Beyond the Arab Spring: Public protest in authoritarian states

Central Asian countries do not generally attract much attention in the global media. So when minorities in Tajikistan stand up against military occupation, or miners strike in Kazakstan, or Kyrgyz stage their characteristic political protests, the global media generally fails to take notice.  Partially because nobody seems to care enough to listen, but also because the protests themselves are often so suppressed they hardly bear significance to report. In general, Central Asia espouses a sense of stability.

I would certainly not go so far as to say Central Asia is ‘stable,’ as seen in previous posts, Central Asian states have been names among the least free, and recent events indicate growing civil unrest. Rightfully, some people have begun to question what kind of resistance civil society in Central Asia puts up against their autocratic leaders. Can the events of the Arab Spring, for example, be used to relate, or even predict protest dynamics in Central Asia? This was the central question at an event held October 26 by the Eurasia Forum in Stockholm, entitled: Beyond the Arab Spring- Public protest in authoritarian states.  The ‘timeliness’ of this discussion might be an indicator of how long it sometimes takes for Central Asia to creep up on any agenda.

Henrik Hallgren, chairman of the Eurasia Forum opened the discussion by drawing on demographic similarities between the regions: a highly educated (and relatively large) youth with few job prospects. In addition to authoritarian governments, a sense of nomenclature-suppression lingers. In Central Asia the focus has been on economic liberalization (marginally successful in the richer states such as Kazakhstan), but what about political liberalization?

There are strong impediments to social protest argues Andrea Schmitz of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs:

  1. Violence; the expectation of violence as a protest tool.
  2. Repression; by (often) illegitimate and patrimonial government authority.
  3. Fragmentation; geographical, social and cultural between and within countries.

Two interrelated aspects to look at here: first, the effects of decades of past and current suppression and second, the lack of common narratives. Visions remain sporadic, and ad-hoc. What role might social media play in developing such narratives? The 2011 protests in Kyrgyzstan were afterall known as the ‘Twitter revolution.’  If the Arab Spring was an ICT (information and communications technology) revolution, then what can we expect from Central Asia asks Schmitz’ colleague, Alexander Wolters.

Central Asia has among the lowest broadband subscribers in the world (less than 1/100 people). Even with this low coverage, the first thing the government do when a protest breaks out is clamp down on social media. News networks, facebook, youtube are periodically shut down. Internet coverage in Khorog was out for nearly a month this summer during the protests.

This brings up the question for me: where is the tipping point, and is it identifiable? Are there such things as ‘early warning’ signals? When do ad-hoc discussions become forces for change? Which match might ignite a revolution? Along with many friends and colleagues over the summer I participated actively in an information campaign in Tajikistan which aimed to a) uphold basic human rights of Tajik citizens isolated in Gorno Badakshan through military means, and b) to help make news available other than what the government was reporting. Hundreds of people spent days sharing information about loved ones and decrying the actions of the government on facebook and twitter. Many of us who had access to internet were reporting what we could from limited contact over satellite phones or other means. What makes one ICT protest tip into a movement so large in overthrows governments, while the other remains unknown to most of the world? Is it the number of deaths?  The number of tweets?

There wasn’t much by way of conclusion as to what we might expect with regards to protests in authoritarian Central Asian states, other than that there are a number of demographic similarities.  What is clear however, is that there is a space to be claimed in an ICT revolution. The question for me remains, how do we know where that representative civil society is? Technocratic middle class in Kazakhstan? Grassroots Islamic groups? Ethnic minorities?

Who will claim the ‘new public space’?

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One Response to Beyond the Arab Spring: Public protest in authoritarian states

  1. Lex says:

    Interesting article. You might find that the research at postsovietgraffiti.com offers an intriguing answer to your question, “where lies the representative civil society in authoritarian states?” Of course, graffiti is not a catch-all answer to where is the hiding place of free expression across the region but i do find that street art offered an interesting look at the street/ public narrative, which was unavailable and unpermitted elsewhere. Check it out–I would love to hear your opinion on this.

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