In 2022, most of the countries in Central Asia deliberately disrupted access to the internet in instances of public protests, other forms of open public criticism of government authority, and civil disobedience, citing national security and public safety concerns as justification. While these countries are equally eager in maintaining their control of the online space, they do so differently depending on their capabilities, socio-political contexts, and the political objectives of their national elites.
In this regard, the examples of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan provide a peculiar case. While these countries are on opposite poles in terms of the development of the internet and its use in governance and businesses, the national elites in both countries do not shy away from implementing excessive measures in the online sphere, including switching off communications completely.
While the latter instrument may sound lucrative in bringing quick “tangible” results in localizing and quelling public dissent, it may inflict severe financial and socioeconomic damage, turning internet shutdowns into an unattractive endeavor. For instance, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan made it into a list of the top 10 countries that suffered the most damage to their economies from government-ordered internet shutdowns, placing third ($410 million), fifth ($219 million), and 10th ($29 million), respectively. As a result, there is a growing interest in both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in developing a spectrum of longer-term controls and permanent limitations on internet access that can achieve similar objectives with less public criticism, and lower reputational, financial, and economic consequences.
The difference between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in using localized short-term internet shutdowns and in approaching control over the internet results from the peculiarities in the development of the telecommunication sector in both countries, and how authorities defined the utility of the internet on the strategic level in relation to governance, politics, and the economy.
In Kazakhstan, the government has aimed to improve its reputation in the international arena to ensure sustainable partnerships with main foreign economic partners, particularly to attract foreign investment. Toward this effort, the government has pursued a wide range of reforms, including positive developments in the areas of human rights and digitalization; however, this progress was most prominent on paper and less so in practice. Importantly, the term “digital rights” was never mentioned in any state laws.
However, in 2017, in reference to then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s address to the nation, the “Digital Kazakhstan” program was approved. It aimed to accelerate the pace of economic development by introducing advanced technologies. Expanding the coverage of communication networks and ICT infrastructure was established as one of its main objectives; however, the process needed a stable internet connection throughout the country. While expanding its coverage in distant villages, residents of larger cities started to encounter localized shutdowns, in instances when the government sought to contain anti-government protests at the places of their origin.
The methods that had been used in the past continued to be practiced with the introduction of spearheaded digitalization, improving their effectiveness, as was the case during the strikes in Zhanaozen in 2011, the protests over devaluation in 2014, and ethnic conflicts (“clashes”) in Korday in 2020. In each of these occasions the government tried to isolate the region through internet shutdowns, disconnecting cellular operators, as well as blocking independent mass media.
Compared to Kazakhstan, the Turkmen government has continuously pursued rigid and centralized control of the internet through a bundle of offline and online measures to keep a highly sterilized online environment. To seal off the domestic online space, the government has used state-owned Turkmentelecom, the country’s only authorized internet service provider, to control the flow of information through a centralized hub. Internet access has been deliberately kept slow and unreliable compared to global standards, and expensive in relation to the income of the local population. The infrastructure outside of major urban areas has remained significantly underfunded and underdeveloped; roughly 50 percent of the population lives in these areas.
Although in recent years the situation has significantly improved, Turkmenistan still has the lowest internet penetration rate in Central Asia at 38 percent of the total population. Furthermore, Turkmenistan has one of the world’s most expensive mobile internet systems and one of the world’s slowest average internet download speeds.
The Turkmen government has also vigilantly controlled digital content, through blanket surveillance, severe penalties, and blocking access to websites and communication platforms critical of official government policy. The lack of publicly accountable and independent institutions, a vibrant civil society sector, and the country’s self-isolationism in the international arena (outside of the topic of hydrocarbon exports), paved the way for the government’s excessive abuse of power in censoring the internet.
Thus, unlike in Kazakhstan, the Turkmen authorities limited the expansion of the internet and its development as a medium of political and social mobilization and a source of independent information, free from the shackles of state propaganda. This made the use of localized internet shutdowns an unnecessary measure.
While Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have pursued different paths in the online space, the growing disillusionment with the government policies that led to political protests, particularly in Kazakhstan from 2019 onward, brought the two countries closer in how they tried to control and shape their domestic online ecosystems.
