Digital in Kazakhstan: the state of the art
Although being a quite complex social and political scenario, Kazakhstan represents an interesting player for what concern social media usage, being located in between two extremely important areas – Russia and Asia.
Let’s grab some figures: according to Internet World Stats, out of about 17 million, today roughly 8 million of people in Kazakhstan have access to the Internet, accounting for a over 40% of the total population. Users are mostly young urban dwellers located in the Almaty and Astana areas, with a constant growth in lower-tier cities.
Since Russian is spoken by a good 95% of the population, thus establishing as the main international communications language, the development of the so-called “Kaznet” – the way people usually define Internet in Kazakhstan – has always had strong connections with the Russian digital scenario, especially for what concern social media.
The Government commitment
Politics are a key factor, to keep in strong consideration while analysing Internet and society in Kazakhstan.
The growth of web connectivity has been widely supported by Kazakh government, through the creation of infrastructures and the personal involvement of government personalities in the usage of digital media – via blogs and personal social media handles – and by bringing broadband connection to schools and public offices. In 2010 the Ministry of Communication and Information has been created in order to support the widespread of digital technologies.
The strongest growth has been registered between 2000 and 2005, with users rising from a few hudred thousands to a million; in recent years, the rise of mobile connectivity and the advent of several mobile operators in the market favoured the shrinking of digital divide for biggest segment of the population, also in more rural areas.
As stated in 2011 on Twitter by current Kazakh Minister of Transport and Communications Askar Zhumagaliyev:
“34.4 percent of the nation was using the internet as of early 2011 – compared to 18.2 percent in early 2010. We plan for the entire country to be covered by high-speed internet by 2015.”
On the other hand, a high government’s involvement in the Internet development process led to a tight control by central authorities on what happens in the Kaznet. KazakhTelecom was the first provider of web services, operating the network that provided data transfer connecting major cities, and still is the biggest player.
As stated in these report by OpenNet:
“The state uses its significant regulatory authority to ensure that all Internet traffic passes through infrastructures controlled by KazakhTelecom, and selective content filtering is widely used.”
This ambiguous approach appeared evident in an occasion that made it to international news: prosecutors tried to shut down a series of web properties related to Russian-language opposition weekly magazine Respublika.
As reported by The Next Web, in November 2012 Almaty prosecution office asked to remove Respublika pages on Facebook, Google, Twitter and LiveJournal – the most popular blogging platform in the Runet, often used by political activists.
The action took place after Respublika reported a series of riots where 15 protesters were killed by the Police, in order to prevent the diffusion of outrage via Internet. The affair also involved former UK prime minister Tony Blair, at the time personal advisor of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev – as we can read on a Daily Mail article.
Vkontakte vs. Facebook (vs. Odnoklassniki)
In terms of social media usage, Kazakhstan can be considered part of the Runet (the Russian Internet, editor’s note), since the most used SNS is Vkontakte, St. Petersburg-based social network populated by over 100M users among Eastern Europe and Western Asia.
Vkontakte users in Kazakhstan are 2.3 million, while Facebook users are about 700 thousands – although growing at a fast pace, considering that in early 2011 the American social network was reaching less than 300K people in the country.
The high penetration of Vkontakte can be seen in the analysis of conversations inside the platform. Interesting to notice the presence of a series of pages dedicated to the Kazakh audience, like the comic page Kazakh Pie, counting almost 180 thousand followers.
An analysis of the history of social media in Kazakhstan shows a strong connection with the rise of Russian SNS, since the very beginning.
Older generations approached social networks in the late 2000s mainly through Russian SNS Odnoklassniki. The Mail.ru-owned social network – whose name means “Classmates”, and has been launched in Russia shortly after Facebook – quickly gained a strong popularity in Central Asia countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and of course Kazakhstan.
Even though younger social media users are now more active on Vkontakte, Facebook, Twitter and MoiMir – Russian web portal owned by Mail.ru – Odnoklassniki is still working on its international expansion, through the recent launch of localized version for the Uzbek, Armenian and Georgian market.
Blogs and videos: the future is local
Although Kazakh users are very active in watching and reading contents on international platforms such as Youtube or LiveJournal, there are a series of local players that today have a relevant role in Kazakh digital landscape. Such as YVision, one of the most visited news portal and personal blogging service in the country.
The platform was launched in 2008 in Almaty, and evolved into a multi-media portal integrating Internet TV.
In February 2013 YVision was counting over 2,000 active bloggers; among them some special projects, such as the Kazakh Ministry of Culture’s digital library, and Shaiba, a newsportal covering ice hockey competitions – one of the most popular sports in the country.
Also worth to mention is KazTube, the first local video sharing service, launched by the Kazakh IT and Telecommunications Agency in order to make the Kaznet grow in a time – back in early 2009 – when over 90% of Kazakh web users were visiting Russian-language sites (source: Central Asia Online).
One thing is sure: be it on local, Russia-based or global platforms, the evolution and the figures of Internet in Kazakhstan must be kept in strong consideration.