Crossroads Asia

In Central Asia, Politics By Way of Social Media

New research on youth in Central Asia attempts to untangle young people’s political attitudes and preferences on their own terms.

Colleen Wood
In Central Asia, Politics By Way of Social Media
Credit: Pixabay

Two new publications put out by George Washington University’s Central Asia Program tackle an understudied population in Central Asia: youth. Although more than half of Central Asians are younger than 29, we know relatively little about young people’s attitudes and preferences compared to other countries in Eurasia. 

Daniyar Kosnazarov, an analyst and the editor-in-chief of an independent digital media outlet in Kazakhstan, explores how Kazakhstani youth relate to politics through social media. Kosnazarov argues that young people are using social media in the traditional sense — posting selfies, reading the news, liking memes — as well as to consume political content created by other young people. They are reshaping what “politics” means and using social media in new ways to foster interest in civic involvement and activism.

Another recent paper, by Emil Nasritdinov, Zarina Urmanbetova, Kanatbek Murzakhalilov, and Mametbek Myrzabaev lays out the results of a major study in Kyrgyzstan to understand trends in young people’s resilience to religious radicalization. The authors find that grievances, broadly defined, and social isolation make young people especially vulnerable to radicalization. They argue that young people in Kyrgyzstan feel they have limited opportunities to engage in formal politics, a sphere they see as dominated by older generations despite quotas for young people in parliament.

This contrasts with the results of a Public Opinion Institute and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung survey that shows young Kazakh citizens are fairly disengaged from politics and are not interested in taking part in civic initiatives. Kosnazarov explains that younger generations are distrustful of various institutions in Kazakhstan, while simultaneously supportive of the financial and social stability that have come to define Nursultan Nazarbayev’s presidency.

This tension between trust and wariness of the state, as well as engagement and disinterest in politics appears in the digital realm as well. Kosnazarov focuses on four popular content creators to get at this tension and explore the innovative channels young people are using to reinterpret what counts as “political” and foster civic engagement.

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Whereas older generations are spending time on Facebook, young people in Kazakhstan are Instagram and YouTube obsessed. Gakku, a Kazakh music channel and one of the country’s most popular YouTube accounts, has more than 1.5 million subscribers — equivalent to more than 7 percent of Kazakhstan’s population. 

Dmitry Dubovitsky and Dmitry Khegai, founders of popular YouTube channel Za nami uzhe vyekhali,” pose difficult questions that traditional media outlets do not ask powerful politicians or corporate players. Dubovitsky and Khegai are careful not to frame themselves as activists or pursuing any explicitly political agenda, however. 

This hesitation to identify as “political” makes sense, given the various means authoritarian regimes in the region have pursued to undermine political opposition. Central Asian leaders have dabbled in both repression and co-optation of digital dissent. Last December, Turkmenistan’s authorities forbade university students from using their cell phones during winter break, while Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan blocked certain social media sites or even shut off internet access entirely

Repression is costly for autocrats, though. In 2003, when only 3 percent of Kazakhstan’s population was connected to the internet, shutting off access might not have sparked much of a  response. Today, however, more than 50 percent of Kazakhs are online; blocking social media, even apolitical content, could therefore arouse a political reaction. 

On the other hand, co-optation is a less nefarious — and less costly, in terms of potential backlash — strategy. Kazakh authorities have attempted to sanitize social media as a potential source of discontent and organizing, both by providing support to young people already producing content as well as creating its own content. For example, the Salem Social Media agency, headed by the former press secretary of presidential party, controls several major YouTube and Instagram accounts with a combined 2 million followers. Kosnazarov says that a proliferation of funny, apolitical videos on these platforms “may marginalize producers of political content.”

By repressing and co-opting social media content, state authorities in Kazakhstan demonstrate their fear of social media’s latent potential as an organizational tool for would-be opposition.

Social scientists are debating the efficacy of “virtual” civil society, but it is important not to rush to securitize Central Asia’s youth bulge against the backdrop of internet connectivity and social media usage in the region. Some have argued that youth bulges — having a burgeoning youth population — lead to unemployment, grievances, and potentially civil conflict.

Rather than focusing on the destabilizing potential of the youth bulge or social media, a less functionalist approach is needed to unpack the meanings and implications of how young people relate to politics. To what extent are young activists simply being strategic when they claim not to be interested in or practicing politics? Or does this generation’s distance from all things political reflect a novel understanding of politics altogether?