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Jimmy Wales in: The Dictator and I

Wikipedian of the Year runs wiki organisation funded by an authoritarian regime


By Andreas Kolbe


[To view or participate in a forum discussion on this topic, please click here.]

The other day an obscure news article caught my eye online: Wikipedia founder to visit Kazakhstan in 2013. Underneath one of Jimmy Wales’ favourite pictures of himself – the one where he is wearing a blue business shirt, nonchalantly leaning against a wall, his famous blue eyes smiling at the reader – the text said, “Wikipedia founder is expected to visit Kazakhstan in 2013, according to Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, founder of WikiBilim Foundation [an NGO to develop the Kazakh Wikipedia].” A little further below, the article said that the project to expand the Kazakh Wikipedia was supported by Karim Massimov, until recently the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, and today President Nazarbaev’s chief of staff.

This piqued my curiosity. Supported by whom? Expanding the various language versions of Wikipedia is not usually a task performed with government support, least of all support from the sort of government Kazakhstan has.

An authoritarian regime

Kazakhstan, oil-rich and the worldwide leader in natural uranium production, is ruled by Nursultan Nazarbaev, a Soviet politburo veteran who has been president of Kazakhstan for as long as the nation has existed (1991). He was already its president when it was still a Soviet republic: he has been in power since 1990. A 2007 constitutional amendment made Nazarbaev personally exempt from any term limits, enabling him to remain President for life. He won his most recent term extension in April 2011, running against token opposition and winning 95% of the vote in an election deemed unfair by international observers.

His presidency has been criticised for human rights abuses and the curtailment of press freedoms, including attempts to control the internet. The Economist reported in early 2009 that the country’s most-read blogger was Prime Minister Massimov – the same Karim Massimov who now supports the Kazakh Wikipedia expansion. The article also noted efforts by the Kazakh parliament to shut other bloggers down, adding that –

Being an independent journalist in Kazakhstan is tough enough as it is. On December 30th one was stabbed three times in front of his house in Almaty; another was beaten up in January. And a court slapped a big fine on an opposition newspaper for slandering a parliamentarian.

Things indeed got tougher for bloggers later that year:

Government pressure on Kazakh websites was stepped up this month when legislation came into force that essentially qualifies all internet resources, including blogs, chat rooms and online shopping sites, as media outlets and subjects them to criminal statutes for disseminating illegal material. Critics say the law will be selectively applied to websites that criticise Mr Nazarbayev and his government and that it is impossible for websites to filter, for example, all offensive comments that readers may leave on blogs and internet forums. […]

“Now any small-time bureaucrat can claim something is hate speech, whether on blogs or in forums, and our website will be closed,” Mr Mizinov [the editor of the website Zonakz.net] said. He said some of the material he is deleting includes negative comments about Mr Nazarbayev and others that could conceivably be considered hate speech, though he said a lack of manpower made it virtually impossible to catch everything. “But we have to save the website, so these are the steps we have to take,” he said.

Polishing a country’s image

To the general population in the West, Kazakhstan has to date been known mainly for Borat. But no authoritarian regime blessed with vast oil and uranium resources can rely on relative media obscurity forever. In January 2012, The Atlantic reported that –

The government of Kazakhstan has spent substantial sums on global public relations, striving to shape an image as a modern, open and investment-friendly nation by relying on a stable of top-tier public relations firms and international advisors.

Firms that have helped Kazakhstan burnish its international profile, either presently or in the recent past, include Tony Blair Associates, BGR Gabara, Portland Communications, and Berlin-based Media Consulta.

Astana’s recent PR push includes the placement of infomercials on global cable channels, including CNN International. And, using forensic investigative techniques, EurasiaNet.org also has uncovered evidence that suggests PR firms may have massaged Wikipedia entries in ways that cast the Kazakhstani government in a better light.

Clearly, you could not accuse the Kazakh government of being unaware of the power of the internet, or of the importance of Wikipedia.

So it is not particularly surprising to find that the Kazakh government, with a predominant population of native Kazakh speakers, is taking a keen interest in the development of the Kazakh Wikipedia. Until recently, the Kazakh Wikipedia was a very modest effort: Wikipedia tells us that it was started in 2002, but by 2011 numbered just 7,500 articles and four active users.

