The Conversation Global’s new series, Politics in the Age of Social Media, examines how governments around the world rely on digital tools to exercise power.
Until the mid-2000s, one would rarely associated the word “high-tech” with the country of Kazakhstan. Internet penetration hovered at 3% in 2005, and Kazakh authorities generally neglected the internet and social media.
Liberalisation of the media market in the early 2000s changed that. Usage of new media increased the number of internet providers and stimulated e-commerce. When the government, under president Nursutan Nazarbayev, in charge since the end of the Soviet Union, began to see the internet as a new highway for economic development, its belief in digital technologies grew.
By 2013, the percentage of internet users had skyrocketed to 54%. The evolution of the Kazakh government’s relationship with the internet over that same period is an illustrative tale of how national-level digitisation can both bring government closer to its people and threaten undemocratic regimes.
Authoritarianism and the internet
Authoritarian governments traditionally bolster their power by infiltrating populations with state propaganda. But in the internet era, old-school exploitation of print media and organisation of state-sponsored sports and cultural events have become less effective in controlling public opinion.
Alternative online sources of information have bred popular cynicism and distrust in the central government and state-controlled news outlets. Long gone are the days when informational was monopolised by pro-state media and could shape popular moods.
In the last ten years, the proportion of people who use internet for educational and informational purposes has significantly risen. Kazakh internet users have stopped relying only on national news sources to understand the current state of domestic affairs, reading and hearing stories online from foreign sources instead.
These often contradict national news outlets. For example, official sources report 16 people killed in a 2011 oil-workers’ strikes in Zhanaozen city, but some international outlets placed casualties at 73. Another controversial issue was about the Kazakh government’s secret negotiations with the Chinese government regarding land lease.
So, in the mid-2000s, Kazakhstan’s government went online.
Boring and unwelcoming official websites of state organisations underwent a major face lift. Ministers and local mayors followed the example of Prime Minister Massimov and started blogging (his official blog, launched in 2005, has now disappeared). The aim was to change public perception of government as an overly bureaucratic, unaccountable and ineffective body.
In his 2004 address to the nation President Nazarbayev called for deeper implementation of information technologies, resulting in a centralised portal of state services. By 2012 Kazakhstan was sharing second place (along with Singapore) in a global rating of citizens’ “e-participation” denoting ease of access to public services.
But the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2005, followed by the 2011-2012 Arab Spring protests, signalled to post-communist dictators to treat social networks such as Facebook and Twitter with caution. Social media, it became clear, could be an effective tool to mobilise dissent and organise movements aimed at dismantling authoritarian governments.
Fearing that the Colour Revolution could inspire civil unrest at home, the president of nearby Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov was the first Central Asian leader to ban social media, as early as 2010. In Kazakhstan though, authorities were quite confident that the Colour Revolution virus would never reach its borders.
They were wrong. During the nine-month oil workers’ protests in Zhanaozen city, participants used Facebook and Twitter to mobilise resources, attract popular support, appeal to foreign governments and international organisations and demonise Kazakh leadership.
These protests were violently suppressed by special forces in December 2011. The Zhanaozen massacre resulted in the government curbing press freedom and heightening control of the virtual public space.
By tightening the media legislation and criminal code against “frivolous” social media, the Kazakh government cleansed the internet of opposition and expunged anti-regime speech or sentiments. The 2014 Communications Law stipulates that the prosecutor’s office can block any communications domain without seeking a court ruling, if such domain threatens national interests, promotes radicalism, and calls for illegal gatherings.
Since then authorities have regularly blocked popular internet resources (Twitter, Skype, Youtube, Instagram, WhatsApp) and national cellular networks. During the May 21, 2016 nationwide anti-land reform protests, for example, citizens reported difficulty accessing popular social media platforms and Google. Of course, neither government nor major telecommunications companies such as Beeline, Kcell and Kazakhtelecom related internet outages to protests; they cited technical problems.
State monopolisation of the internet was coupled with growing government involvement in social media. Some politicians and state bodies went beyond mere blog maintenance to open accounts on leading social networks. The #Almaty city government launched Instagram and Twitter accounts in September 2015, ostensibly aimed at improving government’s feedback mechanism with residents.
And via the president’s AkOrdaPress Facebook account , any citizen of Kazakhstan can write a letter to a president. Examples like these of state involvement in social media were positively perceived by society.
A quiet acceptance
One may only wonder about public reaction to authorities’ clamp down on social media and the internet: Kazakh citizens are well-versed in self-censorship. But the absence of any significant public opposition to the clampdown on media freedoms suggests that people partially buy into state propaganda claiming that such measures are necessary to preserve peace and stability in Kazakhstan.
So is social media friend or foe to the Kazakh government? The fact is, it’s both. When used as it is in democratic countries, the internet is obviously a serious threat to the survival of Kazakhstan’s authoritarian regime.
But Kazakhstan learned from the mistakes of other ex-authoritarian post-Soviet states. Its draconian media legislation and online activity monitoring have managed to control the “enemy you do not know”. And by introducing e-government state services portal and engaging with constituents via social media, the Kazakh government is trying to boost citizens’ confidence and satisfaction with government.
Usurping most of the population’s opportunities to anonymously access and exchange information, the regime has eliminated most hope that social media might regain its promise of empowering citizens against authoritarianism. Few Kazakhs, if any, know how to use online anonymisers and VPN services to access restricted web content. Few, if any, are ready to risk their welfare by using the internet for anti-governmental activities.
And so, in Kazakhstan at least, the internet has ensured authoritarianism’s survival.