Crossroads Asia

Can Social Media Change Governance in Central Asia?

Improved digital infrastructure and pushes for reform are changing how Central Asian politicians and bureaucrats govern.

Can Social Media Change Governance in Central Asia?
Credit: Pixabay

As the number of Central Asians online grows, social media increasingly shapes the way people in the region do business, remember the past, and engage in politics. From the top, Central Asian politicians and bureaucrats are realizing that social media can both be leveraged as a tool for governance and co-opted to control public discourse.

Individual politicians have built large followings across social media platforms, and they use their accounts to post updates and hear from citizens. Dastan Bekeshev, a member of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament (called the Jogorku Kenesh) representing the president’s Social Democratic Party (SDPK) faction, has demonstrated a particularly masterful command of digital outreach. Even back in 2014, when internet users made up only 28 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population, local media experts applauded Bekeshev’s social media skills. He has made use of multiple platforms, recognizing that various social media sites attract different segments of the population. Bekeshev recently made a splash by chatting with followers on Instagram Live, taking a page from the social media playbook of freshman U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Regional politicians don’t use social media simply to build rapport with constituents, but also to communicate policy. On April 8, the Facebook page for Almaty’s Mayor’s Office announced their decision to postpone a major real estate project in Kok Zhailau, a national park in Kazakhstan. The development project had garnered significant criticism among local environmental activists for over a decade. The bilingual posts on Facebook got minimal interaction compared to the announcement on Almaty Mayor Bauyrjan Baibek’s personal Twitter account. Interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev also tweeted about Kok Zhailau on April 8 in support of Baibek’s decision to postpone construction.

In Uzbekistan, where government authorities have regularly limited access to media messaging and the internet, social media constitutes a contested space where average people express discontent against a backdrop of surveillance and censorship. Given these concerns about monitoring, the heavily encrypted and cloud-based app Telegram has taken off among Uzbeks. Authorities have also tapped into Telegram fever, evidenced both by myriad pro-government bot accounts and President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s press service channel.

Some regional governments have developed more formal digital channels for representation and accountability. In September 2016, almost immediately after long-time leader Islam Karimov died, Uzbekistan launched a “virtual office” that allows citizens to report bureaucrats and government agencies for mistreatment or substandard performance. According to official data, over 1.4 million complaints have been lodged since then. However, in 2018 Freedom House reported that the website was “unavailable or only partially accessible from IP addresses outside of Uzbekistan,” limiting access to only a narrow segment of society.

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Bishkek’s local authorities have pursued a similar blend of native digital infrastructure and savvy social media use. The city developed an app for residents, Bishkek 312, and maintains an active presence on various social media platforms. Locals tag the Bishkek City Hall Facebook and Twitter accounts complaining of missing manholes, foul-smelling pedestrian underpasses, and flooded sidewalks. Within hours, whoever manages the account responds (often with several emojis), and not long after posts photos to demonstrate the completed task.

If open and responsive social media accounts are framed as budding e-government systems, it’s no surprise comparable strategies have not emerged among politicians in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. While e-government can be an attractive tool for citizens and governments alike, its potential is constrained by telecommunications infrastructure — online services require widespread internet access to be useful — in addition to political will for accountability. Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are lacking in both, relative to their neighbors in Central Asia. Internet in both countries is slow and unreliable for those who can pay for access, and governments frequently surveil anti-regime sentiment or block it altogether.

Of course, in the Central Asian countries that have dabbled with digital governance, it’s unlikely that traditional channels of communication will be abandoned altogether — Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his resignation on national television, for example. But with the majority of the region’s populations under 30 and consistently increasing internet penetration, this range of behavior marks the beginning of a trend worth watching.