In 2019, Kazakhstan witnessed a major wave of anti-government protests. These protests were sparked by the renaming of the capital city in honor of Nazarbayev after his resignation and the boycott of the snap presidential election that summer. The largest demonstrations took place in the capital and Almaty on voting day, where targeted shutdowns were initiated in order to prevent the spreading of news and communication between protesters. The actions of the authorities contributed to human rights abuses during detentions, as well as affected the mission of independent observation by preventing reports of violations at polling stations. According to NetBlocks’ Cost of Shutdown Tool (COST), blockage of one social media platform for an hour cost the national economy $106,308. This amount could be multiplied by at least three, since people did not have access to several tools (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp).
However, Kazakhstan suffered the greatest losses during the January 2022 events, during which the government enacted a total internet blackout, the first in a country’s history — at a cost of around $410 million. These numbers indicate the government’s prioritization of political control over economic development.
Since 2019, the Turkmen government has significantly improved its repressive capabilities and intensified its stranglehold of the internet. These developments were incentivized by changing internal and external conditions. Grappling with protracted socioeconomic crises caused by the drastic drop in the prices of hydrocarbons, the authorities initiated an ambitious “digitalization” strategy to diversify the economy, improve government efficiency, encourage further development of the private sector, and catch up with other countries at the same tier of development.
The government has also kept an eye on how modern technologies, and particularly the internet, started to redefine and influence the socio-political dynamics in neighboring countries with similar authoritarian regimes, particularly in Kazakhstan. The pursuit of “security” that could ensure the stability of the regime, hence, received greater attention at the expense of improving the well-being of the population. As a result, the government’s efforts became focused only on strengthening further the state’s repressive capacity in the online space rather than investing in the economic potential that wider internet available could unlock.
The events in 2020 only reaffirmed the authorities of their course of action. These included the government’s incompetent response to the spread of COVID-19 in the country and the failure to address the damage caused by the hurricane in Lebap and Mary provinces that year. These events triggered a wave of anti-government protests staged by Turkmen living abroad and increased demand for independent politics-focused content in the Turkmen-speaking online community, leading to mushrooming growth of virtual communities that produced and re-broadcasted such content.
After the hurricane, the authorities carried out localized disruptions to mobile services and the internet to restrict the flow of information that could shed light on the actual damage and casualties. The authorities also acquired new equipment that improved the government’s capacity to block sites more effectively and have greater control over VPN applications and other circumvention tools. These measures were aided further by the increasing offline harassment of journalists and activists who leaked information or provided services on installing circumvention tools.
The January 2022 events in Kazakhstan did not go unnoticed in Turkmenistan. Amid the unfolding public unrest in Kazakhstan, the Turkmen authorities deliberately throttled the internet, while then-President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov ordered the Ministry of National Security to identify and restrict access to sources that threaten the “constitutional order” and “pervert the reality.”
Throughout the year, deliberate interference with communications akin to localized internet shutdowns became the norm. They were often carried out during presidential visits to the regions and during the early presidential election in March 2022 that installed Berdimuhamedov’s son Serdar in the presidency. There was then a massive internet blackout in April. In October 2022, it was reported that over 1 million IP addresses (roughly one-third of all existing IP addresses) had been blocked in Turkmenistan, underlining not only the authorities’ improved repressive capacity but also the grander ambition of disconnecting the country from the global network, even as the term “digitalization” is still high on the government’s agenda.
As can be seen from the examples above, the national elites in both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan converge when it comes to using repressive measures online to (re)assert their grip on power, including switching communications off completely in cases that challenge (in a real or perceived fashion) or otherwise undermine their authority. The governments also see eye-to-eye as to defining the cases when they consider such measures appropriate, albeit with minor differences. Both countries defend this practice as their intrinsic prerogative derived from their sovereign authority, appealing to the need to defend against threats to national security, constitutional and public order, and the well-being of citizens and their rights and freedoms.
In reality, however, such deliberate interference with internet services aims to limit the spread and influence of anti-government attitudes in society. The Turkmen government seeks to keep political discontent from gaining any ground, and because the state effectively controls the traditional media environment, the internet is the only platform to voice discontent or learn about alternative viewpoints. However, the fear of total surveillance and censorship, and harsh penalties for producing or even accessing politically-charged content critical of the government, motivates most people to use the internet as a medium for social interaction and recreation only. Furthermore, as state media outlets do not cover demonstrations and similar unfavorable topics, citizens are prevented from learning about the scale of dissatisfaction with the government’s policies in various regions, success stories of facing authorities, and the power of collective demands. Hence, the government implements a state of total control, while resorting to localized shutdowns in isolated emergency cases.