The government comes to the Kazakh Wikipedia’s aid

The WikiBilim Foundation changed that. As Kazakh news outlet Kazpravda reports, the Kazakh government realised that –

Wikipedia is the only internet resource of public format, which is one of the world’s top ten online brands. BBC named Wikipedia a most famous brand of the XXI century, along with YouTube and Facebook. Currently, Wikipedia, which is visited by 400 million people a month, operates in 281 languages and has more than 18 million items, including more than 3.5 million in English. The other two million-mark languages are German and French, more than 700 thousand articles are in Russian.

The Kazakh part of it is at a very low level, said Kazakhstani MP Murat Abenov. Only 25 000 articles are in Kazakh, 15 000 of them – in the last month. This is the project we really need and expect a lot from. After we raised this issue in the parliament, we are getting support from the government, and it is very important that involved is the public fund Wikibilim, purpose-organized by Kazakhstani activists of Wikipedia at the initiative and for the money of Samruk-Kazyna. It is necessary to make a quality resource so that the knowledge it contains can be effectively used and easily accessed to by the entire population.

[…] More encyclopedic knowledge in the state language will create favorable conditions for expanding the scope and range of everyday use and thereby will strengthen its role in public life. In addition, the project has a great potential to boost the country’s image.

Purpose-organized by Kazakhstani activists of Wikipedia at the initiative and for the money of Samruk-Kazyna? Who is Samruk-Kazyna? Samruk-Kazyna is Kazakhstan’s state-owned investment holding company, which in 2010 controlled assets worth $77.5 billion (this is not a typo: Samruk-Kazyna indeed controls more than half of Kazakhstan’s GDP). It is run by President Nazarbaev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev.

Laptops for good editors

An expired page from WikiBilim’s website whose Google cache is still available informs us that Samruk-Kazyna will award 100 laptops to the winners of a Wikipedia contest:

100 people who are to write 100 articles each within a given time frame and a satisfactory level. Nokia Kazakhstan granted 50 mobile phones to authors of featured articles. The contest is still running at present.

The website of Kazakhstan’s embassy in India similarly states,

With the aim of inspiring Internet users to contribute more articles to the Kazakh Wikipedia, a contest named “Wiki-baige” (baige means contest in Kazakh) was launched. Its main goal is to introduce 100 articles that will correspond to the Wikipedia format. The first 100 authors will be awarded laptops, and 40 best authors among them will be awarded new smart phones.

The developers of Kazakh Wikipedia hope that it will become a major online encyclopaedic resource providing accurate information in Kazakh that will continue to raise the awareness of Internet users and the status of the Kazakh language.

Is it likely that any of the participants in this contest, who will obviously have to submit their names and addresses to be able to claim a prize from the state-owned Samruk-Kazyna fund, will write anything unflattering about the President and his son-in-law, or the President’s style of government?

Wikipedian of the Year

WikiBilim is the organisation upon whose founder, Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, Jimmy Wales bestowed the Wikipedian of the Year award at the Wikimania 2011 conference in Haifa, Israel, as both the website of Kazakhstan’s prime minister and the Wikimedia blog proudly announce to the world:

In his “State of the Wiki” address at the 2011 Wikimania, Jimmy Wales awarded the first ever “Wikipedian of the Year” award to Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, a Wikipedian from Kazakhstan. Included with the honor was travel expenses to bring Rauan to Wikimania 2012 in Washington, D.C. […]

WikiBilim has had support from many organizations in Kazakhstan, including the printed Kazakh National Encyclopedia, which donated content to the Kazakh Wikipedia. Success of the project brought attention of Kazakh Government, in November 2011 Prime-Minister of Kazakhstan Mr. Karim Masimov announced his patronage to WikiBilim’s projects. WikiBilim has also received support from the Sovereign Wealth Fund Samruk-Kazyna and the Wikimedia Foundation in their efforts to improve the availability of information on the Kazakh Wikipedia.


WikiBilim is not only well funded, but also well connected – it promotes Creative Commons standards adoption in Kazakhstan, and will soon cooperate with Google to create a Kazakh version of Google Translate.

