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Kazakhstan: Analysis From Washington -- A New Wall Dividing The World

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 12 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Even as the international community was commemorating the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the authorities in several post-Soviet states have been busy erecting new, invisible but just as divisive walls across the Internet frontier.

Speaking in Washington on Wednesday, Kazakhstan opposition leader Akezhan Kazhegeldin called attention to this fact when he noted that "The concrete Berlin Wall has been destroyed, but the leaders of the countries in Central Asia are constructing a new invisible wall to isolate their peoples from the rest of the world."

Kazhegeldin was referring to the successful effort of Kazakhstan government officials to censor Internet access by making it impossible for anyone to connect with opposition-related websites such as the Eurasia site at, which has been critical of the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Technicians at the Nursat Internet provider firm said that neither they nor any other Internet provider in Kazakhstan could allow access to the Eurasia site for "technical reasons." When pressed to explain what these were, the technicians referred journalists to the managers of the company, who turned out to be unavailable for comment.

A representative of the Kazakhstan Committee for National Security (KNB) said he had no information about any blockage of the Eurasian website. But there are compelling reasons to think that precisely this organization -- the successor to the Soviet-era KGB -- is directly involved.

According to Civil Society International, a U.S.-based media watchdog group, the daughter and son-in-law of the Kazakhstan president have regularly interfered in that country's mass media since the latter, Rakhat Aliev, became head of the Almaty office of the KNB in September. Aliyev and his wife, Dariga Nazarbaeva, not only control a large number of media outlets directly, CSI reported; they also have put pressure on all outlets as well.

Such official interference in the Kazakhstani media was noted by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) during the run-up to that country's recent parliamentary elections, a vote in which officials adopted a variety of measures to prevent Kazhegeldin and other opposition figures from winning or even taking part at all.

But the move against opposition websites is something new, the apparent result of the convergence of three different factors.

First, Internet providers in Kazakhstan now have both the skills and the technology to intervene in this way. That is, the authorities are doing this now because they can, and they can, according to Kazhegeldin, at least in part as a result of the misuse of US assistance to develop communications facilities there.

Second, Russian hacking against Chechen and Daghestani websites in recent weeks has taken place without much protest from the international community. There have even been reports that a few Western governments in the name of fighting "terrorism" have provided Moscow with expertise to take these steps. As a result, Kazakhstan's authorities are closing down a site because they think they can do so at no cost.

And third, fresh from his manufactured "victory" in parliamentary elections, Nazarbayev appears to feel he can ignore any criticism he might get. He has been openly contemptuous of international criticism of that vote. When he was told that the OSCE had decided his elections were not "free and fair," the Kazakhstani president told Interfax on November 4 that he might take his country out of that organization. Nazarbaev said that he was "not interested" in what outsiders "said somewhere across the ocean" about his country. He indicated that he was only "interested in Kazakhstan and the order of its people."

Such attitudes are increasingly widespread in the post-Soviet states. And that, combined with the ever greater ability of Internet providers in those countries to take action against opposition websites, almost certainly guarantees that they will -- especially if there are no expressions of outrage by those who believe in media freedom and no actions by donor governments against those who seek to stifle expression.

For almost 30 years, the Berlin Wall was a focal point in the struggle between communist authoritarianism and democratic freedom. The new invisible walls are likely to become another one and quite possibly for a much longer time.