Back when the post-Soviet states of Central Asia gained independence, there was much talk of Pan-Turkism, a word that had been largely forgotten during seven decades of communism and Russian linguistic influence. The idea that Turkey would become closer to the Turkic peoples of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan quickly gained traction among the peoples of a region turning back towards its pre-Soviet cultural and religious practices.
Over two decades later and Turkish-Central Asian ties are not as tight as some had hoped, although connections via trade, education and culture are still strong. Most recently, what has been acclaimed worldwide as Turkish Soap Power has also taken root in some of the region's countries. The Belgian newspaper Le Soir, even called Turkey the Hollywood of Central Asia. Yet the last couple of years have seen Turkish serials banned in Kazakstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Kicked out of Kazakhstan
Last year Kazakhstan enforced a ban on serials from Turkey on state television. The justification in the run up to the ban was based on cultural protectionism and the promotion of national content:
В министерстве культуры посчитали неправильным тратить бюджетные миллионы на иностранную продукцию. Все деньги, которые раньше уходили за рубеж, а это почти 5 тысяч евро за одну серию, теперь пойдут на съемку собственных мыльных опер.
The Ministry of Culture considered it improper to spend millions from the state budget on foreign [television] productions. Now all money, that used to go abroad – and that is almost 5,000 Euros for a single episode – will go on making our own soap operas.
Zayir, a Kazakh student protested the ban:
Думаю, что наши пока не научились достаточно хорошо снимать фильмы и сериалы, некоторые бессмысленными получаются. Турецкие сериалы качественные, у них опыт большой в этом деле, они большие средства тратят на это. Запрещать ничего не нужно
I think our people have not learned how to make good serials and films, many of them are aimless. Turkish serials have quality, they have a lot of experience, and they spend decent money on this. Nothing [of this kind] should be banned.
Kazakhstan was the 42nd biggest consumer of Turkish serials worldwide that year, when Kazakhs voted “Muhtesem Yuzyil”, or “Magnificent Century” the best serial of 2012.
On Zakon.kz, one commenter mourned the disappearance of Suleiman the Magnificent and his harem of beautiful girls from Kazakh TV channels:
билин. мы с мамой ждем продолжение (хотя с новой актрисой в роли хюрремши – не так будет интересно, смак весь пропадает). А они запретили :( черт ти че. в жизни сериалов не смотрела, а этот как наркотик, чессслово.
Heck. My mum and I are waiting for the next series (even though it won't be that interesting, with a new actress playing Hurrem's role). Yet they banned it :( how come. I never watched soaps, but this one is soooo addictive, honestly.
Unwanted in Uzbekistan
Since 2012, Uzbekistanis have been without Turkish serials on their television sets. A series of Turkish soaps were removed from air shortly after a documentary aired on Turkish television about Turkish businessmen that had been forced out of Uzbekistan in dubious circumstances. Officials at the time said the serials did not fit in with local mentality.
In fact, Turkish-Uzbek relations have been strained since 1993 when Ankara refused to comply with Uzbek demands to extradite Mukhamed Salih, an opponent of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov. Yet while Karimov has little time for Pan-Turkism and soap operas, his troubled socialite daughter, Gulnara Karimova, harnessed Turkish “soap power” to advertize her Guli brand of perfume: Halit Ergenc, aka Suleiman the Magnificent from Magnificent Century, was the face for her “Victorious” range of male scent.
Whether that has made Ergenc any friends in Uzbekistan is another matter. Gulnara has her share of haters in the country, and on independent media outlet Uznews.net (run from outside Uzbekistan) commenters lined up to mock the pairing.
О Великий Султан Сулейман, забери нашу Гугушу в свое гарем, пожалуста. За это калим не просим, забери бесплатно.
Oh Great Sultan Suleiman, please take our Gulnura away to your harem. We are not asking for a kalim [traditional cash gift given to a girl's family when she marries]: take her for free.
But Gulnara Karimova is no longer the force she was in Uzbek society, after a very public fall from grace, so there is now even less wiggle-room for Turkish-Uzbek cultural exchanges.
On trial in Tajikistan
Tajikistan has recently lifted a ban on the Turkish serial Homien (Defenders) after it was forbidden along with Yusuf Misli (How Yusuf) and Mehvari haqiqati (The essence of truth) in May 2012 for “promoting violence and extremism”. The ban was ineffective as most of the serials were available on pirate disc for less than a dollar.
Tajikistan is the only one of the four countries in the region that is non-Turkic – Tajiks speak a version of Farsi – although the north of the country has a large Uzbek-speaking minority.
Kosher in Kyrgyzstan (for the moment)
With one of its major cultural exports meeting opposition in those three countries, and with totalitarianism protecting Turkmenistan's television-watchers from almost all foreign influence, Turkey's “soap power” probably has its safest regional base in Kyrgyzstan. While other neighbors are banning Turkish serials, Kyrgyzstan is advertising broadcasts of Kuzey Guney, an extremely popular soap that has been translated into 23 languages, winning 20 awards. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan, which has perhaps the warmest political relations with Turkey of all countries in the region, gets itsTurkish serials for free.
Still, even here, politicians are cheerleading to ditch Turkish drama in favour of a low-budget national product. Patriotic MP Mirlan Bakirov recently expressed his annoyance at regular broadcasts of Turkish soaps in Kyrgyzstan:
У нас есть свой Золотой фонд, а вы показываете каждый день турецкие сериалы. Переводите кино отечественных режиссеров на кыргызский язык и транслируйте их
We have our own Golden Foundation [to promote local content], but you show Turkish soaps every day. Broadcast films in Kyrgyz language made by national producers!
These growing political obstacles haven't stopped Turkish intellectuals such as Seyit Aydın dreaming of a cultural empire in brotherly Central Asia, however:
Oradakiler filmlerimizin isimlerini, karakterlerini bizden iyi tanıyorlar…Orta Asya'da Çinli, Koreli, Amerikalı herkes orada. Herkes onları kazanmanın, kendine bağlamanın peşinde. Ve maddi olarak da çok şey akıtıyorlar. Mesela Çinliler 2 bin tane çocuğu alıp bedava okutuyor. Kore bunu yapıyor. Onlar yüz tane anlatıyor ama biz bir tane anlatırsak bizimki geçerli oluyor. Bu nedir kanımız aynı, canımız aynı, dilimiz aynı, dinimiz aynı. Bizim küçük bir kıvılcımımız onların yangınından daha tesirli. Orta Asya ile din olarak, geçmiş kültür olarak, ırk olarak biriz. O zaman sadece bizim düzgün anlatmamız düzgün göstermemiz lazım.
They [Central Asians] know the names of our films and characters [in serials and films] better than we do…Everyone is trying to get into Central Asia: the Chinese, the Koreans, the Americans. Everyone is trying to become a regional power over there. They are investing financially too. For instance, the Chinese take 2,000 kids and give them education for free. The Koreans do the same. They explain 100 things, but if we explain one thing, that is ours, it will be more convincing. Because our blood is one, our spirit is one, our language is one, religion is one. Our tiny spark is more powerful then their [other nations'] flames. We are one with Central Asia in terms of religion, historical culture, people. So, we have to just show this and explain this in the right way.