Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kiss Controversy in Kazakstan

Poster showing 19th century cultural heroes in clinch sparks sound and fury, but doesn’t mean Kazak legislators will rush to adopt Russian-style homophobic laws.
By Nadia Bukeikhanova

The designers of a nightclub poster in Kazakstan have been forced to issue an apology after a public outcry about its overtly gay message, but the row has been largely confined to the internet.

The poster, which appeared outside Studio 69, a well-known gay club in Kazakstan’s second city Almaty, shows two men kissing. Not just any men, but two long-dead cultural icons, one Kazak, one Russian.

Advertising agency Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan posted an apology on Facebook after a group of Almaty residents lodged a complaint. The agency said the image was not intended for display and was instead an entry for an arts competition in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, and apologized for any offence caused.

If that is the case, the choice of 19th century composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbay-Uly and Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was fortuitous as Studio 69 is located at the junction of two streets named after them.

The club has remained closed since the row broke out, and its owners also told reporters that the poster should not have been displayed outside.

The ad agency did not return IWPR’s repeated calls comment. There were reports that staff members were questioned by police and later released.

A group of protesters led by Nurken Halykbergen, a descendent of Kurmangazy, are working with lawyers to take the artists to court.

Interviewed by the Radiotochka.kz website, Halykbergen, a PR specialist, pointed out that Kazaks are taught their family lineage seven generations back, and preserving this memory is “sacrosanct”.

On behalf of the Almaty city authorities, culture official Marken Akhmetov said he found the poster offensive, and that while it was not illegal for the image to be on the internet, action could be taken if it was placed on public display.

What marked the anti-poster campaign out from other expressions of moral outrage was that it played out on social networking sites, where users gave vent to homophobic views and some even called for the club to be burnt down.

Andrei Grishin, a staff member at the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law said it was noteworthy that although this is the conservative society, the furore was restricted to the internet.

“The gay issue is an excellent PR opportunity. Just look at how many comments and statements have been made by public figures who would otherwise be little-known,” he said.

An advertising company employee interviewed by IWPR said there was a degree of hypocrisy about the expressions of righteous anger.

“Everyone knows about [Studio 69] and what’s more, many have had visited it,” she said. “It’s easy enough to express outrage safe in the knowledge that there will be a lot of public support on moral grounds, as there won’t be many springing to the defence of a [sexual] minority group. But there seem to be few people standing up for moral values when it comes to protesting on behalf of elderly people when their small pensions are under threat, or when maternity payments for working mums are slashed. I don’t see anyone protesting against corruption or expressing outrage when the law is trampled on by officials who supposed to uphold it.”

The presence of Pushkin sparked a reaction in Russia, too, where homophobic sentiment is becoming accepted as mainstream. The nationalist Rodina party’s St Petersburg branch condemned what it called “aggressive LGBT propaganda” that “discredits the historical heritage” of the Russian and Kazak peoples.

The poet’s last direct descendant, also called Alexander Pushkin, similarly expressed anger at the image but reportedly decided against legal action after learning of the ongoing case in Almaty.

An Almaty-based artist who regularly visits Studio 69 told IWPR that he thought the image was a good piece of art, but that Kazakstan was not ready for it – changing homophobic attitudes that might take a couple of generations.

The artist said the current climate made him reluctant to be identified. “I personally don’t mind giving my name, but it might affect my relatives and they could be stigmatised,” he said.

There are no official statistics for people belonging to minorities in Kazakstan. Almaty, the historical capital and still commercial and cultural hub, has the biggest gay community.

Kazakstan has refrained from copying Russian legislation that sets out heavy fines for providing information about homosexuality to people under 18. Last year, one member of parliament proposed a bill that would outlaw homosexual relationships and gay clubs.

In March this year, two teachers and an education official in the western city of Uralsk were sacked after suggesting that primary school children could read a book by a modern Russian writer known for fairy tales depicting gay relationships.

Lyudmila Ekzarkhova, head of communications at at the Kazakstan Confederation of Free Trade Unions, says she is not greatly concerned about the poster row as there is little sign of the public hysteria now common in Russia, and increasingly in Kyrgyzstan.

“I doubt there will be any changes to the legislation, as public apathy about politics is so prevalent,” Ekzarkhova said.

Nadia Bukeikhanova is an IWPR contributor in Almaty