Transitions 2.0: Internet, Political Culture and Autocracy in Central Asia

I recently presented my dissertation research at the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention and attended a related panel entitled: “Internet: Collective Action, Social Mobilization, and Civic Engagement.” Eric McGlinchey, one of the professors on the panel, presented his research paper (PDF) on “Transitions 2.0: Internet, Political Culture and Autocracy in Central Asia.”

Eric notes that the theories and prescriptions of the transitions literature have not borne fruit in Central Asia. Indeed, “the region today is more autocratic than it was eighteen years ago at the time of the Soviet collapse.”

Eric thus seeks to understand why “Transitions 1.0″ failed and to “investigate the potential for a Transitions 2.0” by exploring three autocracies Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

As Eric notes, “new information communication technologies (ICTs) are emerging in Central Asia and, as survey research demonstrates, these new ICTs hold the potential to transform the region’s political culture from one that abides authoritarian rule to a culture that embraces political reform.”

I very much appreciate Eric’s balanced approach to technology and demographic change. As he writes,

[T]he current class of political elites is graying while the youth population of Central Asian society is growing larger.  And whereas the hierarchical Communist Party carefully controlled the political milieu in which the current political elite was acculturated, today new ICTs have broken the government’s information monopoly, laid bare the inequities of patronage politics and are in the process of changing the mental maps with which this growing younger generation views national governance.

Institutional path dependency, as Paul Pierson explains, is sustained by—learning effects‖ and—adaptive expectations. New ICTs have simultaneously transformed what youth in Central Asia learn and what they expect—and it is this transformation […] that may ultimately undermine the cost calculations that have thus far sustained autocratic patronage in the region.

Whether access to ICTs can be shown to have a successful track record in promoting liberalization and democratization is still an open debate which requires more empirical research to shed compelling insights on the question.

Eric cites the work by David Hill and Khrishna Sen (2000) who “illustrate how the Internet enabled Indonesian oppositionists not only to break Suharto’s media monopoly, but to break this monopoly using conversational, dialogic, (and) non-hierarchical” forms of communication.”

That said, Hill, Krishna and several other scholars emphasize that the “political environment within which oppositionists marshal technologies like the Internet, can dampen the transformative effects of new ICTs.” To be sure,

Just as autocracies can control printing presses, radio and television, so too can savvy authoritarian governments monitor and exert control over new telecoms and Internet service providers.  Moreover, even absent such control, new ICTs need not be liberalizing.

Peter Chroust, for example, demonstrates how illiberal groups—neo-Nazis in Germany and the Taliban in Afghanistan—can equally use new ICTs to facilitate communication and mobilization.

Benjamin Barber suggests that fears that new ICTs force people—into one commercially homogeneous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology motivate actors to fight for the opposite, for the construction of even more differentiated local identities. As such, Barber predicts, new ICTs will result in more, not less ethnic, racial, tribal, or religious violence.

Eric’s research is informative because there is still very little research on the impact of ICTs on populations in Central Asia. The results of his empirical survey suggests that “although the causal effects of new ICTs are mixed and highly dependent on structural context, the use of new ICTs nevertheless does appear to have a liberalizing effect on political culture.”

More specifically, where state filtering of the Internet is less pronounced—in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan—survey results suggest that Internet users do exhibit greater inclinations toward political reform and civic engagement.  Conversely, where state filtering of the Internet is extensive, as it is in Uzbekistan, inclinations toward political reform and civic engagement differ little between Internet users non-users.

Eric concludes as follows:

Will Transitions 2.0 succeed where Transitions 1.0 failed?  To a large degree the answer to this question rests in the ability of Central Asian governments to continue effective filtering of the Internet and of global communications broadly, something that may get progressively more difficult as Internet access shifts from what now are readily controlled public areas (work, Internet cafes and libraries) to the comparative privacy of smart phones and home computers.

No less consequential is whether ICT-induced changes in political culture translate to societal changes in political engagement.  This study suggests that the retreat of Soviet institutions of political acculturation and the arrival of new ICTs will likely produce a political culture that is less trusting of autocratic rule and more open to outsiders and civic engagement.

Whether Central Asians will assume the daunting risks that undoubtedly are required to transform their governments so as to more closely reflect these changed political values, however, remains an open question.

Patrick Philippe Meier

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