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Kyrgyz Elites Exploit Disenfranchised Youth

Political classes mobilise young people for their own ends.
By Pavel Dyatlenko

The weakness of central government in Kyrgyzstan has encouraged the growth of amorphous youth movements which are manipulated by sections of the elite trying to gain more power.

Youth groups were at the forefront of Kyrgyzstan’s two revolutions, in which one president, Askar Akaev, was ousted in 2005 and replaced by Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was himself forced out in April 2010.

Among those who took to the streets and stormed government buildings, there were many idealists who genuinely wanted democratic change and held legitimate grievances against their rulers. They took to the streets and faced government forces, and some of them were killed.

These were not, however, genuinely grassroots movements. Instead, they were an instrument which disgruntled elite figures used to topple their political foes and seize power.

The various youth movements in Kyrgyzstan are fragmented rather than homogenous. Some draw on young people from rural areas, and a smaller number are identified with city dwellers, notably in the capital Bishkek and the southern city of Osh.

A minority are independent and tend to be liberal, left-leaning and focused mainly on human rights. They do hold demonstrations but their organisational capacity and media profile is limited.

Other youth groups are backed by politicians and parties, and it is they which always seem to be in the public eye, making vocal statements and organising attention-grabbing campaigns, sometimes on controversial issues like ethnicity and language.

Despite attempts to position themselves as independent players, they have largely become proxies for the influential groups that dictate their agendas, as the 2005 and 2010 uprisings demonstrated.

For politicians, they are a useful way of demonstrating broad public support for their agendas.

Because it is easy to set up a “public organisation” un der Kyrgyzstan’s law, these groups have proliferated. Some are well-established, others are loose associations that are propelled onto the national stage by a single-issue campaign before fading into the background, often never to be heard of again.

They are not to be confused with the formal youth wings of political parties, which tend to be drawn from the immediate entourage of the leadership and more noted for their loyalty than for their effectiveness as mobilisers.

Informal youth groups were involved, for example, in protests against the planned deployment of international police in southern Kyrgyzstan in the wake of the June 2010 ethnic conflict that left more than 400 people dead. They were also a key part of a campaign earlier in 2012 calling for ethnic Uzbek school pupils to be prevented from taking exams in their own language. (See Row Over Uzbek Language in Kyrgyzstan.)

These “managed” youth groups operate like rapid-response units, mobilising large numbers of people in a short space of time, and making themselves heard by holding press conferences as well as rallies.

The existence of groups of marginalised young people can be traced to demographic changes that began in the late 1980s, when significant numbers of people began moving from countryside to town. Mostly ethnic Kyrgyz and poor, they struggled to find work and a place to live.

Because education, welfare and healthcare entitlements require official registration as a resident, the newcomers were often denied basic services. They naturally campaigned on such issues and pressured town authorities to provide them with state-owned land to build houses on.

Young people now make up a substantial proportion of Kyrgyzstan’s population, and many fall into this marginalised category.

Those born around the time that the Soviet Union was collapsing fell between two stools – young to benefit from Soviet-era free education and guaranteed employment, but ill-equipped to cope with the transition to life in a hard-nosed market economy.

There is little social mobility within this class of rural and first- or second-generation urban poor. With no money or connections, it is hard to set up a business, get a decent jobs, or go to university.

It is hardly surprising that many were drawn towards populist, Kyrgyz nationalist ideas as a way of articulating their grievances.

Because of the leading role they played in the two revolutions, youth groups are taken seriously, and government, media and civil society groups treat their views as a kind of barometer of public attitudes.

Participants, too, benefit from their contact with political parties, acquiring experience and connections and offering opportunities for mobility they would otherwise be denied.

“Managed” youth groups are likely to persist as long as nationalistic rhetoric and social deprivation are present, and as long as they are useful tools for political operators.

They will only wither away when young people have more avenues open to them, through economic recovery, a better business environment and easier access to loans; when Kyrgyzstan’s political environment becomes more stable; and when the rule of law is enforced properly so that revolutions are no longer an opportunity to go looting with impunity.

If and when these conditions come into being, young people will have less of a motivation for joining such movements.

Pavel Dyatlenko is a political analyst with the Polis Asia think-tank in Bishkek.

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