On January 5, the Kazakh government shut down the internet an attempt to control mass protests. Since then, the government has granted only sporadic access to most regions while continuing to cut off the country’s largest city, Almaty. The government’s monopoly on telecommunications infrastructure makes this extreme measure possible.
Arsen Aubakirov — coordinator of the Expert Group for Digital Rights in Kazakhstan, director of the Human Rights Consulting Group, and coordinator of the New Generation of Human Rights Defenders Coalition — explained that protesters circumvented initial social media blockages with a simple VPN, but there is no way to get around total internet blackouts. Even though he is in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, which has not experienced the severe blockages Almaty has, our connection was severed for over 48 hours from January 6 to January 8.
Like many authoritarian countries, Kazakhstan’s regime relies on a simple social contract: stay out of politics, and we will underwrite all the benefits of a global economy. The protests were sparked by increased gas prices, seen by some as a violation of that contract. Shutting down the internet is an even greater affront to the Kazakh people.
Eighty-six percent of Kazakhs use the internet, on par with the EU. Over 60 percent of the total population, including children and those in rural areas, are on social media. The Kazakh government has prioritized developing the digital economy, and nearly all citizen-government interaction, from registering for kindergarten to paying taxes, occurs on slick digital interfaces — rendered inoperable over much of the past week. Dependence on the internet is so ingrained that people were reportedly struggling to even buy food, because online payment methods are unreliable amid the internet blockage and many people do not carry cash.
Kazakhs will not tolerate being booted from the connecting fiber of their everyday life. Aubakirov said that “the majority is outraged… we have not seen anywhere that anyone is justifying it.” Unblocking the internet and restoring unrestricted access to information instantly became keys demands of peaceful protest organizers and human rights activists.
The regime cannot shut down the internet for long if it is interested in a functioning economy, explained Wolfgang Drechsler, an Estonian expert on digital governance and former adviser to the Kazakh government. Lesser measures, like social media blockages and promises to crack down on attempts to organize on the internet, will not be enough to quell protests.
When Belarus’ dictator Alexander Lukashenko attempted to restrict internet access amidst mass protests in August 2020, millions still joined protest channels on Telegram and thousands took to the streets despite violent repression. Closer to home, Uzbekistan cut off social media access on November 3, and the resulting public outrage forced President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to fire his Minister of Information Technology the following day.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has already dismissed the entire government. There is no one else to scapegoat for the shutdown except the protesters themselves.
The regime’s stated purpose of internet blockages is to suppress terrorists, not everyday citizens, but the effect has been exactly the opposite. The day the authorities started blocking internet access, January 5, was the turning point from primarily peaceful protests to riots. The information blackout has – for now – deterred everyday citizens, but clearly, violent groups have managed to organize anyway.
Therefore, the true purpose of the internet shutdown is not stopping violence, and blockages even seem to have stoked it by diluting the share of peaceful protesters on the streets. Instead, Aubakirov assessed, the regime’s goal is suppressing the spread of information.
Access to information has long been a fear of the regime, even when it tried to project an image of global connectivity. George Krol, former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan from 2015-2018, said that the State Department has pushed for expanded social media use: “We called this an element of democratization, but they would view it as an element used for destabilization.”
Perhaps this feeds Tokayev’s unfounded conviction that the destruction in Almaty was caused by terrorists trained abroad. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki attributed the specific allegation floating around the internet that the United States was behind the protests to Russian disinformation.
Some Kazakhs also think a Russian information operation is at work as the country’s troops support Tokayev on the ground via the deployment of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) troops. The 200,000+ member Vkontakte social media group “I am a witness of Almaty” has many comments praising Tokayev’s response against violent protesters. While some posters may be genuine, other users invariably call them Russian bots or FSB agents.
The regime has repeatedly spoken out against misinformation, promising to punish those spreading “falsehoods and rumors” online. The head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Almaty, Kanat Taymerdenov, told residents to rely on official sources. However, government-owned news sites like Khabar24 are often still inaccessible, even from outside Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, the government is spreading its own hard-to-believe rumors of beheadings and mass rapes. The government is not attempting to control the narrative, but rather sow confusion.
Information chaos helps the regime, because the lack of real-time reporting will make it “very difficult to reconstruct the events of the past few days,” Aubakirov said. At the beginning, the police used violence against peaceful protesters, including tear gas and stun grenades. However, he explained, the inability to spread such images right away and the violence that emerged after the internet blockage will make it hard to prove. In Belarus, videos of police brutality inflamed protests, so hiding and overshadowing it may be a smart move on the regime’s part, at least in the short term.
In the long term, the internet shutdown will cause major damage. Krol explained that international investors, including oil and gas companies on whom the Kazakh government relies to generate wealth, will be spooked by the blockages. Even more importantly, the Kazakh public knows the government is able and willing to shatter their digitally-enabled economic and social lives to maintain its grip on power. As Kazakhs lose trust in the government’s core promise of a modern, digital society, the country may enter a negative spiral, wherein internet blockages fuel discontent, which necessitates further digital crackdowns.