The advent of social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook has changed the nature of political dissent. But as this summer's unrest in Iran and China has demonstrated, authoritarian-minded governments have done their homework, and have kept pace with the revolution in communications.
Experts on Eurasian political developments now believe that authoritarian-minded governments in the region are going on the offensive to stifle opposition and roll back civil society. The offensive involves traditional methods of repression, as underscored by the recent murders of two prominent rights workers in Russia -- Natalya Estemirova and Andrei Kulagin. The ongoing detention of three youth activists in Azerbaijan is another case in point.
But many governments in the region are stepping up efforts to control the ability of people to use the Internet as a means both to communicate and to disseminate information. The most visible effort to repress social networking technologies and the internet is Kazakhstan's repressive Internet law, which President Nursultan Nazarbayev, no doubt influenced by events in Xinjiang and Iran, recently signed into law.
This new law violates Kazakhstan's promises of media reform made to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Astana made reform pledges in order to secure the OSCE chairmanship in 2010. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Kazakhstan's action to increase its oversight over the flow of information inside the country serves as an ominous indicator of how Astana will go about executing its responsibilities as the OSCE chair.
The Kazakhstani legislation follows Russian efforts going back to 2004-05 to control the Internet in the wake of Georgia's and Ukraine's revolutions. But according to US experts, the Kazakhstani law is even more draconian than Russia's statue, and thus can easily become a template to be copied by other Central Asian governments. Beyond the newly adopted restrictions, regional governments may be employing additional electronic means to silence dissenting voices. Some opposition websites have of late come under severe hacker attacks, for example.
Not surprisingly both Russia and Kyrgyzstan are showing interest in emulating the Kazakhstani approach on Internet legislation. And in Azerbaijan, Aynur Galieva, a member of Parliament, is advocating the regulation of the Internet through a new government agency that would ostensibly be set up to protect children from damaging content. All of these signs point to a common determination not to allow citizens to use information technology freely to organize, or assert their civil or human rights, let alone air legitimate political grievances.
One of the more ominous signs of things to come manifested itself in Russia in early July, when the Ministry of Communications posted its order Number 65 on its official website. This order obliges the postal services to make available all private mail and data on senders and addressees to the Federal Security Service (FSB) on demand. It also cancels the privacy of electronic correspondence, forcing operators to grant the FSB access to their electronic databases. No such law ever was promulgated under Soviet rule, even though the KGB, the forerunner of the FSB, conducted such activities anyway.
This order clearly contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1976. It would also seem to violate Article 23 of the Russian Constitution, which enshrines the privacy of telephone, postal, and other communications, and states unequivocally that only a court order can remove this right.
Order Number 65 parallels the Ministry of Internal Affair's (MVD) ongoing efforts to monitor public attitudes in order to forestall public protests over worsening economic conditions. The MVD is also forming an elite unit, dubbed "avant-garde," which will serve as a sort-of rapid reaction force designed to keep large-scale demonstrations from turning into forces for political change.
These extraordinary measures constitute a giant step toward the re-imposition of totalitarian controls in Russia. They also suggest that the Kremlin is genuinely worried about the possibility of unrest amid Russia's current economic crisis.
Editor's Note: Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.