the improvement in very real and important terms. Even if the political leadership siphons the vast majority of the money away and corruption is rampant, conditions today are still much improved from what they were 10-15 years ago.

As for JLo and her supposed moral dilemma. She can donate her concert fee to charity, take the write-off, reap the positive press benefits and move on. Or she can wait it out and Americans will find something else to care about for 15 minutes.

1 comment:

Buickguy said...

Ha! Found your post already, I did. (With a little help from my friend.)