Central Asian views on WikiLeaks: trust, truth, and tech

WikiLeaks may end up becoming Central Asia’s best hope for bringing to light their leaders’ many dark secrets, say neweurasia’s bloggers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Yet, there are many problems, not least of which is trust, all of which WikiLeaks or other whistle-blower websites will have to overcome.

This editorial has been cross-posted from neweurasia. It’s a slightly different version of my “Our Take” editorial for our partner site, Transitions Online, with two additional quotes and block quotes. Thanks to Barbara Frye for copy-editing the original.

The whistle-blower website WikiLeaks has made international headlines for its leaks of sensitive information related to the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet a little-known aspect of the organization is its work in the former communist world, including Central Asia.

According to AsiaMedia, WikiLeaks has specifically professed interest in the former Soviet Union alongside other regions:

“Our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their own governments and corporations.”

In a 9 June 2007 e-mail to WikiLeaks volunteers that has been leaked on the website Cryptome, another website specializing in revealing sensitive and secret information, an anonymous author speaking for the operation explains its strategy in the West as ultimately serving the purpose of its strategy in regions like Central Asia:

“Apart from the beneficial effect on Western democracies, we believe this will provide a strong, consistent base where we can operate efficiently and freely, permitting us to concentrate our efforts on the most repressive regimes.”

And more than a year later, an anonymous editorial to WikiLeaks volunteers, also leaked on Cryptome, evinces a sophisticated understanding of the peaks and pitfalls of journalism in the former Communist nations:

“In transitional states, journalistic freedom and journalistic persecution appear to stem from the same root cause: the inability of power groups to defend themselves from journalists by using means more sophisticated than arrest or murder. Because [arrest or murder] comes at some cost to the persecutor, [such tactics] are rarely employed.

“In other words, all but a few ‘off limit’ subjects can be reported freely and these limits are not yet well understood, which is why some journalists are murdered.”

Unfortunately, many here at neweurasia can relate to these remarks, as we’ve all had friends and colleagues who have suffered as a result of these often enigmatic limits.

WikiLeaks has amassed material on each of the five former Soviet Central Asian republics, but at the moment, compared with the explosiveness of its Western content, the Central Asian content is “nothing special” — mostly confidential reports commissioned by American lawmakers by the research arm of Congress, says Alpharabius, our chief blogger for Tajikistan.

Nevertheless, he sees “huge potential” for a WikiLeaks-style website in Central Asia, especially in Tajikistan, where a liberal democratic system coupled with weak state institutions and roiling political factions make fruitful ground for whistle-blowing.

Alpharabius has compiled a list of opaque dealings in Tajikistan that a leaks website could tackle. Among them:

  • The sealed trial materials of a court case, settled in 2006, between the Norwegian Hydro Aluminum AS and the shadowy Tajik Aluminum Plant, often rumored to be linked to the president’s family.
  • Details on the construction of a deeply unpopular toll road by Innovative Road Solutions, a start-up company with undisclosed owners, again rumored to be linked to the president’s family, that earned more than $100 million in its first month of existence, from April to May 2010.
  • Details on the financing and plans for the ongoing Roghun hydroelectric project.  As is well known by now, the dam is being funded with donations received from the public after a coercive campaign by the government. The Russian company originally hired to do the work, but subsequently fired, has claimed that the placement of the dam in the current plans is problematic, while the Tajik government insists it is working according to an original design from the Soviet era.

Alpharabius adds that he would be curious to know the minutes of a recent emergency meeting held by Uzbekistan’s leadership about Roghun. Uzbekistan of course opposes the dam, which it says will hamper the flow of the Vakhsh River, which it needs to irrigate its crops.

Beyond Tajikistan, WikiLeaks has immediate, if cautious, appeal to bloggers working under far stricter media conditions.

There are the questions, for starters, of whether WikiLeaks or sites like it could do enough to protect their sources or to combat disinformation in authoritarian, heavily propagandized societies, as neweurasia‘s Abulfazal, who covers Uzbekistan, explains:

“Besides getting faulty information, they’re going to be accused of being Russian or CIA stooges and of trying to undermine our ‘paradise’ here.”

He concedes, though, that WikiLeaks so far appears credible and sophisticated.

“Nonetheless, in principle [WikiLeaks] is exactly what Uzbekistan needs, and if they can maintain their impartiality and really expose the corruption here, the public will see them for what they truly are.”

In Turkmenistan, the need is for a Turkish- or Russian-language version of WikiLeaks. But Turkmen, long used to being lied to by those in power, would take some convincing. One of neweurasia‘s in the country, Humane, explains:

“Trust is something we don’t have in Turkmenistan. There’s no trust in one another, so how can there be any trust in this mysterious website? They need to acquire good contacts here, in ‘big places,’ and earn a good reputation.”

Compounding those issues of trust is, as neweurasia‘s country coordinator for Kyrgyzstan, Tolkun Umaraliev, points out, the simple problem of online access. There are large gaps in internet infrastructure and penetration throughout the region.

Where there aren’t gaps, or where information leaked online can still move fast offline by word of mouth, there looms the possibility that in volatile situations, such as that which currently prevails in southern Kyrgyzstan, WikiLeaks could unwittingly be used for mischief. Abulfazal remarks:

“Imagine what would happen if someone in the Kyrgyz government actually has proof right now of who started the violence in Osh and managed to sneak it to WikiLeaks? I’m afraid of what the reaction in the streets would be.”

Yet, despite these very real worries, 0ur bloggers agree that WikiLeaks offers the first significant inroad for substantive and accurate information since the introduction of blogging and online social networks.

Indeed, because New Media is ultimately just a tool and not an organization committed to the free flow of information — which tend to be dismayingly easy to collar and brought to heel in the region — WikiLeaks may end up becoming Central Asia’s best hope for bringing to light their leaders’ many dark secrets.

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