Earlier in the Digital Eurasia:
The down of digital politics
The telecom boom
Regional powerhouse drives the digital age
Embracing the digital age
Redefining political activism
Big brother in Eurasia
A haven for cybercriminals
The push to change global internet governance
Digital Eurasia: A future of growth and contestation
With every year, telecommunications are more deeply embedded in virtually all aspects of life in Eurasia. The reach of mobile subscriptions (averaging over 100%), and quickly growing Internet access (currently standing at a 45% penetration rate,) help populations to connect with each other, do business, consume and, increasingly, produce information about the surrounding world. In the political domain, activists take up online tools to promote their causes and organize movements in the struggle against authoritarianism, corruption, human rights violations, abuse of power and justice, all still plaguing the region. Digital technologies have proven to be instrumental in the Ukrainian conflict: mobilizing and organizing the Euromaidan protest movement; serving to report on the unfolding developments; as well as dispel the overwhelming amount of propaganda and misinformation originated by all sides involved.
Taking advantage of the poor rule of law, cybercriminals of all stripes operating out of the region, primarily Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, have established a thriving industry dealing in everything from financial fraud and identity theft to software piracy and child pornography dissemination. While failing to adequately respond to cybercrime within their jurisdictions, governments have instead directed extensive efforts towards instituting controls over digital freedoms exercised by their populations. These measures come in three generations: from denying access to specific Internet resources by blocking access to servers, domains, keywords, and IP addresses, to creating a restrictive legal and normative environment for online controls, to, lastly, competing with dissenters through counterinformation campaigns that overwhelm, discredit, or demoralize opponents with the three generations often deployed in conjunction.
Russia, dominating Eurasia economically and politically, is also the regional leader and trendsetter across the entire spectrum of telecommunications, exporting Russian-language Internet content and resources, mobile and Internet service providers, legal frameworks and technologies for control and surveillance, and an international push to alter the global Internet governance architecture towards drawing national electronic borders and privileging security and sovereignty agenda over the foundational principles of freedom, openness, and networking, which the cyberspace was founded upon. Moscow is likely to preserve its regional dominance due to the almost inescapable economic and political ties that define its relations with the former satellites.
The current state of underdevelopment means that Eurasia’s ICT sector, except perhaps for the already saturated mobile market, is on course for continued growth for years to come. Understanding that procrastination may stifle their countries’ growth, even the more authoritative regimes such as Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan have produced and begun implementing long-term national programs of telecommunications development. The risks of investing into Eurasia’s ICT economy are high, but so are the potential rewards, likely to bring in more investments from Russian and other foreign companies.
There is, however, nothing definitive or determined about the future of digital Eurasia, particularly at the nexus of technology and politics. While committed to lowering the costs of digital access, developing ICT infrastructure and increasing digital literacy, governments across the region are simultaneously mastering the art of monitoring and stifling online dissent. Civil society actors, in turn, are coming up with ever more creative ways of using technology to challenge the powers that be. It is this dynamic contestation that will decide the future of not only digital politics, but perhaps Eurasian politics altogether.