Central Asia’s Media Landscape: Democratic versus Authoritarian Diffusion

Eilish Hart

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Western actors have supported the development of independent journalism in Central Asia as a means of assisting the transition from communism to democracy. Assuming the universal appeal of Western, democratic values, they trusted that providing funding and Western-style journalism training would be sufficient for democratizing media in the region.

This strategy is also known as the “import model,” which, according to Peter Rollberg and Marlene Laruelle, “is based on the expectation that Western values can be introduced through the formation of Western-educated media elites whose work will promote liberal values.”[1]

Nearly 30 years later, however, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the import model has failed to increase press freedom in the region.

In 2019, Freedom House gave all five Central Asian states press rankings of “not free,” with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, which is considered “partly free.” Kyrgyzstan holds the best ranking among the Central Asian states with a score of five, Kazakhstan received a six, Tajikistan came in at six and a half, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan both scored the worst possible freedom rating of seven out of seven in terms of being the “least free.”

Bishkek’s main newspapers posted on special stands on Erkindik Boulevard. Kyrgyzstan, September 2007. (By Vmenkov [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders, Turkmenistan has now replaced North Korea as the most unfree media environment in the world.

Nevertheless, Western governments and non-government organizations continue to rely on the import model to guide their involvement in the region’s media landscape, ignoring scholars’ skepticism about its effectiveness and the obvious lack of progress after years of intervention and millions of dollars in investment.

The failure of the import model can be attributed in part to regional elites and their reluctance to relinquish control over local media. This creates a wide range of negative incentives that discourage journalists from pursuing Western-style independent reporting, ranging from economic pressure and self-censorship to physical threats.

But although this accounts for the small amount of independent journalism being produced in the region, it doesn’t explain the fact that popular engagement with independent media (and the values it was founded upon) is very limited, as well.

Overall, Western attempts to influence the Central Asian media landscape failed to anticipate how local values and the legacy of the Soviet system continue to influence popular expectations for the press. As such, the failure of the import model in Central Asia can arguably be attributed to flaws in the model itself.

According to Richard Schafer, the Marxist values that defined Soviet era journalism continue to influence press systems in Central Asia today. Unlike democratic press systems, Soviet journalism was interpretive rather than objective and functioned as an ideological propaganda tool subordinate to the state.[2] This system remained in place until Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost’ reforms of the 1980s sought to enhance press freedom.

Surveyor Lidya Kulagina at work in the Pravda print shop. Moscow, USSR, 1959. (By A. Cheprunov [Public Domain] via RIA Novosti Archive).

Gorbachev’s new media laws renegotiated the relationship between the state and the press. Journalists’ ability to work more freely became connected to the granting of official accreditation (in other words, being a registered journalist). According to researcher Olivia Allison, journalists’ rights then became conditional and could be revoked if they did not fulfill their corresponding duties to the state – which was still a step up from complete subordination.[3]

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Central Asian elites essentially incorporated this conditionality into their respective national press systems. As Eric Freedman argues, post-Soviet press systems in Central Asia have effectively adapted Soviet-style media to their own authoritarian nation building projects.[4] As a result, people in Central Asia expect media to be interpretive and values driven, rather than objective. What’s more, they are often weary of perceived Western or liberal bias in independent media, and instead seek out media that reflects their values.

For example, a 2011 case study from journalist Navbahor Imamova revealed that international radio and television broadcasting in Uzbekistan had an overall annual reach of less than 4 percent.[5] What’s more, respondents often considered foreign broadcasters as platforms for the Uzbek political opposition or believed these media outlets reflected the policies of the countries that fund them.

This critical response to Western and/or Western-style media reflects a generally different set of expectations for journalism. Although Western media often has its own political biases, there is an expectation (or hope) that journalists strive for objectivity in their reporting, even if this is not the reality. In Central Asia, however, the assumption is that journalism serves the interests of some political group; be it the state, the opposition, or a foreign country.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow, April 2019. (By The Presidential Press and Information Office [Public Domain]).

Expectations for values driven media also contribute to the popularity of Russian media in the region, especially Russian television. Capitalizing on shared values, language, high production quality and entertainment value, Russian media enjoys a widespread audience in Central Asia.[6]

In Kazakhstan, for example, there are 15 free television channels available, 11 of which feature bilingual Russian and Kazakhstani programming, and about half of the population has access to the 103 available subscription channels of Russian origin.   The Russian language RuNet also dominates the country’s Internet space; the most popular search engine (Yandex), social networks (VKontakte and Odnoklassniki) and Email service (Mail.ru), all come from Russia.[7]

Although there have been some attempts to constrict Russian influence through the promotion of Kazakhstani media – such as laws increasing the mandatory amount of programming in the Kazakh language – when compared to Western media, Russian media has profited from comparatively fewer constraints from local political elites because it is reflective of their values.

