Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan: Protests on Demand

Marginalised groups serve as rent-a-mob demonstrators whenever the country is convulsed by unrest.
By Pavel Dyatlenko

Kyrgyzstan has experienced periodic bouts of political turbulence over the last decade. On each occasion, many of the characteristics have been similar – large crowds calling on someone to resign, lofty words from the orators addressing them, and plenty of journalists on hand to report this surge in political activity by members of the public. 

Yet the truth is that people in Kyrgyzstan are not actually very politically engaged, as can be seen by the generally low turnout figures in elections.

How, then, has it been possible to get them to come out into the streets to protest so easily, and so often?

The answer lies in social and economic changes that have created a large under-class which is virtually available for hire by anyone with the money to pay them and the skills to direct their anger against the required target.

The biggest protests and other forms of unrest – the revolutions of March 2005 and April 2010 which both resulted in regime change, and the mass violence in southern Kyrgyzstan this June involving local Kyrgyz and Uzbeks – fit the pattern to some extent, but should be viewed separately because other factors were also at play, and because of their sheer magnitude.

A recent protest staged by Urmat Baryktabasov, a businessman turned politician, is a more typical example of the kind of routine protest I am talking about.

On August 5, thousands of people turned out in the northern town of Balykchi to voice support for Baryktabasov to become prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, and also for criminal charges he faced to be dropped. The demonstration was soon over, as riot police moved in firing tear gas, stun grenades and even live ammunition. Eleven people were injured, and Baryktabasov himself was arrested.

So what kind of people turn up for such demonstrations? At one level, they are often local supporters of the political figures leading protests in their home region, as in the case of Baryktabasov.

At the same time, they commonly fall broadly into two marginalised social groups – impoverished urban residents struggling to adapt to the market economy and the collapse of Soviet-era state employment and welfare safety nets; and migrants who have left rural areas in search of a better life in the larger towns.

What these groups have in common is their poverty and their unclear sense of purpose. Migrants from the countryside, for example, lose their ties with their roots, as they see no future back in their villages, but have not developed a new urbanised identity with which they are comfortable.

Typically, the core of such protesting crowds is made up of young men frustrated and angry at their lack of prospects. The weak Kyrgyz economy is unable to absorb the growing number of people looking for work. Many go abroad to Russia and other countries to work, but large numbers are destined for unemployment at home.

Taking part in protests can give them a sense of direction, the feeling that they are part of an elemental force influencing decision-making.

Aside from this nascent form of political engagement, many are driven by purely economic factors, and become “protesters for hire”. Even if the issues they are called on to protest about are close to their hearts, the prime motive for taking part is to get paid for a relatively easy day’s work.

As well as food and sometimes alcohol, protest participants often get paid – some observers say the going rate is the equivalent of between eight and ten US dollars a day, plus food. That may not seem much, but in Kyrgyzstan it is decent money.

Thus, all that organisers need is a few thousand dollars, a team to recruit and mobilise participants, and tacit approval from the local authorities for the event to go ahead. The kind of individuals able to do this in pursuit of their interests range from politicians and businessmen to top underworld figures.

Paid demonstrators find their services particularly in demand around elections and during sustained periods of anti-government protests.

The only way people will be weaned off their penchant for demonstrating will be when the Kyrgyz economy is revived and more jobs are created across the country, in rural as well as urban areas.

As things stand, these periodic protests are a drain on the government’s resources and on economic activity as a whole, costing large amounts to police, forcing businesses to close temporarily, and putting off potential foreign investors.

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

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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