For the sake of their own stability and security, the CSTO countries should pay attention to the media sphere. It is worth creating educational and training projects, both local and international, that would work in Russian and in the local languages, and involve local specialists in the implementation of these projects, and not just more experienced Russian media figures, who, however, are also needed.
The leaders of the CSTO countries have officially confirmed that they are moving towards strengthening cooperation with Moscow — and these statements have already been repeatedly mentioned in the local media. However, at the same time, a number of major publications in these countries publish dissenting voices. If we speak directly about Central Asia, it is worth highlighting Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In these states, this trend arose back in the early 2010s with the growing popularity of social media — initially in the form of publications in the personal accounts of opposition leaders and bloggers with a fairly broad audience, who positioned themselves as ordinary citizens.
The topics of such publications were discussions of the need for Astana, Bishkek or Dushanbe to leave the CSTO, the expression of a negative opinion about the activities of the organisation, or criticism of the presence of Russian military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Another problem often raised in social media and messengers was the lack of delimitation and demarcation of the borders between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which has prompted provocative discussions on whether the CSTO is effective in this case, and whether a conflict between countries can be beneficial to any of the partners in the organisation.
The year 2022 brought new information to fuel discussions about the role of the CSTO — an attempted coup in Kazakhstan, the beginning of the Special Operation in Ukraine and the conflict on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The coverage of these events was different: some media in the Central Asian countries adhered to official information and maintained their neutrality, while others published material containing indicative phrases such as “the failure of the CSTO”, “violence”, “pressure on the opposition dissidents”, etc.
Meanwhile, many media outlets in the region, which define themselves as ‘pro-opposition’, are united by the so-called Media CAMP, a project of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which since 2017 has been implementing the Internews office in Central Asia. According to USAID, $15 million in coverage grants in recent years have been awarded to newsrooms in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to produce “balanced, informative, and unbiased reporting on important political and societal topics.”
The project also included media literacy training for the general public, effective work with social networks and the skills to create content that can attract a large number of views. Another component of the Central Asian “Media CAMP” programme was support for the “improvement” of the media legislation of the countries participating in the project.
At the same time, another project, Media K, was operating in Kyrgyzstan, where $10.65 million was invested from autumn 2017 to autumn 2022. The Center for Socio-Economic and Geopolitical Research has already written in detail about the activities of this project: according to its data, the project was supported by USAID and Internews, as well as the American non-profit organisation FHI-360, working with “governments, the private sector and civil society” to realize the provision of “positive social change”.
Interestingly, many people who have been trained through the above projects oppose Bishkek’s course towards developing cooperation with Moscow, and are also critical of Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the CSTO, the EAEU, the SCO and the CIS.
The media community of Kyrgyzstan, for example, has shown that it is capable of being a serious weapon — and it is not a fact that this weapon safeguards stability in the republic. In September 2022, during the conflict with Tajikistan, the first “cyber troops” appeared in Kyrgyzstan — dozens of fake accounts using hate speech towards Tajiks in their numerous publications and comments. At the same time, Bishkek emphasised that it was determined to resolve the situation and did not express negative sentiments towards the people of Tajikistan.
A similar trend was observed in the local media of Tajikistan, where memes and offensive posts were also spread online, as well as fake videos, most often depicting looting. Looting indeed took place in those days around where clashes took place — then Bishkek and Dushanbe announced the return of stolen property. Whether these facts are covered in the video has not been officially confirmed. Processes were coordinated through Twitter and Telegram chats — those who wished could go to a thread or channel and participate.
Why has such a situation developed among Russia’s CSTO partners? First, Russia and Belarus have shown the greatest interest since the collapse of the USSR in controlling the media sector as one of the pillars of security at the state level. The Union State managed to compete with Internews, USAID, the Soros Foundation and other major sponsors of the development of the media sector in the former Soviet republics, though not to a full extent. These organisations do not function in Russia or Belarus. At the same time, blogs of so-called public opinion leaders are actively spread in the RuNet, despite the law on foreign agents and other innovations of recent years. They have direct and indirect ties with these organisations and promote a pro-disintegration agenda among their audience.
To date, the Union State and its integration partners have also created various grants to support the media, as well as organised forums and internships and media awards, but their audience coverage is quite limited. It is difficult to work with an opposition-minded audience in the 30-35+ age category, since they have already formed a strong opinion about the geopolitical structure and phenomena occurring within the country. There are no training projects on media literacy sponsored by the countries of the CSTO, and there is also a lack of desire for their appearance in the CSTO countries. Moreover, at the legislative level, outside Russia and Belarus, the only place where countering cyber threats and efforts to promote destabilisation are addressed is in the new Military Doctrine of Kazakhstan.
It is also obvious that, until recently, few of those responsible for cooperation and integration within the CSTO, and within the CIS, the SCO and the EAEU, considered the media sector and NGOs as a resource for integration — unlike the opponents of Eurasian integration and other design seams connecting the post-Soviet space and Russia. So far, opponents are winning among young people — thanks to beautiful media presentations and the use of the clip thinking model, which is widespread mainly among the younger age cohorts of the population of the CSTO countries. These young people, due to their lack of a higher education or life experience, are less capable of thinking critically, which allows them to calmly digest any facts, even slightly slanted ones.
Finally, if we talk about Kyrgyzstan, there are other reasons for the greater popularity of the projects of pro-Western NGOs. The first is regional-linguistic. Projects supported by NGOs work with the audience mainly in the Kyrgyz language. The content is either created initially in Kyrgyz, or is translated into Kyrgyz to reach a wider audience. Alternative Eurasian projects do not take this into account. In addition, these alternative projects were localized mainly in Bishkek. Travel to Bishkek, accommodation and meals for participants from other regions of the country were often not provided for.
The second reason is that journalists, bloggers and civil activists have not yet been offered much of an alternative to Media-K and other projects. One of the most well-known pro-Eurasian projects is training using the Kyrgyz edition of Sputnik through the SputnikPro project. The project is distinguished by a high-quality selection of speakers — professionals in sports, politics, travel journalism, podcast production specialists and reporters. However, the development of the project at full capacity is hindered by its so-called ideological colour. In addition, the “School of Real Journalism” from “Russian Reporters” proved to be very effective; participants in the project could learn storytelling, photography and editing, content repackaging and promotion, as well as media management. The authors could present their photos, videos or long-reads to media experts for critique, and participate in a competition of works where the prize was a trip to Moscow and an internship in a major media outlet. But this is a unique example — an exception to the unspoken “rules”, following which over 30 years led at the most inopportune moment to the opening of a media front for the CSTO and for Russia where, in theory, it should not have been.
There can be only one conclusion in this situation: for the sake of their own stability and security, the CSTO countries should pay attention to the media sphere. It is worth creating educational and training projects, both local and international, that would work in Russian and in the local languages, and involve local specialists in the implementation of these projects, and not just more experienced Russian media figures, who, however, are also needed. New, less official formats for covering the activities of the CSTO are also needed, with close attention to the breadth of the audience, and not to the process of publishing press releases, with the involvement of young journalists and bloggers. With timely awareness and consideration of the need for these measures and their prompt implementation, the situation in the media space of the member countries of the organisation can be radically changed.