The organization says it already has the right to use Wikimedia trademarks, and exercises this right on its website. In its application for official Wikimedia chapter status, it says that it collaborates with

Kazakh National Encyclopedia “Kazakhstan” – provided all own content under CC licenses.

National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakhstan – provides content and quality review process.

Ministry of Education and Science provides us organizational support to involve Kazakhstan universities and colleges to Wikimedia projects.

Ministry of Communication and Information provides organizational support to involve IT companies and universities as well as traditional media support.

International IT University – provided technical support, internet access, summer student internship etc.

Note that this openly states that the National Academy of an authoritarian regime provides a “content and quality review process” in the Kazakh Wikipedia, and that two government ministries are involved in organising the work.

According to an interview given to the Harvard Crimson in October 2012, WikiBilim currently has 25 full-time employees, who have been busy transferring the content of the Kazakh state-published national encyclopedia and other state-published reference works into the Kazakh Wikipedia.

But what about other contributors who may believe in Wales’ vision of anonymous crowdsourcing? Kazakhstan’s government clearly has the technological and financial means to scrutinise volunteers’ contributions to the Kazakh Wikipedia for political correctness, and to identify the authors. What if they cite Western sources describing Nazarbaev as a dictator? Wikipedians have voiced concerns that Wales and the Wikimedia Foundation may be blissfully unaware just how much risk Wikipedia contributors in Kazakhstan who do not toe the party line might be exposed to if they contribute material to Wikipedia that cites foreign sources.

Questions raised

I recently questioned Jimmy Wales about the Kazakh Wikipedia’s government links on his user talk page. I said I could not understand why he would bestow an honour like the Wikipedian of the Year title on a foundation that is bankrolled by an authoritarian regime, funded by an organisation run by the son-in-law of a man widely described in the Western press as a dictator who suppresses freedom of speech in his country.

It seemed so incongruous with the Wikimedia ethic that I felt compelled to note that several prominent people who attended Jimmy Wales’ recent wedding to Tony Blair’s former diary secretary – namely Tony Blair himself, as well as his spin doctor Alastair Campbell, who played bagpipes at the event, and Peter Mandelson – have well-publicised links to Kazakhstan’s regime that have raised eyebrows across the political spectrum.

The Guardian for example commented, “Tony Blair’s moral decline and fall is now complete”. The Telegraph, referring to Kazakhstan as a “post-Soviet human rights desert” in which –

Criticising the president is an illegal offence, the police routinely torture civil society activists, any independent press is bullied and children are used in the tobacco industry

expressed much the same view:

If you want to know what price a great man will sell his legacy for – it’s $13 million. That’s how much it is costing President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, a spiteful autocrat, to employ former Prime Minister Tony Blair as his adviser. The man who ushered in the post-Westphalian era, the anti-Kissinger who prevented the genocide of Kosovan Muslims and defended the rights of Sierra Leoneans, is now the counsel of oil-rich dictators. […]

It’s not just Blair but some of his closest confidents who are working in Kazakhstan: Alastair Campbell has been spotted by the FT flying back from the capital Astana, Jonathan Powell (appropriately the author of a book on Machiavelli) is also apparently involved. Former BAE systems Chair Sir Richard Evans is now Chairman of the state enterprise Samruk, worth a staggering £50 billion that in turn has hired Lord Mandelson for speeches.


Wales blustered. He tried to close the discussion on his talk page, but then a Wikipedian opened it again. He deleted a post that detailed just how much money the Kazakh government had invested in WikiBilim, and which linked to coverage of past PR manipulation of Kazakhstan entries in Wikipedia. He said that he believed in free speech, that his “position on working with companies and organization in difficult jurisdictions is, I think, thoughtful and nuanced” and that it was wrong to say he was “helping the Kazakh regime whitewash its image”, and “absolutely silly to suggest that I’m in any way actively supporting tyrants”.

Yet WikiBilim’s Wikipedian of the Year award is touted on Kazakhstan’s embassy websites, and on the website of its prime minister. When Wales goes to Kazakhstan to be given the VIP treatment, there will no doubt be photo opportunities … and the photos of a smiling Jimbo shaking hands with Nazarbaev will turn up on Kazakh embassy websites.

