Internet … Government and its power to disconnect. What does this mean especially when one considers the like of US, China, Russia. (Interesting map and article in yesterday’s Daily Mail mapping out the infrastructure and its location and how it can be targetted by submarines). Do not forget how the Kazakhstan Government shut down the internet when civil unrested started at the beginning of 2022. “The government’s monopoly on telecommunications infrastructure makes this extreme measure possible.”

Posted by
Internet … Government and its power to disconnect. What does this mean especially when one considers the like of US, China, Russia. (Interesting map and article in yesterday’s Daily Mail mapping out the infrastructure and its location and how it can be targetted by submarines). Do not forget how the Kazakhstan Government shut down the internet when civil unrested started at the beginning of 2022. “The government’s monopoly on telecommunications infrastructure makes this extreme measure possible.

Features | Society | Central Asia

Information Chaos in Kazakhstan

Seeking control, the Kazakh government shut down the internet. But the long-term effects may only necessitate continued crackdowns. By Katrina Keegan January 10, 2022

Information Chaos in Kazakhstan
An armed riot police officer detains a protester during a security operation in a street after clashes in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. Credit: AP Photo/Vasily Krestyaninov

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. 

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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. You have read 2 of your 5 free articles this month.

Subscribe to
Diplomat All-Access

Enjoy full access to the website and get an automatic subscription to our magazine with a Diplomat All-Access subscription.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Login here Authors

Guest Author

Katrina Keegan

Katrina Keegan is a graduate student at the Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. She is writing her thesis on digitalization in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.  Tags

RJanuary 11, 2022Curious Case of the Kyrgyz Jazzman Detained in KazakhstanBy Catherine PutzThe bizarre story illustrates a wider set of concerns as the Kazakh government claims to have arrested nearly 8,000 people in the wake of a week of chaos in Kazakhstan. January 08, 2022Former Security Chief Massimov Arrested on Treason Charges in KazakhstanBy Catherine PutzA day after being dismissed as head of the KNB, Massimov was arrested. The news sheds additional light on the complex web of politics and violence at play.January 07, 2022Kazakhstan’s Tokayev Orders Troops to ‘Shoot to Kill Without Warning’By Catherine PutzTokayev called international urging for the government to negotiate with protesters “idiocy.”January 07, 2022Kazakhstan’s Leadership Shows Internal Cracks in Attempts to Restore Public SafetyBy Paolo SorbelloAs CSTO troops start their operations in Almaty, the president seems to be losing authority.

Top Stories

TJanuary 07, 2022Thailand Raises COVID-19 Alert Level as Neighbors Brace for Omicron SurgeBy Sebastian StrangioThe fast-spreading coronavirus variant is clouding the region’s economic recovery.January 07, 2022Philippines’ BrahMos Cruise Missile Purchase Takes Another Step ForwardBy Sebastian StrangioThe acquisition would equip the Armed Forces of the Philippines with a potent deterrent against Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea.January 04, 2022Japan’s Self-Destructive Immigration PolicyBy Markus BellCriminalizing asylum seekers and stigmatizing immigration is only worsening Japan’s demographic crisis.January 04, 2022Russia-Ukraine Tensions: Signals to ChinaBy Mercy A. KuoInsights from Karen-Anna Eggen.


FJanuary 12, 2022China’s New Year Ambitions for Latin America and the CaribbeanBy R. Evan Ellis and Leland LazarusAmid the economic and public health challenges of COVID-19, Beijing has steadily deepened its engagement with the region.January 11, 2022Congress Is More Important Than Ever in US China PolicyBy Robert SutterFrom Trump to Biden, Congress has remained at the center of the so-called Washington consensus to end previous engagement in favor of strong opposition to Beijing.January 08, 2022Rare Earths: Fighting for the Fuel of the FutureBy Brendan P. Dziama, Juan Manuel Chomón Pérez, and Andreas GanserRare earths are as critical to the modern economy as oil – and China has quietly secured a near-monopoly.January 07, 2022India’s New Reproductive Laws Trigger DebateBy Neeta LalNew legislation aims to clean up India’s hitherto unregulated assisted reproductive tech and surrogacy industry, but activists say the laws are deficient in many respects.


BJanuary 12, 2022Kazakhstan’s New Cabinet Features Many of the Same MinistersBy Paolo SorbelloThere was no radical change in the composition of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s team.January 12, 2022India’s Supreme Court Intervenes in Hate Speeches Against MuslimsBy Ashok SharmaThe apex court intervention relates to calls for genocide of Indian Muslims made at a Hindu religious conclave last month. January 12, 2022Will al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent Find Support in India?By Shafi Md MostofaThe local branch of al-Qaida failed to appeal to Indian Muslims in the past, but it hasn’t given up.January 12, 2022Betel Nut Smuggling From Myanmar to India Booming: ReportBy Sebastian StrangioThe central government has ordered authorities in Mizoram and Manipur to clamp down on the surge of illicit trade. Regions





The Diplomat

Magazine January 2022 The Asia-Pacific in 2022: What to Expect © 2022 Diplomat Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s