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Ex-Soviet Central Asia cautiously eyes Internet

By Karl Emerick Hanuska, Reuters, 26 November 2000

ALMATY, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - The people who gather regularly in the dingy Stalker Internet Cafe in a corner of Kazakhstan's largest city are fueling a revolution.

Not a political revolution that might threaten Central Asian governments criticized for a lack of democracy, but a technological one that breaks down barriers to expansion of the Internet in this far-flung region.

The Stalker cafe -- just a half dozen computers in a dim basement room -- is one of a handful like it to spring up in recent years throughout ex-Soviet Central Asia, which also includes Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

What the cafe lacks in style -- the paint on the walls is peeling and many light bulbs are missing -- it makes up for by the simple fact that it exists. Some other, much more upmarket Internet cafes have opened, but with prices out of reach for most would-be Internet surfers in Central Asia.

The average monthly wage is $100 in Kazakhstan and Internet access in an upscale cafe costs about $5 an hour.

In Tajikistan, where the average wage is $10 a month, an hour on the Internet can cost about $4.

In the Stalker cafe, an hour online costs about a dollar, and you don't even have to buy a coffee. "The Internet is the only way I really have of knowing for myself what the outside world is really like," department store clerk Nurlan said, while thumbing a dictionary to send an e-mail message to a German friend she "met" on the Internet.

"There are people and ideas out there that no one here has ever imagined.

I may never have the chance to see such things for myself, but the Internet sort of makes up for it," he said.


Erik Burkitbayev, general director of Nursat, Kazakhstan's leading private telecommunications company, said in an interview that the Internet was playing an important psychological role in ex-Soviet states.

Nursat, which accounts for 35 percent of Internet users in Kazakhstan, is a joint venture set up by U.S. and Kazakh investors five years ago under a military conversion program. It turned a former command center for the Soviet military space program into a cutting-edge data and voice network.

"Even a decade after independence, Kazakhstan, like a lot of former Soviet countries, is dominated by a kind of closed-borders type of mentality," Burkitbayev said.

"But the Internet is helping us break through that mentality and open up much more to the outside world."

While the Internet has spread rapidly in the West, the decay and limited scope of Central Asia's telecommunications infrastructure has restricted its growth.

Of about 60 million people populating this vast region sandwiched between Russia and China, industry members say at most 450,000 to 500,000 are online. Kazakhstan, with a population of 15 million, has the highest concentration of users with some 250,000 people online. Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan, has just 400 to 500 users and only opened its first Internet cafe in June.

Throughout much of the region, telecommunications of any sort are virtually non-existent. Where they do exist they tend to be less than reliable, even in the largest cities.

"When you pick up a phone, you can never be sure it will work," an employee at a Western firm in Almaty said.

"As for the Internet, you can spend an entire day dialing and get nowhere."


Technology is not the only thing hampering development of the Internet.

As in many other countries of the former Soviet Union, leaders in Central Asia are worried about what the free flow of information could mean, politically and socially.

Last December, Kazakhstan quietly passed a law on telecommunications that critics have said gives the government sweeping powers to monitor the Internet. Government officials say the law aims only to monitor volume and not content, to allow it to better manage scarce resources for development.

But critics say the measures bear worrying similarities to steps taken in Russia and China to regulate the Internet.

The government of Uzbekistan has also been criticized by the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders for establishing a centralized data transmission network that monopolizes access to international computer networks. Opposition Web sites in some Central Asian countries have also been closed down or had their channels blocked.

Moves by Central Asian leaders seen as designed to hamstring development of the Internet prompted Reporters Without Borders in 1999 to brand all five countries here "enemies of the Internet."


But most people involved with development of the Internet in Central Asia say it is an economic force leaders will have to learn to accept or risk losing the potential it offers. "In Kazakhstan alone some $1 billion is spent on credit cards each year. The Internet could easily attract half of that money," Andrei Nadein, vice president of Actis Systems, told a recent news conference.

"This clearly is a real economic force with a real financial value and governments have a lot more to gain by helping its development than they do by limiting it," he said.

The Kazakh affiliate of Actis is now conducting the first wide-reaching survey of Internet users, information Nadein said would help Kazakhstan's Internet take a great step forward.

He added that his company had never been pressured by government officials in Kazakhstan or elsewhere in Central Asia.

Nursat's Burkitbayev said the Internet was in Central Asia to stay and saw the number of people online there climbing by 100,000 annually over the next few years.

"It is not just information on the Internet that is important, but the fact that the Internet is a whole new marketplace, and one with huge economic potential for us," he said, adding that the Kazakh government understood its value.

"The Internet is too big and too important for any rational government to close its eyes to. . . It is the doorway to the future," he added.