Wikipedia’s fundraiser banner claims, “We take no government funds.” But the tax-exempt Wikimedia Foundation supports, rewards and is represented by an organisation in Kazakhstan that is funded by an authoritarian regime – an organisation that employs paid editors to transfer state-published material into the Kazakh Wikipedia, and proudly displays a Wikimedia trademark on its website. Yet Wales says, “The Wikimedia Foundation has zero collaboration with the government of Kazakhstan. Wikibilim is a totally independent organization.”

Don’t mention Blair

But Wales seems to have been most stung by the reference to Blair. Mentioning Blair, with whom Wales has spent leisure time on Richard Branson’s private island, was clearly one bridge too far: lèse-majesté. Wales told me to stay off his talk page:

I’ve had enough of you. I’ll delete anything you post there, and if you persist, I’ll ask others to help delete anything you post there. –Jimbo Wales (talk) 17:19, 21 December 2012 (UTC)

An allergic reaction to mentions of Tony Blair is something he shares with President Nazarbaev, as can be seen from this report in The Daily Mail last month: Kazakhstan dictator axes paper critical of Blair’s £8million job as adviser.

It’s one thing Kazakhstan and Wikipedia have in common. Free speech only goes so far.

18 comments to Jimmy Wales in: The Dictator and I

  • Delicious carbuncle

    I note with amusement that Freud Communications was the PR representative for the “Borat” movie: “Mocked Kazakhs plan PR fightback”.

  • I was so flabbergasted by just how “1984” is Jimmy Wales’ approach to hiding and deleting facts as shown before him, I knew that I had to speak out about this on my own citizen-journalism platform at Examiner.com. I have added a link from my article to this more informative post, because I worry that some of my readers don’t fully comprehend just how dangerously oppressive is the Kazakh ruler’s treatment of the critical press. It seems the Wikimedia Foundation keeps finding new ways to sink lower in terms of who it will get in bed with to make sure the content editors keep growing, no matter what the human or ethical cost.

  • EricBarbour

    What really gets me: you’ve got Wales dead to rights here, yet he refuses to explain himself. What an arrogant fool.

  • Volunteer Marek

    Check out the English language Wikipedia article on Nursultan Nazarbaev. While someone managed to get *some* criticism in there (about corruption, followed quickly by a glowing “president Nazarbayev declared a holy war against corruption and ordered the adoption of “10 steps against corruption”[26] to fight corruption at all levels of state and society. “) a quick tip off that there’s some serious and probably coordinated bias in that article is the fact that article relies extensively on…
    Nazarbaev’s own autobiography.

    It’s also got gems like “Under the leadership of Nursultan Nazarbayev, which can be termed enlightened authoritarianism, the Republic of Kazakhstan…”

  • Hersch

    I suspect that if that $13 Million check to Tony Blair had not cleared in a timely fashion, Kazakhstan would suddenly find itself to be a human rights violatin’, weapons-of-mass-destruction buildin’, non-transparent candidate for Regime Change (all duly reported with Reliable Sources in Wikipedia.) That’s what happened to Col. Gadaffi, who fell from Mr. Blair’s good graces rather abruptly. Jimmy Wales sure knows how to pick the role models.

  • cla68

    In my six years of observing and interacting with Jimbo, I notice that he doesn’t seem to be aware of the concept of how reason, accountability, and responsibility are connected to leadership. If you are in a leadership position, you have to carefully consider not only what you can do to promote your vision and ideas, but what you should do. If something gives the appearance of not being ethical, such as editing or asking others to edit your girlfriend’s BLP article, or appointing your favorite administrators to ArbCom even though they were way behind in the voting, then you have to say no. This is an even more serious situation than those other two and could really tarnish the WMF’s reputation. Jimbo has so far reacted rally badly by banning someone from his talk page for asking questions about it.

  • A related question on Quora appears to have been removed: http://www.quora.com/Wikipedia/Why-does-it-appear-that-Wikipedias-co-founder-is-covering-for-Kazakhstans-government-manipulation-of-Wikipedia

    While it can at the time of writing still be accessed by entering the actual URL, note the comment at the top: “This question has been removed. If it should be added back, discuss this question.”

