Russia is hijacking decolonisation to shield itself from its colonial past. In doing so, it manoeuvres the anticolonial narrative against the “collective West”
Some context and definitions
Russian propaganda in Central Asia is not limited to Perviy Kanal (Channel One), it is present in the buildings, street names, statues, language, and the broader cultural code.
I often include this image in my presentations when talking about Russian propaganda. In my view, it is brilliant. Muslims in the centre of Kyrgyzstan's capital of Bishkek bow down to pray as the father of the Bolshevik revolution Vladimir Lenin is pointing to the great future of a non-existent atheist communist state.
Image by William Daniels
A person can physically reside in Central Asia but be mentally located in the utopian imaginary version of the USSR. What is curious about Russian media in Central Asia, is that it did not suddenly arrive, it just never left...
What is propaganda?
There is an ocean of definitions. Let me add my drop to it. As a discourse-centric scholar, I would define propaganda as a multimodal, multisemiotic and multitool communication strategy aimed at impacting the way people perceive reality.
Propaganda does not have to be bad, one can propagate a healthy lifestyle, for instance. However, in the modern context of information warfare, it often does have a negative connotation. Curiously, in the Soviet and post-Soviet traditions (if we can use these terms), propaganda is, in fact, more often used as a positive term.
Why care about Russian propaganda in Central Asia?
Russia is demonising the West for Central Asian audiences, further alienating the two from each other. The West is presented as an evil colonial power that only Russia can oppose.
Russian propaganda portrays Ukraine as an artificially created Nazi state. This is especially dangerous as precarious audiences are manipulated into joining Russia's war against Ukraine. Central Asian labour migrants are actively recruited into fighting when they are promised impressive monthly payments and a simplified pathway to Russian citizenship.
Central Asian leaders are learning quickly and adopting some of the same repressive legislation as Russia has passed in recent years. This repressive legislation and its selective application allow the state to suppress critical voices. With the aim of counterbalancing Russia's influence in the region, Western powers pretend they don't see this trend.
Meanwhile, Russia's Sputnik is reporting in Russian and in the local languages in Central Asia. Some of the snapshots here:
Special Military Operation: big opportunities of a limited mobilisation in the CIS
US money is spent on teaching the youth how to overthrow the government
"The West does not have a right to demand from others to observe its values," states Putin
Russian media: a contradiction married with an oxymoron
There are lots of contradictions in the narrative of Russia's propaganda. On the one hand, the propaganda machine accuses Europe of being too tolerant. It frames the EU as a collapsing entity that is demolished from within through Islamisation and Arabisation. Just look at some of these examples of memes that circulated in the social media publics a-la "Russians in Europe".
“We, Europeans, do not need 'khokhli’ (a derogatory term Russians use to describe Ukrainians) in the EU” – stated a German citizen.
The meme is aimed at mocking both the EU and Ukraine. Such anti-immigrant and racist narratives are presented hand-in-hand with the illusion that the USSR was a true embodiment of the friendship of the people. While spreading this racist narrative, Russia is accusing Europe of racism and neo-colonialism.
Here is another racist "gem":
-Mom, dad, what is democracy?
-It is when white people work every day so that we can receive our welfare, a phone for every member of the family, rent money, free food, coverage of bills, etc.
-But mom, aren’t they angry about it?
-Of course they are, but that’s called racism!
Amid these narratives, Russia is now seeking solidarity in the fight against Western neo-colonialism.
Why so many contradictions? That’s part of the strategy. Russian propaganda pitches to the far right, to the far left and to everyone in between. The goal is to erode democratic values and, subsequently, damage democratic institutions. What's really horrifying is that there are politicians across Europe who find this to be just dandy and opeated by immediate political gains, put their nations in danger by speculating with nativism, racism, homophobia, conspiracies, anti-EU sentiments, and the like.
Decolonisation narratives are growing and gaining momentum. Russia is taking advantage of this. It sure denies its colonial history and present ambitions, while it aims to regain the "lost lands" and views post-Soviet states as a default continuation of its borders. Meanwhile, Russia is gathering like-minded states to shift the anticolonial narrative and to weaponise it against Europe.
Russia is hijacking decolonisation to shield itself from its colonial past. In doing so, it manoeuvres the anticolonial narrative against the “collective West”. Given that there is a shameful colonial past and even present for the EU to deal with, this hijacking is rather successful and the narrative lands on fruitful soil.
Neo-colonialism is becoming a new term that Russia is inserting into the public discourse. Looks like in 2023 the United Russia Party will hold some events amid its "fight against neo-colonialism". As Vedemosti reports in the screenshot below, at least one international forum on this topic is already planned for October 2023.
At the same time, any attempt of any post-Soviet state to de-Sovietise is perceived by Russia as Russophobia and such states are threatened that they can be next after Ukraine.