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THE CIS REGION: ETHNO-CULTURAL DIVERSITY AND A SHARED HISTORICAL SPACE



OVERVIEW

As a former superpowerwith a tradition of authoritarianism, poorly developed independent media, and lack of private rightsthe Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) would seem to be an ideal setting for substantive and pervasive Internet controls.1 The reality, however, is variegated and complex. While the CIS region is home to some of the worlds most repressive measures and advanced techniques for subtly shaping Internet access, it also showcases examples of just how profoundly the Internet can affect social and political life.

States within this region have a conflicted relationship with the Internet. Most have adopted national development strategies that emphasize information technology (IT) as a means for economic growth, with some even declaring their intent to become regional IT powerhouses. IT development is favored because it is seen to leverage the comparative advantage of the ex-Soviet educational system with its emphasis on mathematics and engineering, and the strong tradition of innovation in the computing and technology sector. Until its demise in 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was one of the few countries with a homegrown capacity in supercomputing, cryptography/ crypto-analysis, and worldwide signals intelligence gathering. Currently many former Soviet citizens are among the leaders of the global IT industry.

At the same time, CIS governments are wary of the civil networking and resistance activities that these technologies make possible. In recent years, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan have experienced color revolutions, where networked opposition movements (albeit movements that are more reliant on cell phones than on the Internet) have effectively challenged and overturned the results of unpopular (or allegedly fraudulent) elections. Neighboring governments fear that these challenges were made possible by opposition groups leveraging IT to organize domestic protest (often with the help of foreign-funded NGOs), and are therefore wary of leaving the sector unregulated and without control. Many now see the Internet and other communications channels in national strategic terms, and these countries have increasingly turned to security-based argumentssuch as the need to secure national informational spaceto justify regulation of the sector.

In 2006 ONI tested for the presence of filtering in eight of the eleven CIS countries: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Background and baseline testing was also carried out in a further two countries: the Russian Federation and Turkmenistan, although in these two cases limitations on the testing methodology do not allow us to claim comprehensive results.



Of the eight countries in which ONI tested, our results did not yield significant patterns of substantive or pervasive filtering. Only Uzbekistan pursued pervasive filtering of the kind found in China, Iran, or some parts of the Middle East.2 In almost all countries some degree of filtering was present, but this filtering occurred mostly on corporate networks (such as educational and research networks) where accepted usage policies (AUPs) dictated that inappropriate content was not permitted, or in edge locations, such as Internet cafés where the reasons for filtering were more benign (conserving bandwidth) or left to the discretion of the Internet café owners themselves.

At the same time, in all eight countries authorities had taken steps of one kind or another to restrict or regulate their national informational space. These measures include:

  1. expanded use of defamation and slander laws to selectively prosecute and deter bloggers and independent media from posting material critical of the government or specific government officials (however benignly, including, as was the case in Belarus, through the use of humor);
  2. strict criteria pertaining to what is acceptable within the national media space, leading to the deregistration of sites that did not comply (Kazakhstan);
  3. moves to compel Internet sites to register as mass media, with noncompliance then being used as grounds for filtering illegal content;
  4. national security concerns (Ukraine); and,
  5. in some cases, government officials have asked Internet service providers (ISPs)formally or informallyto temporarily suspend sites detrimental to public order (Tajikistan).

The net effect of these sanctions (legal and quasi-legal) is to create overall environments that encourage varying degrees of self-censorship among ISPs, who are fearful of jeopardizing their licenses, and among individuals for whom prosecution or imprisonment is too high a price to pay for voicing criticism, which at times amounts to little more than a form of digital graffiti.

THE CIS REGION: ETHNO-CULTURAL DIVERSITY AND A SHARED HISTORICAL SPACE

To define the CIS as a region understates the sheer diversity of the countries and peoples that fall within the former Soviet Unions historical boundaries. Straddling a swath of Eurasia from the Pacific to the doorsteps of Europe, the Arctic Circle, and the deserts of Central Asia, this vast landmass takes in twelve time zones, some 350 million people, and more than a hundred distinct ethnic groups encompassing all the worlds major religions and at least three major linguistic communities (Slavic, Turkic, Farsi). At the ethno-cultural level, diversity is a defining commonality of this region.

At the same time, the CIS forms an historical community that for seventy years constituted the worlds second major economic, military, and political superpower of the twentieth century, rooted in the same traditions of modernism as the West but oriented around a different set of ideological and organizational principles. These principles emphasized a centralized and administered form of governance where the state rather than the market decided issues of economic and social production, and where overarching leadership was vested in the Communist Party, whose rule was substantiated by ideological precepts that did not allow for dissention or opposition.

Despite this complex multinationalism, the former Soviet Union was dominated by Russia, which endowed the region with a common language (Russian) and popular culture, as well as defined trade, political, and even social ties (including the creation of substantial Russian minorities in some states, which persist to the present day). Even following the USSRs dissolution and the newly independent states adoption of national languages and scripts (in Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and others), CIS countries retained strong ties with Russia. Transportation, communications, and energy routes continue to bind the region together. Russia is currently a major energy supplier to many CIS states, giving it considerable political muscle in the region (which it has not been shy to flex, when needed).

The regions shared political heritage, and the fact that many present-day leaders in the CIS governments and economies were also in positions of authority during the Soviet era, means that a great deal of formal and informal coordination exists among and between member states, despite political differences that are at times difficult. Furthermore, the loose, informal coordination among officials is helped along by the fact that most countries share the same legal codex and procedures, as well as similar organizational characteristics of the security forces and the distribution of powers among the judiciary, executive, and legislative branches of government.





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