By assuming the universal appeal of liberalism and democracy, Western actors thought the fall of the Soviet Union would implicitly give way to the development of democratic states in Central Asia. Instead, the consolidation of authoritarian nation states in the region has promoted nationalism, conservative and/or “traditionalist” values and different expectations for democracy.

Although countries in the region are experiencing social change, it is not necessarily liberal or democratic in the Western sense of the words. As Paul Stronski and Russel Zanca wrote for the Carnegie Russia & Eurasia Program:

“Democracy is important to the people of Central Asia, but their notions of democracy are different from American ones. Far more than the desire for political parties, free elections, or an independent parliament, Central Asia’s budding social activism is motivated by the desire for transparent and accountable government, even if it is not fully democratic.”

Meanwhile, Russian media thrives because of its ability to promote “shared conservative values” that allegedly set Russia and states in Central Asia apart from the rest of the world. As Peter Rollberg and Marlene Laruelle argue, this explains why the Russian media strategy of masking authoritarian values as democratic has been far more successful than the promotion of actual liberal democracy. Meanwhile, the Western import model has had the unintended consequence of being most successful at influencing media commercialization, rather than independence, in the region.[8]

Overall, academics see the potential for the development of truly independent media in Central Asian states as extremely limited. Meanwhile, a small number of independent journalists continue to work in the region against all odds and at great personal risk. Their stories reflect the successful spread of Western-style independent journalism, but their influence is not widespread. Barring radical political and social change in Central Asia, the state-controlled, Russian-influenced media landscape isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Eilish Hart is a freelance writer and editor covering current affairs in Eastern Europe, Russia and Eurasia. She is a recent M.A. European and Russian Affairs graduate from the University of Toronto, interested in a range of topics, including international affairs, human rights, media freedom, migration, memory politics and Soviet history. Follow her on Twitter @EilishHart.


[1] Peter Rollberg and Marlene Laruelle, “The Media Landscape in Central Asia: Introduction to the Special Issue,” Demokratizatsiya 23.3 (Summer 2015): 228.

[2] Richard Shafer, “Soviet Foundations of Post-Independence Press in Central Asia,” in After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia, ed. Eric Freedman and Richard Shafer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 20-21.

[3] Olivia Allison, “Loyalty in the New Authoritarian Model: Journalistic Rights and Duties in Central Asian Media Law,” in After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia, ed. Eric Freedman and Richard Shafer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 143-144.

[4] Eric Freedman, “Theoretical Foundations for Researching the Roles of the Press in Today’s Central Asia,” inAfter the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia, ed. Eric Freedman and Richard Shafer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 2.

[5] Navbahor Imamova, “International Broadcasting in Uzbekistan: Does it Still Matter?” in After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia, ed. Eric Freedman and Richard Shafer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 200.

[6] Rollberg and Laruelle, “The Media Landscape in Central Asia,” 228-229.

[7] Marlene Laruelle, Dylan Royce and Serrik Reyssembayev. “Untangling the Puzzle of ‘Russia’s Influence’ in Kazakhstan,” Eurasian Geography and Economics 60.2 (2019): 226-227.

[8] Rollberg and Laruelle, “The Media Landscape in Central Asia,” 229.

The Costs of Omission in Soviet Central Asia

Central Asian Studies_AlunThomas1
Photo by Alun, from an April 1927 issue of Pravda

by Alun Thomas

The first complete census of the population of the Soviet Union was produced in 1926. Soviet authorities had conducted major censuses before, in 1920 and 1923, but the former was highly geographically limited and the latter was restricted to urban spaces.[i] Nor had been made a meaningful study of Soviet Central Asia, the region today constituted by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkestan and Uzbekistan. The 1926 All-Union census drew together information from all over the new socialist polity including its southernmost Islamic regions.

A result of collaboration between Communist Party members and scholars trained in the Tsarist era, the census was mammoth in its ambition. Soviet administrators had been unhappy with the results of earlier censuses because, they said, these studies had been insufficiently rigorous and scientific in the way they categorised the population.

This is indicative of the intellectual atmosphere of the early Soviet period: it was believed that objective social knowledge could be utilised to govern society rationally, thereby hastening the arrival of communism.

