Internet cafe in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, 2010. Photo by aelita.
Registan has been fairly static lately, or as Joshua Foust would describe it, "non-kinetic" and hasn't had as as many regular posts. Curiously, Nathan Hamm, the site co-founder, a defense analyst, who works in one of those secretive boxes somewhere with classified status, has been running a spate of articles about human rights that seem designed to look like they are somehow critical of the rights situation in Uzbekistan.
They aren't really.
Just take a closer look and you'll see they really don't challenge the government of Uzbekistan or even the much-ridiculed Gulnara Karimova. "Uzbekistan’s government rarely budges in meaningful ways," says Hamm -- and counsels avoiding a downgrade of Uzbekistan's status under US laws against aid to countries found to engage in trafficking and forced labor, because this would harm the NDN.
So his articles sort of create the appearance of covering human rights critically by actually doing something else that is perfectly blessed activity for the "progressives": they bash Komen, the breast cancer organization for dealing with Karimova's charity.
This was low-hanging fruit, as Komen was mercilessly savaged by "the Internet" for temporarily witholding funding of Planned Parenthood because it gives referrals to abortions, and it was hoping to avoid controversy with its base, which includes women against abortion as well as those who are "pro-choice." Komen was bullied into restoring the funding to PP, but then blundered into the relationship with Uzbekistan through some overseas "race for the cure" sort of program. So not only Hamm and the rest of the crowd had lots of fun with this for days, Wonkette suddenly woke up and paid attention to Uzbekistan for the first time ever, and wrote some of the most viciously catty articles ever known to the site about Karimova for hooking up with the evil and hated Komen. Gosh, we missed Wonkette when we were picketing Gulnara's fashion show to draw attention to forced child labour. Surely Wonkette likes children?
The whole opportunistic spasm has now passed and Gulnara will be forgotten again -- as she was for months after the fashion picket, even though there should be a sustained scrutiny on her and her dictator dad for ever public appearance about everything, not only when she connects with politically-incorrect American non-profits.
But this flurry of faux human rights concern didn't last for long: the Nathan Hamm we recall from all the other RealPolitik posts is back today with this twisted post admonishing a fellow defense analyst to "Focus on the Social in Social Media."
The purpose of a post like this is to make it appear to the casual eye and the typical one-minute website visitor that an article about the importance of citizen journalism is being covered in Registan. And so it is -- for about three paragraphs as he references Small Wars Journal, which published an article by Matthew Stein, a research analyst currently working at the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Stein says:
Finally, the significance of these videos is that the people of Zhanaozen were able to get information on the incident out into social media despite the government’s control over access. People using social media to publicize incidents that might not otherwise be noticed is not a new trend, as can be seen from worldwide events in 2011. However, this is the most noteworthy example from Kazakhstan, much less Central Asia, of this happening.
Indeed. Those videos from Zhanaozen were invaluable in completely undermining not only Nazarbayev's narrative that everything was minimal and now under control; they were vital in undermining Joshua Foust's narrative that Zhanaozen was just a minor put- down of labor strikers (and the narrative of some other creepy Registan authors bashing the Russian journalist who reported on more deaths than officially acknowledged, and bashing the workers' lawyer). I would say that the videos of the Abadan explosion were on par with these videos, but as good as they were, they didn't show how many people were affected in Turkmenistan (it was very hard to film the scene as police blocked roads and seized cameras). The Zhanaozen videos did; they had eyewitness reports.
So Stein has reported all this accurately and come to exactly the right conclusion: videos of atrocities undermine the regime's narrative and help claim some space, although limited, for human rights groups and opposition to strengthen.
But then Hamm diggs in to make these contorted points:
o an unnecessary and pedantic claim that the Zhanaozen videos weren't the first from Central Asia, as there were some from Bakiyev's overthrow and the Osh pogroms. So? Stein is talking about Zhanaozen
o a claim that these sorts of videos are exaggerated; "the significance of information going unfiltered into social media and out to a wide audience is overstated". How? Information *did* get out into social media and to a wider audience. There were multiple Zhanaozen videos and they had a fairly big impact in getting the word out to the foreign media and raising some awareness at home, although limited given the Internet blockages and low penetration. Nothing is overstated; this is really important.
Now Hamm objects:
In his final paragraph, Stein points to the emergence of a struggle between state and society to control the narratives around controversial events. There is a story to be told about how these authoritarian states respond to erosion of their information dominance, but in many ways, it is singularly uninteresting. Almost every state tries to shape narratives, and in Central Asia, the state controls the story by keeping political groups, social and religious groups, and the media on a short leash.
