In Eurasia* telecommunications and politics have become deeply integrated: no longer the exclusive domain of engineers, enthusiasts, and entrepreneurs, the digital space has become profoundly political. Cyberspace is the new battlefield where individuals, networked collectives, governments, NGOs and international organizations alike wage fierce information wars. Armies of patriotic hackers and government-paid troll brigades roam the Internet fighting to assert their narratives. At the same time, rapidly growing Internet access, particularly through mobile platforms, is helping grassroots movements to network, inform, and mobilize in an environment marked by increasing restrictions on media and political freedoms.
Political developments both within and outside of post-Soviet Eurasia have played a decisive role in shaping cyberspace throughout the region. In particular, the upheavals sparked by the Arab Spring since 2010 have prompted many Eurasian governments to clamp down on Internet freedoms in recent years. Central Asian states, such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, with young, predominantly Muslim, populations have acted out of fear of widespread religious revolt and separatist movements; other authoritarian states have moved aggressively to forestall potential pro-democracy uprisings.
The ongoing Ukrainian conflict has become a prime example of the power and significance of telecommunications in politics in Eurasia. Cyberspace has played a pivotal role in the conflict from the beginning. Initial calls to action came from respected journalist Mustafa Nayem on his Facebook page. The Euromaidan movement has been extensively documented online, from peaceful demonstrations to sniper shootings. The clashes in Eastern Ukraine, after President Viktor Yanukovych’s departure in February 2014, further demonstrate the key role digital resources now play in the region: participants have published everything from doctored photos of burning cities to the horrors of the MH17 plane crash through social networks. Content is available not only in Ukrainian and Russian, but also in English, French, and German, helping to make news of the conflict available to a global audience. In fact, the sheer volume of information — and misinformation — has given rise to a cottage industry of independent journalists working to verify online stories as they appear. To observers both within the region and around the world, the power of online platforms is abundantly clear.
The Internet, and interactive and networked Web 2.0 resources in particular, are opening up new avenues for political activism across Eurasia. For example, bloggers such as Russian activist/politician Alexey Navalny have used online outlets to extend their reach to increasingly large audiences – so much so that when Navalny ran in the 2013 Moscow city elections, he finished with 27.2% of the vote, second only to the Kremlin-backed mayor, Sergey Sobyanin. In response to this and other forms of online dissent, Russia passed several laws in 2013-14 that impose greater control over online content. These include regulations requiring personal identification for the use of public wi-fi, provisions for the long-term storage of data on Russian servers, and media registration for bloggers with over 3,000 readers. Since Russia’s influence is still extremely powerful throughout the region, other countries across the former Soviet Union are likely to follow suit with similar laws.
As these trends unfold, it is abundantly clear that digital technologies will increasingly play a key role in the Eurasian political sphere: indeed, the future of politics in Eurasia, as elsewhere, is now unimaginable without cyberspace. This future, however, is not uncontested. Governments, NGOs, corporations, activists, engineers, journalists, and other actors are all vying today to shape the way the former Soviet Union will experience cyberspace tomorrow. As the online space becomes increasingly integrated into daily life throughout the region, its potential to act as an agent for change will also increase – a fact of which activists and governments alike are keenly aware, as the ICT sector continues to undergo robust growth in the region.
Read part II: The telecom boom
* This report looks at the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. All references to the region (Eurasia, former Soviet Union, post-Soviet space, etc.) refer to those 11 countries unless otherwise specified.