Similarly, in Kazakhstan, the intensifying control of the internet is used to diminish protest attitudes, and intimidate and marginalize independent activists and journalists to limit their outreach and mobilizational capacity.
In addition to weakening the protest movement, the rigid and centralized control of the internet aims to promote only state-endorsed narratives and propaganda, and not only in crisis situations. This is particularly important to the ruling family-based politics in Turkmenistan as the regime initiated a hereditary power transition last year — though the elder Berdymuhamedov reasserted himself recently with a new position above the president — amid an ongoing socioeconomic crisis that significantly worsened the living conditions of the majority of the population in recent years. Events in neighboring Kazakhstan clearly demonstrated how unaddressed and widening social inequalities and exclusion can spark protests even in closed political systems.
Moreover, Turkmenistan’s propaganda is not directed only toward the domestic audience; it also seeks to enhance the country’s international image and reputation by painting a rosy picture of economic accomplishments and well-being, and solidify the ruling regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of both the domestic and foreign public. In 2022, the government made a further step in this regard as Rashid Meredov, the country’s minister of foreign affairs, announced the establishment of an international information center tasked with the production of materials for foreign outlets, and strengthening cooperation with Russian propaganda channels.
Similarly, Kazakhstani authorities have sought to boost the country’s international image, worsened by the government’s mishandling of political protests in January 2022, which led to numerous casualties, and cases of torture and inhumane treatment. Through the increasing control of the internet, the authorities have strived to hijack the post-protest agenda, shifting the focus from the government’s failures to promises of “drastic” reforms (which largely remained cosmetic, however, like earlier reform efforts).
Needless to say, various forms of internet disruptions, censorship, and control cause a variety of negative consequences, particularly in the area of human rights, societal and human well-being, and security. The authorities’ conception of state-centric security falls below democratic and human rights norms, and the international commitments the two countries have bound themselves with. In this regard, it is important to note that both countries do not recognize internet access as a human right.
Nevertheless, amid internet shutdowns citizens encounter two main challenges that lead to deeper social issues. First, with many government services having been digitized, internet shutdowns make them inaccessible. In addition, the lack of access to reliable, real-time information aggravates already tense situations and generates space for further abuse of power and torture, as well as the persecution of civil activists. At the same time, internet shutdowns are costly to both the government and the private sector, which further contributes to citizens’ economic grievances.
The Kazakhstan government ultimately admitted that shutting down the entire internet during the January 2022 unrest was a poor decision, though it did not denounce the concept of shutting down the internet, merely its execution. It was announced by the Ministry of Digital Development that a better method would include the preparation of a “list” of resources that would not be blocked, which, in past experience, will likely turn out to be pro-government media sources. Along with the new initiative of a total Digital Code, which will consolidate all laws on the media, freedom of expression, and access to the internet, Kazakhstan has displayed an aspiration to minimize the risks associated with blocking access to the internet and the reputation costs, while at the same time, aiming to keep control of the internet to a large extent.
Turkmen authorities plan to go a step further. As some experts note, the April 2022 internet blackout may have been the government testing more sophisticated equipment for internet control. This point is noteworthy, as in December 2022, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the development of an autonomous national digital network. It appears that the authorities are looking for a way of to disconnect Turkmenistan from the global internet. While it is still unclear as to what form this will take — a Turkmen version of China’s Great Firewall or North Korea’s Koryolink, or some unique combination of the two — it is apparent that Ashgabat is unwilling to relinquish its stranglehold on information.
Whatever form these measures take, what remains clear is that internet blackouts and near-complete shutdowns are only intermediary steps, and they are likely to be set aside in favor of more sophisticated approaches of circumscribing access to resources that the governments fear. To keep governments in check, there is a need for more comprehensive and nuanced assessments of internet restrictions, including the redefining and re-conceptualizing of the idea of internet shutdowns and blackouts, to ensure that any means of interfering with communications receive the same degree of attention and concern as the near-complete takedown of the internet. As such, they need to be under the radar of local civil society institutions and most importantly their international partners who need to remain vigorous in this uneasy task.
Otherwise, the exploitation of the existing tendency in countries with persistent human rights violations is, at worst, a prerequisite for a total shutdown and the establishment of a fully controllable internet, which will pull these countries even closer to Russia and China-led orbit of influence.