For example, rather than simply asking respondents for their nationality and recording the response, an approach which produced a dizzying range of answers, the census-takers hoped to assign citizens a correct national appellation scientifically by considering a series of factors including not only ethnicity but also language, lifestyle (in Russian, byt) and so on.[ii]

This was despite the fact that, for many Soviet citizens including many Central Asians, the national category they were assigned was not meaningful. Before the fall of the Tsar, the most widespread signifiers of identity in Central Asia were those of tribe,

Soviet Stamp commemorating 40 years of the Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic (1960)

kin, or faith.[iii]

The complete published census is a vast and comprehensive document spanning many volumes.[iv] Section one, volume eight; section two, volume fifteen; and section three, volume forty-two all contain information about the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, the second Soviet iteration of the territory which preceded contemporary Kazakhstan.

These volumes offer enormous amounts of data on the population of 1920s Kazakhstan. Neatly delineated into numbers is information on marital status, profession, literacy, gender, native tongue, nationality and other qualities. The figures are valuable for what they reveal, and what they overlook.

Overlooked in particular were the more that one million Kazakhs who still lived a nomadic life in the mid-1920s. As a new PhD student some years back I was surprised to find that there was no ‘nomadic’ characteristic listed here, let alone a detailed division between nomads who migrated all year round, nomads who migrated only twice a year, and other variations of practice. Aspects of the nomadic identity emerge in other categories, such as those listed as ‘cattle-herders’ under profession, but in this instance cattle-herders could certainly be permanently sedentary.

Like all such studies, the 1926 census speaks of the priorities of the regime which produced it. For all the specificity of the Soviet regime’s language regarding class and nationality – a specificity born of scientific pretensions and ideology – documentation in the Soviet archives is frustratingly reticent on the nomadic practises of its citizens in Kazakhstan. What I learned from the 1926 census was that the Communist Party’s conceptual understanding of nomads in Central Asia could be critically underdeveloped.

Beyond the census, in everyday documentation, administrators spoke of citizens who were ‘settled-agricultural’, ‘agricultural semi-settled,’ ‘cattle-herding semi-nomadic,’ and ‘nomadic with cattle-herding’ in an abortive attempt to communicate the breadth and

Eurasian Steppe in Altyn Emeil National Park, Almaty Region, Kazakhstan. Photograph: Walton Lloyd Burns (via WikiMedia Commons)

diversity of lifestyles and practises in evidence in Central Asia, before eventually succumbing to a crude dichotomy between ‘nomadic’ and ‘agricultural’ for the purposes of taxation, social provision and economic planning.[v] By so diminishing the social realities of the Kazakh Steppe, the Communist Party lost any real opportunity – assuming it was sought – to govern nomadic peoples with humanity.

What were the implications of the census-takers’ decision? Collectivisation of the rural economy came earlier to Kazakhstan than elsewhere in the Soviet Union and the impact of the campaign was profound. Astonishing numbers of Kazakhs, many of them nomads, starved to death or succumbed to epidemics as a result of the state’s actions.[vi]

Part of the justification for the brutal treatment of Kazakhstan’s nomads submitted by Filipp Goloshchekin, then First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party, was that the inherent poverty of the nomadic lifestyle necessitated decisive action to save nomads from a cycle of deprivation.[vii] Poverty there was in evidence, but this was partly a product of the state’s mismanagement, precipitated by a stubborn refusal to speak of nomadism as a nuanced social reality in census data and elsewhere.

Alun Thomas is currently Lecturer in Russian History at Nottingham Trent University. His first monograph, Nomads and Soviet Rule: Central Asia from Lenin to Stalin, is forthcoming and will be published by I. B. Tauris. Find him on Twitter @AlunR_Thomas


[i] Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), pp. 105-107.

[ii] Francine Hirsch, “The Soviet Union as a Work-in-Progress: Ethnographers and the Category Nationality in the 1926, 1937 and 1939 Censuses,” Slavic Review 56, no. 2 (1997), pp. 251-278.

[iii] Marianne Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), p. 62.

[iv] A complete printed copy of the multivolume census can be found in Oxford’s Bodleian library.

[v] Tsentral’nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Respubliki Kyrgyzstan (TsGARKy) fond 847, opis 1, delo 14, list 13; Tsentral’nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Politicheskoi Dokumentatsii Kyrgyzstanskoi Respubliki (TsGAPDKR) f. 10, op. 1, d. 33, l. 99.

[vi] Gulnar Kendirbaeva, “Migrations in Kazakhstan: Past and Present,” Nationalities Papers 25, no. 4 (1997), pp. 741-751.

[vii] Talas Omarbekov, Golomodor v Kazakhstane: prichiny, masshtaby i itogi (1930-1931 g.g.) (Almaty: Kazakhskii Natsional’nyi Universitet im. Al’-Farabi, 2009), p. 77.

Full image attribution for image 3: By Walton Lloyd Burns (en:User:KZblog) (en:File:AltynEmeil.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons