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Kazakh Authorities Take To SMS, Facebook To Ward Off Protests

The text message said simply: "The Republic's President Nursultan Nazarbaev has announced a moratorium to implementation of some chapters of the Land Code that caused a public commotion." 

Many Kazakhs checking their smartphones on May 6 might have been surprised to find a cautiously contrite SMS message from an unlikely source.

The sender, AqOrda, was neither an apologetic spouse nor a penitent pal.

It was the office of Kazakhstan's president, which is headquartered in the Ak Orda Presidential Palace in Astana. The text message said simply: "The Republic's President Nursultan Nazarbaev has announced a moratorium to implementation of some chapters of the Land Code that caused a public commotion."

The message was distributed by leading mobile networks Altel, Beeline, Kcell, and Tele2 less than 24 hours after Nazarbaev announced his decision -- under unusually vociferous public pressure -- to postpone a controversial plan to privatize state-owned agricultural land through auctions beginning in July.

The texts are part of a digital effort to spread the word that is unusual in this ex-Soviet republic, where Nazarbaev has ruled with a tight lid on dissent for a quarter century. And it appears to be a tacit acknowledgement that even here, social and other digital media are gaining ground on Nazarbaev's more traditional levers of information and power: state-dominated newspapers, television, and radio.

Videos of Nazarbaev announcing the climbdown on May 5 appeared almost immediately on AqOrda's Facebook account, before even state-controlled media could report the news.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev

Nazarbaev's administration appears to grasp the potential impact of digital platforms like Facebook, VKontakte, and text messaging in a country where authorities have shuttered so many major independent or opposition media outlets.

Clearly, the president wanted to ensure that everyone in Kazakhstan -- including the activists leading recent protests against the agricultural sell-offs -- were informed that the plan's implementation had been postponed.

But Nazarbaev also announced on May 5 the creation of a new Ministry of Information and Communications, which will function "to meet current information challenges and effective implementation of reforms."

Among its duties, the president said: "Monitoring the information space of all types, including websites on the Internet, social-networking sites, to detect in a timely fashion the most acute matters and react to them." Another goal of the new ministry, Nazarbaev said, was the "improvement of the quality of domestic information products for ensuring information security, both in the electronic and print space."

Facebook users have expressed concerns over the new ministry, dubbing it a "Ministry of Truth," a "Ministry Of Happiness," and "Orwell's Nightmare," among other things.

The suspension of plans for the land sales followed nearly two weeks of demonstrations across the country. It was the biggest outpouring of public anger since police fatally shot at least 16 protesting oil workers in the southwestern towns of Zhanaozen and Shetpe in December 2011.

On April 24, in what appeared to be the largest of the demonstrations against the agricultural sell-offs, at least 1,000 protesters rallied in the western city of Atyrau.

Kazakh activists had called for more mass protests to be staged in major Kazakh cities on May 21.