On May 9, a number of social media apps and news websites became inaccessible in Kazakhstan as an exiled government critic urged his supporters to protest on Victory Day. On May 10, an Uzbek official announced the lifting of restrictions on a number of news websites that have been blocked for years, via Facebook.
While the events in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are unrelated to each other, both reflect the power of the state over modern communications technology and the arbitrariness of the scapegoat of choice, “technical issues.” They also highlight diverging trends: progress in Uzbekistan and stagnation in Kazakhstan.
During annual ceremonies marking the end of World War II, Mukhtar Ablyazov urged his supporters to stage demonstrations. Kazakhstan is in the midst of churning political tides it has never seen before: In March, President Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned and Chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev become acting president; a few weeks later, Tokayev announced snap presidential elections and Nazarbayev’s party nominated Tokayev; and on June 9 the country will head to the polls, though most analysts suggest the conclusion is foregone.
Throughout this surprising spring, small acts of defiance have earned the state’s heavy hand: Protesters holding a sign at a marathon on Almaty reading “I have a choice” were arrested, as was a man who hung a banner with a quote from the Kazakh Constitution on it, as was a young man holding a blank sign.
As Kazakhs took to the streets to commemorate the Allied victory against the Nazis 74 years ago, Nursultan pulled the proverbial plug on a number of news websites. According to RFE/RL, “The websites of vlast.kz, holanews.kz, informburo.kz, exclusive.kz, time.kz, village.kz, and lada.kz news resources, as well as websites of the Uralskaya Nedelya and Aqzhaiyq newspapers were also inaccessible.” RFE/RL’s website was accessible only via VPN or proxy servers, and a number of human rights websites were also blocked.
According to Netblocks, network data showed that restrictions had been implemented at the ISP level. While a number of social media apps, like Vkontakte, Twitter, and WhatsApp were general available, Telegram – extremely popular in Central Asia – was restricted.
There’s a sense of routine to these kinds of blocks. For example, back in 2016 as Kazakhs took to the streets to protest pending land code changes that had dovetailed with anxieties about rising Chinese influence and generalized frustration with the state, Kazakh authorities blocked a bevvy of websites. The same year, as Kazakhstan marked its 25th year of independence, a number of sites were blocked. Last year, as Eurasianet reported, Kazakhs noticed their favorite social media sites slowing or not working at all in the evenings, just as Ablyazov took to his bullhorn in live Facebook speeches.
What makes the May 9 blockings particularly noticeable is all in the timing and the contrast to what happened in Uzbekistan on May 10.
On May 10, the head of Uzbekistan’s Information and Mass Communication Agency, Komil Allamjonov, announced that his office has “carefully studied the facts of inhibited access to some news web resources” that had been mentioned by the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir, in April. Desir had called on the Uzbek authorities “to restore access to the blocked websites and reform the laws and regulations affecting access to information and freedom of expression in the country.”
In his announcement of the great unblocking, Allamjonov stated that “certain technical issues” had been eliminated and there was now full access to a group of previously restricted websites including Voice of America, BBC’s Uzbek Service, Deutsche Welle, Eurasianet, AsiaTerra, Fergana News, Uzmetronom and others, as well as the websites of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders.
Conspicuously absent from that list is RFE/RL and its Uzbek Service.
Allamjonov urged foreign media and the journalistic community “to stand by the principles of professional ethics, avoid speculation and use of unverified and biased info, and prevent the spread of rumors, conjectures, and fake news.”
While most greeted the wave of Uzbek unblocking warmly, the continued blockage of RFE/RL dampens the hype. While Allamjonov’s statement made very public the unblocking, the details remain shrouded in euphemisms. What kind of “technical issue” persists for more than a decade, in the case of some of the websites, and then is solved within a month? The only “technical issue” behind website blockages in Central Asia is that of political will.
For Uzbekistan, three years into a determined push to re-wire how the the world views the country after the death of its strongman President Islam Karimov, the unblocking feeds directly into the reform narrative. Critics continue to see opportunism in these efforts, but if the sites remain unblocked (and especially if RFE/RL joints the list) the ultimate result is greater access to information for Uzbeks.
Kazakhstan may still have a more vibrant media sphere than Uzbekistan; but the trends in each country are moving in opposite directions. As Uzbekistan looks to find ways to open, Kazakhstan continues to use the same tactics it has for years to keep control on the tone of national conversations. The core difference is an attempt at progress — though the motives can certainly be debated still — and an effort to cling to a status quo that is slipping away.