Tajikistan: Tajik Voices Muted in Putin Video Debate

A song apparently dedicated [ru] to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has surpassed 1,000,000 hits on YouTube, becoming one of several politicized clips to gain ‘viral’ status on the RuNet ahead of the country's presidential vote in March.

That the voice of “V.V.P” (Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, Putin's full name and the title of the song) is from Tajikistan, has already been established. So has the singer's name: Tolibzhon Kurbankhanov. Other than this, a lack of information about the hit and its origins has powered online conspiracy theories and anti-migration tirades, discourses in which Tajik opinions have taken a back seat.

VVP – he saved the country/VVP – he protects us / VVP – raised up Russia/ And development just keeps on going,” croons [ru] Kurbankhanov in the song's catchy refrain, his Russian touched by faint Farsi flourishes.

Over at the Eurasianet blog Inside the Coccoon, Katya Kumkova notes the song “extols the virtues of Russia’s former, and, likely, future president, as no other before it.”

Yet a number of Russian commenters questioned whether the video could have come from Putin's PR department, reservations that seem to have more to do with Kurbankhanov's ethnicity than the Kremlin's ability to talk itself up.

A special relationship

While it is no secret that nationalism is on the rise in Russia – a tendency Central Asian migrants have generally born the brunt of – there seems to be a special disdain for guest workers from Tajikistan. Despite the fact that Uzbek labour migrants outnumber [ru] their Tajik counterparts two to one in most Russian cities, it was a pair of fictional Tajik handymen, Ravshan and  Jumshud, who were the subjects [ru] of repeated and brutal mockery on Nasha Russia, a popular comedy sketch show on T.V.*

With their status as “the other” endorsed by a frequently racist mainstream media, a Tajik national would indeed seem a strange choice to be the hero of a pro-Putin pop campaign. Hence the theory then, that the video is actually an ultra-nationalist attempt to discredit the Russian premier, as anti-immigrant voters lose faith in the V.V.P political brand (despite Putin's best efforts to appease [ru] them) in the runup to the March 4 ballot.

Certainly, the part of the electorate that may be tempted to vote for a different Vladimir on Russia's day of destiny bared their teeth in the comments section underneath the “VVP” clip:

What a great country we have. The ‘elite’ has its money in the west, its children in the west, palaces and football clubs…and we have guest workers and Tolibzhon Kurbankhanov,” vented [ru] Prohor1990

Bashing Putin via Kurbankhanov was a common theme:

In the best traditions of Central Asian despotism. The best proof that under V.V.P we are closer to becoming a Bukharan khanate than a European democracy,” said walery1963, [ru] a comment that earned 28 ‘likes’.

Another popular comment suggested Kurbankhanov had performed the song in exchange for his working papers:

What wouldn't you think up in order to get yourself registered?” asked [ru] OttoZiverT.

A presumed Tajik responded to these racist diatribes with a rueful account of his time in Russia as a migrant:

I came to Russia, with love and hope, but as time passed I developed a hatred and contempt for Russians, since the HATE subsided, only contempt remains,”  bejsimpatico [ru] posted.

Bejisimpatico was then told [ru] to put things in perspective by Contessa111:

Don't take it all so personally. Unfortunately it is just the law of group think. In California for instance, everyone hates on the Mexicans, who come to earn money. In Germany they hate on the Turkish guest workers…people are always glad to have someone to look down on from high,” the commenter [ru] advised.

Meanwhile, in Tajikistan…

In the discussion space under the “V.V.P” Youtube posting, comments in Tajik were conspicuous in their absence, migrants from the country being the subject of conversation rather than active participants. In their turn, news agencies and blogging platforms with the .tj domain code  seemed  bemused by the attention the video had attracted.

A report by Kloop.tj, who publish both in Russian and the country's official language, Tajik, moved to discount allegations by Russian media outlets that Tolibzhon was a “sufficiently well-known pop star in Tajikistan”. As an interview with the Chief of Staff at the Tajik Ministry of Culture revealed:

The name Tolibdzhon Kurbankhanov says nothing to me. Previously, we have not heard of him. This singer is not known to anybody, and he has not participated in Dushanbe in events and concerts. I think he’s an imposter,” said Abdughaffor Abduzhaborov.

An anonymous post on seb.tj, assessed the main message of the “V.V.P” Youtube commenters as “take Putin back to Tajikistan with you.” Beneath this subtitle, it chronicled a host of unflattering comments made about Tajiks by Russian visitors to the “V.V.P” clip.

On a blog “2shanbe.tj” (a play on words; “Dushanbe” is the capital of Tajikistan), a dispatch by the admin similarly listed a store of derogatory comments by Russian Youtube users under the following introduction:

The quality of [Kurbankhanov's] singing, rhyming and the music clip as a whole are, to put it mildly, poor. The majority of users that have viewed this clip showed nothing but irony and sarcasm towards the Tajik people.”

Yet these two posts generated little in the way of discussion, and popular Tajik blogs passed the “V.V.P” clip over, suggesting a general ambivalence among Tajikistan-based web users towards trending nationalist memes – all the more predictable around election time – on the Runet.

* It should be noted that the Nasha Russia sketches involving Ravshan and Jumshud are as much a parody of racism in Russian society and sterotyping of Central Asians as they are a parody of Tajik migrant workers themselves. Nevertheless, the depiction has proved a penetrating one, and has added an extra thorn in prickly diplmatic relations between the two nations. Also, although only 6.7% of Russia's migrants are Tajik, other non-Tajik Central Asian migrants are prone to being referenced as “Tajiks” by passers-by in Moscow. This was the experience of Aida Kasymalieva, who has a brilliant piece up on RFE/RL titled “First Person: Life In Russia As A Non-Russian Child.”

N.B  Despite having attained overnight stardom, Tolibzhon Kurbankhanov's genuine views on Putin and the political situation in Russia, ditto his permanent place of residence, remain unknown. In an interview uploaded by the same user who posted the original clip, Kurbankhanov is seen sports bag in hand, thanking his fans, apologizing for not being able to reply to all their fan mail and hinting at a follow up to “V.V.P”. All the while, Dushanbe international airport, Tajikistan, looms large in the background….

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