Russian Media Influence in Central Asia: Easy to Imagine, Difficult to Find

Marlene Laruelle, Dylan Royce

22.12.2020

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Marlene Laruelle is Director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at George Washington University, Co-Director of PONARS, and Director of GW’s Central Asia Program.  

Dylan Royce is a PhD student at the Political Science Department at George Washington University.

This article is part of a project with Eric McGlinchey on Russian, Chinese, Militant, and Ideologically Extremist Messaging Effects on United States Favorability Perceptions in Central Asia, funded by the US Department of Defense and the US Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory under the Minerva Research Initiative, award W911-NF-17-1-0028. The views expressed here are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the US Department of Defense or the US Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory.

U.S. observers and policymakers have often seen Russian-origin media as responsible for influencing the opinions and worldviews of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors. However, our analysis of surveys in Central Asia found little evidence for this influence.

Russian-origin media maintain a strong presence throughout much of the former USSR: produced for domestic audiences, but easily available abroad by cable or satellite, they offer high-quality miniseries, films, talk-shows, and political shows. Domestic media, often poor in funding and human capital, cannot always compete. This is especially the case in Central Asia, where authoritarian regimes fear media freedom and resources are especially scare, making their media realm particularly weak.

Central Asian states are also among the most supportive of Russia’s narratives within the post-Soviet space. In the past, U.S. analysts and policymakers have simply attributed this support to Russian media domination, a perception that has informed U.S. foreign policy for years.

However, available survey data provide little support for this claim.

We ran 14 regressions over the results of surveys conducted by the Central Asia Barometer from 2017 through 2019 in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. These regressions all included, as an independent variable, the category of media — domestic, foreign, online, Russian-origin, or other — that participants identified as their primary source of either (depending on the survey wave) international news or all news. For each country, four regressions were run, each with a different dependent variable: (1) opinion of the US; (2) opinion of closer economic relations with the US; (3) opinion of Russia; and (4) opinion of closer economic relations with Russia.

Contrary to expectations, we generally found little or no relationship between primary reliance on Russian-origin rather than domestic media, on the one hand, and more pro-Russian and/or less pro-US views, on the other.

In Kazakhstan, Russian media presence is particularly strong, but its effect on Kazakhstanis’ views does not significantly differ from that of Kazakhstani media. While the substantial presence of Russian-origin content in Kazakhstani media (for instance, the main state channel, Channel One — Eurasia, rebroadcasts much Russian content) could reduce a difference in their effects, it presumably could not eliminate one altogether. It thus appears that, despite some Kazakhstani media’s occasionally critical stance towards Russia (accusing it, for instance, of past or present colonialism), Kazakh and Russian-origin media contain roughly similar information on the US and Russia — or, at least, successfully convey roughly the same perceptions of them.

Russian-origin and domestic media appear to be similarly non-distinct in Turkmenistan, insofar as public polling from that country can be considered reliable.

In Kyrgyzstan, however, there does appear to be something of a gap. Consumption of news primarily via Russian-origin rather than domestic media is associated with a moderately worse opinion of the US, and with modestly higher opinions both of Russia in general and of closer economic relations with it in particular. That said, these effects are not terribly large, with neither the US nor Russia being consistently and substantially affected in both general opinion and support for closer economic relations. These effects are likely explainable by the fact that a large proportion of Kyrgyz society relies on Russia through labor migration and may therefore be more ‘buying’ Russian-origin media narratives—yet that does not explain why Russian-origin media differs in its effect from domestic media, when this doesn’t appear to be the case elsewhere. 

Uzbekistan, then, is the one country in which a domestic-Russian media gap can be confidently identified. It essentially does not apply to opinions of Russia or of economic relations with it, but strongly affects opinions of the US and of economic relations with it: primary consumption of Russian media has large and statistically-significant negative effects on opinion of the US and economic relations with the US. This suggests that Uzbekistani media are not any more or less pro-Russian than Russian media themselves are – but that they are more pro-US, or at least less anti-US, than Russian media are. This corresponds to Tashkent’s traditional policy of distancing from Russia, even if this is partly evolving today under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s rapprochement with Russia, and to value the US as a counterweight.

Overall, then, there is little evidence that the “effects” of Russian media, whatever they may be, differ substantially from those of domestic media in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, (for the most part) Kyrgyzstan, or (regarding Russia) Uzbekistan.

Conceivably, this state of affairs could be the result of domestic Central Asian media reproducing Russian-origin media or following its lead. However, this influence of Russian-origin media upon domestic media would have to be near-total in order for the former to have absolutely no observable direct effect upon the citizens of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. And this is unlikely, given that, in Kazakhstan, there are plenty of private media that carry original content; given that Kazakhstan’s government has, in the last several years, acted explicitly to develop indigenous, non-Russian-influenced political programming; and given that Turkmenistan’s society, including its media, is unusually isolated from the rest of the world, including Russia.

This analysis, therefore, suggests that Central Asians’ pro-Russian and relatively anti-US attitudes cannot be generally or easily attributed to “Russian media influence.” At best, the perception of such influence merely exaggerates a single factor among many that determine public geopolitical preferences and views of other countries. At worst, it amounts to a baseless dismissal of views that people genuinely hold, for a variety of homegrown reasons, as foreign-imposed and therefore “inauthentic.”