The key to massaging your own Wikipedia profile is not getting caught. But Kazakhstan’s efforts to turn the freely editable online encyclopedia into free advertising are yet again in the spotlight.
On March 20, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales hosted an Ask Me Anything conversation (AMA) on Reddit, a social-networking platform. Before long the audience was questioning Wales’s and Wikipedia’s roles in helping to improve Kazakhstan’s image. Back in 2011, Wales awarded a once-and-future Kazakh government employee, Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, the inaugural “Wikipedian of the Year” for his work with WikiBilim, a Kazakh-language platform criticized both for receiving state funds and for publishing multiple articles toeing the authoritarian government’s line. At the time, Wales told EurasiaNet.org, “As far as I know, the WikiBilim organization is not politicized.”
But during the AMA, Wales backpedaled on his decision to name Kenzhekhanuly the first Wikipedian of the Year.
Wales was on the receiving end of a fresh round of criticism last year when Kenzhekhanuly was named deputy governor of Kazakhstan’s Kyzylorda region. During the AMA, a commenter asked Wales if he would have bestowed the award had he known Kenzhekhanuly would go on to serve as deputy governor. “If I had known in 2011 that someone would get a job that I disapprove of in 2014, would I refuse to give them an award in 2011?” Wales responded. “Yes, I would have refused to give that award.”
Wales also clarified that Kenzhekhanuly “was not a government official” at the time of the award – which is, technically, true. However, according to Kenzhekhanuly’s LinkedIn profile, before receiving the award he had served both as a policy adviser to the governor in Kazakhstan’s Mangystau region, as well as first secretary at Kazakhstan’s embassy in Moscow. After the AMA, Wales said by email that he was “not aware” Kenzhekhanuly had held those positions.
Wales's opinions about Kazakhstan have appeared to change dramatically in the four years since he awarded Kenzhekhanuly his inaugural prize.
During the AMA, he even blasted former British Prime Minister Tony Blair – a man the Telegraph has described as a friend – for taking millions of dollars a year to shill for Kazakhstan’s strongman president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. “Jack Straw and Tony Blair absolutely should be slammed for taking money from Kazakhstan. I condemn it without reservation,” Wales said.
Straw, the former British Home Secretary, recently became a paid adviser to the Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs, an Astana-funded think-tank where none other than Kenzhekhanuly was founding director.
With his comments, Wales is not only distancing himself and Wikipedia from Kazakhstan, but also calling out some of the biggest names attached to Astana’s efforts at whitewashing its image. Those bankrolling the PR machine must wonder if all this attention is worth it.