Kyrgyzstan’s “Analog Revolution”

I’m still on self-imposed vacation from blogging in order to finish my book manuscript, so my comments on Kyrgyzstan will have to be very brief. Food for thought: First, for obvious geopolitical reasons, pundits are paying much less attention to protests in Kyrgyzstan than they did to protests in Iran and Burma (or even Thailand). ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

I'm still on self-imposed vacation from blogging in order to finish my book manuscript, so my comments on Kyrgyzstan will have to be very brief. Food for thought:

First, for obvious geopolitical reasons, pundits are paying much less attention to protests in Kyrgyzstan than they did to protests in Iran and Burma (or even Thailand). If there were no U.S. military bases in Kyrgyzstan, I doubt that this story would ever have made the front page of the New York Times. But social media couldn care less about geopolitics and military bases. Predictably, we see no significant buzz on Twitter;  unlike Justin Bieber, the Kyrgyz revolution is not "trending" as a popular topic there.

Unsurprisingly, we don't see much eulogizing about the Internet's "revolutionary power" in the Western media either. But this does not mean we have suddenly become more reflective or less cyber-utopian; it only means that "Kyrgyzstan" is much harder to pronounce than Iran and most people couldn't care less about it; there is no critical tweetering mass that could fuel the kind of collective fantasy that was fueled by "#iranelection" on Twitter. Consequently, there is no pressure on the Western media to dream up non-existent (Twitter-powered!) angles to news stories: getting their viewers/listeners/readers up to speed on what/where Kyrgyzstan is would eat up the whole story anyway. In short: why is there no Twitter revolution in Kyrgyzstan? Becuase there is no one to hype it up. 

I’m still on self-imposed vacation from blogging in order to finish my book manuscript, so my comments on Kyrgyzstan will have to be very brief. Food for thought:

First, for obvious geopolitical reasons, pundits are paying much less attention to protests in Kyrgyzstan than they did to protests in Iran and Burma (or even Thailand). If there were no U.S. military bases in Kyrgyzstan, I doubt that this story would ever have made the front page of the New York Times. But social media couldn care less about geopolitics and military bases. Predictably, we see no significant buzz on Twitter;  unlike Justin Bieber, the Kyrgyz revolution is not "trending" as a popular topic there.

Unsurprisingly, we don’t see much eulogizing about the Internet’s "revolutionary power" in the Western media either. But this does not mean we have suddenly become more reflective or less cyber-utopian; it only means that "Kyrgyzstan" is much harder to pronounce than Iran and most people couldn’t care less about it; there is no critical tweetering mass that could fuel the kind of collective fantasy that was fueled by "#iranelection" on Twitter. Consequently, there is no pressure on the Western media to dream up non-existent (Twitter-powered!) angles to news stories: getting their viewers/listeners/readers up to speed on what/where Kyrgyzstan is would eat up the whole story anyway. In short: why is there no Twitter revolution in Kyrgyzstan? Becuase there is no one to hype it up. 

Second, those who are in the know about Central Asia and could push this story much harder to the fore of public attention are also predictably cautious: Kyrgyzstan’s earlier revolution — the Tulip one — was not exactly a paragon of democratization.  So whatever role social media is playing in today’s revolution is poised to be accompanied by much more cautious and much less celebratory rhetoric, for no one could really be sure that the vector of change we are observing in Kyrgyzstan is  "towards democracy" (that said, I do think that it’s hard to outperform Bakiev’s regime when it comes to incompetence and lack of respect for human rights).

Iran, too, wasn’t really such an obvious case — after all, Moussavi, a former Iranian prime minister with quite a few dark spots on his resume, made for a very poor "martyr for democracy" — but at least Ahmadinejad’s evil was fully transparent and was thus very easy to hate (go ask anyone in any small American town what they think about Ahmadinejad and Iran; then try the same trick by asking them about Bakiev/Kyrgyzstan). 

Third, based on what I’ve seen on Twitter — and I must say I haven’t been looking very hard and it’s not a scientific sample — there are quite a few people in the country who are tweeting about what’s going on, in Russian/Kyrgyz/English but no one is using Twitter to organize anything (given that the entire revolution was kind of disorganized and spontaneous, it’s hard to make an argument that someone organized anything over Twitter).

Besides, all the tweeting/facebooking/blogging that came out of Kyrgyzstan was possible because the previous government was caught by surprise and did not have enough time to cut off all communications. The whole revolution, apparently, appears to be little else but an afterthought: even the opposition was not expecting it to succeed. Obviously, what matters in most revolutionary circumstances is how fast one can disconnect all communications, and, well, the Kyrgyz government has obviously not given much thought to the issue.

Expect that "turn-it-all-off-with-one-click" systems would get really popular with authoritarian rulers (hey, this could be the new "red button"!). At the same time, we’ll probably continue seeing the Kyrgyz opposition — which now technically is no longer in opposition — rely on Twitter to push their messages to Central Asia watchers/media folks in the West. That’s, of course, perfectly rational and I would even say smart. But it’s not the kind of spontaneous grassroots-based organizing the pundits were extolling during the events in Iran.

Finally, some pundits have observed that the availability of footage/tweets from Kyrgyzstan would certainly make other dictators rethink their own vulnerability and heed the right lessons. I agree. This is a variation on the "demonstration effect" argument, which, because of the pervasive liberal bias, we usually believe to work only in one direction (example: "Oh, now that the Uzbek activists have seen what’s possible in Kyrgyzstan, they too would rise up"; this, of course, can be countered with a completely opposite point: "Oh, now that the Uzbek/Turkmen/Kazakh dictators have seen what’s possible in Kyrgyzstan, they too would take preemptive measures"). By this logic, the folks who really learned the most from the Orange Revolution in 2004 were not the anti-government activists in Minsk, but Kremlin operatives in Moscow.

Bottom line: new media played no visible role in organizing the protesters and some role in  broadcasting what was happening to the rest of the world (it’s not clear though whether this broadcasting had any real impact on the police’s ability to control the unruly protesters). That’s a preliminary judgement: I have no clue how well the Kyrgyz opposition was organized in reality; based on media reports, it seems like they were not.

Obviously, I’ve also omitted any discussion about the regional dimensions to this revolution, for the example, the split between Kyrgyzstan’s North and South and how both regions were communicating with the capital, and how what happened in each reinforced/undermined developments elsewhere. I’m well aware of that. But this would get us into a much-longer historical conversation about the role of communications (I’d venture that even faxes/telegraphs would do this kind of job — no need for Internet media or anything of the kind).

For all the hype about "digital revolutions",  "analog revolutions" are still the norm, not the exception. 

Evgeny Morozov is a fellow at the Open Society Institute and sits on the board of OSI's Information Program. He writes the Net Effect blog on ForeignPolicy.com

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