    Is this not censorship, pure and simple? Note that Wales earlier expressed his hope in the discussion at Quora that the question would be removed.

  • To make up for the question that has been removed, Wales has promoted the following question to 18,140 people (!):


  • Murat

    Hi all,
    I would love to hear feedbacks to my humble opinion on this scandal (the original can be found here: https://plus.google.com/106158508876298632579/posts/ettYkwiYNGc)


    Mixed feelings.

    I personally know Rauan Kenzhekhanuly as a very enthusiastic Kazakh language advocate and it’s a pity that his and his team’s efforts are “found” to be supported by “bad guys”.

    If viewed isolated, there are no “good” and “bad” guys when you want your mother toungue to be flourished and present in the web. Like in case a son should not be responsible for his father’s sins, Kazakh people with their strong support for their language should not be blamed for their president’s sins.

    I believe that the article and the scandal in whole is absolutized and viewed one-sided. WikiBilim’s role in multiplying Kazakh wiki articles is zeroed in this case, though I believe, if they turned to the local NGO’s to fund “editathons” and other stimulating events, number of wiki articles in Kazakh would just a little less than in present.

    Alas, WikiBilim is supported by “bad” guys and it is stigmatized.

    By the way, +Andreas Kolbe, (I know that this article is not written by you, but I suggest it would be interesting for you to know that), WikiBilim is also one of the contractor of “e-education” (I don’t know the original name of this) project, run by Kazakh government and apparently by Samruk Kazyna, and $1.36 million, as I believe, can turn out to be given to WikiBilim not for Kazakh Wikipedia project, but for digitization of school books and creating a new web-friendly educational content (thus, more detailed investigation is needed here).
    “”Samruk Kazyna sponsored WikiBilim’s expansion of the Kazakh Wikipedia, with funding of 204 million tenge ($1.36 million)…””

    By no means I support Kazakh government and Nazarbaev (to say more, I don’t like his policy run towards Kyrgyzstan – the only democracy in the Central Asia, the country I am from), but I really feel sorry that guys from WikiBilim are treated as if they were just nonentities. And I feel sorry that their language related initiative is mixed up with politics.

    Questions I would like to clarify:
    Can “bad” people write “good” and “right” things?
    Are scientific articles written in authoritarian country’s paper-based encyclopedia are biased?
    Can a murderer be a wikipedia editor?
    Can articles written by an authoritarian regime be edited or they are somehow tagged and “locked”?
    Do you beileve that one cannot tell a propaganda shit from a not biased article (especially when it is written about a president of some official)?


  • Anthony Cole

    I’d like to see a good English translation of Kazakh Wikipedia’s BLPs of Nursultan Nazarbaev and Karim Massimov.

  • @Murat… Murat, I would like to thank you for giving thoughtful attention to the allegations I leveled in my Examiner article. The veracity of my content has been attacked by several parties — thus far, Jimmy Wales, Wikimedia Foundation employee Steven Walling, and Andrew Baron (founder of Rocketboom.com). The facts I reported were also challenged politely by a representative from WikiBilim, and one error was corrected — the amount contributed by Samruk Kazyna was apparently not 204 million tenge, but rather $340,000. This is still a substantial sum of money, especially in a country like Kazakhstan.

    What is most disturbing to me at this time is Jimmy Wales’ concerted effort to stifle and block discussion of the facts that financially tie his Wikimedia Foundation to the same goals being financially supported by a corrupt regime in Kazakhstan — a government whose abuses of the free press have been roundly criticized by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders.

    Examiner asked on Quora.com, why does it appear that Wikipedia’s co-founder is covering for Kazakhstan’s government manipulation of Wikipedia? Wales reiterated to Examiner on the Quora site (in which Wales has invested money), “This question is ridiculous. There is no serious suggestion from anyone that I’m doing any such thing.” He then asked that the question be removed, and Quora staff removed the question for him within a few hours. However, behind the scenes at Quora, Wales appears to be hitting the panic button, as multiple Quora users report receiving private e-mail from Wales, asking them to “Please downvote the smear campaign and upvote my answer.”

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