Well, yeah, we get it that groups are on a tight leash, and regimes shape narratives, but the amazing thing is that they nevertheless are increasingly getting videos out like this, even from Turkmenistan.
There is a struggle between state and society most definitely! Why does Hamm need to minimize it and even deny it?! Is this part of his narrative that always seeks to support the establishment and the status quo, the Central Asian regimes and the US military that now must back them?
But what is this really all about then, some sort of strange A Team and B Team? The military researcher Stein in Ft. Leavenworth, affirming that videos help challenge the regime's narrative -- a fact -- and the defense analyst Hamm in...wherever...discounting any significant challenge -- a spin? Why?
Then in a bit of echo-chambering, Hamm links to a pessimistic new article by that gloom-'n'-doom anthropological duo of Registan, Sarah Kendzior and Katy Pearce (more on this later):
Central Asian governments have stepped up some restrictions and monitoring of social media. Security services are adept enough at disrupting off-line political activity planned online, and governments are finding ways to convince people to avoid the internet.
So they're adept? So what? People fight back. They get knocked down; they get back up again. The parameters enlarge and shrink and enlarge again. Hamm admits that, saying it's a dynamic situation.
But he wants to make sure that the "correct" Registani line is once again affirmed: authoritarian governments in Central Asian win; people who resist them lose; don't pretend this is the Arab Spring. Of course, nobody has claimed any Arab Spring is actually coming to Central Asia; most people who even compare these regions talk about an influence not an actuality, and talk about how "talking about a spring is a spring itself" of sorts.
I have found expectations of a Central Asian spring in the near term or the assumption that the Arab Spring would have a measurable impact on Central Asia to be based on fundamental misunderstandings of the region. Political culture matters. A lot. Government plays a critical role in nurturing fear, distrust, and political apathy, but their success is aided enormously by their political opponents and the societies they govern perpetuating this culture themselves. And research on Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan suggests that at least in the near term, the internet has exacerbated these problems.
Now I saw what you did there, Nathan. You disparaged the opposition, accusing them of mirroring and perpetuating the culture of the regime with its fear and distrust. Like David Trilling of EurasiaNet, disparaging uznews.net as merely using "the same black PR methods" that the regime in Tashkent uses, although in reality, this is a female secular journalist fighting for the space of media freedom and women's rights not to close, because of Islamists in Uzbekistan or in exile. Why aren't you guys on the right side of this struggle?
The opposition isn't the hopelessly "perpetuated culture" of mistrust that Hamm implies anyway. Every day, there are extraordinary acts. Lawyers putting out reports of terrorist suspects tried after torture in pre-trial detention, behind closed doors. Human rights groups gathering reports of forced sterilization. People trying to keep the record and distribute news. People helping one another. And people getting on the Internet and sharing the news -- despite everything.
Then Hamm engages in some real double-talk:
Stein is looking in the wrong place for meaning. The real significance of this documentation and presentation is in how and whether it changes society’s modes and norms for discussing sensitive political, social, and cultural topics and how those changes subsequently change political culture. The state’s reaction is just a continuation of a long-running dynamic.
No, Stein got the meaning right because it was really dirt simple: the regime lies, the regime tries to control the narrative, the opposition and the independent media try to undermine the lies with the alternative story as they find it. It's not about whether more people go click on the link and get on Youtube and change their "modes and norms". Jesus, this is fake. Political culture? These brave people have more political culture than Hamm will ever know what to do with in his "long-running dynamic".
He concludes by warning his fellow defense writer Stein to stay away from looking at the regime and the opposition as a narrative (why?!) and tells him to look more at the "discussions and practices within society".
However, it is absolutely impossible at present to predict how or when the internet will play an appreciably important role. The only thing that is certain is that more clarity on these questions comes from focusing on discussions and practices within society than from monitoring the state-society dynamic.
Why? Society will always have strong currents of reactionaries or conservatives who accept the regime's narrative avidly and aggressively and become part of the regime's tool to bash dissidents -- this is par for the course in the post-Soviet Union. The regime can muster sock puppets and even botnets to fill up the Youtube comments with hate and cynicism -- or even just let its own aggressive fan base go at it all on their own. So what? The alternative narrative also grows and people walk around the robots.
Er, why can't we monitor the state-society dynamic, Nathan? Why are you warning us away from this?! Is that because it would be just too critical of regimes you're trying to be gingerly with and protect in your RealPolitic framework for the world? Why?