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

Rent-a-Mob in Kyrgyzstan

For some of those involved in the continuing protests, political activism is just a source of income.
By Leila Saralaeva

Claims by Kyrgyz officials that some of those who stormed government buildings in Bishkek earlier this month were paid to do so have proved accurate.

IWPR interviews with anti-government demonstrators confirmed that at least some were motivated by money, often because they faced poverty and unemployment.

Interior minister Murat Sutalinov told IWPR that of the 238 people arrested after several thousand forced their way into the White House compound, which houses the president’s administration and the government, more than half were women who had turned up in return for between 100 and 1,000 soms (or between two and 20 US dollars).

The protesters said they wanted to reverse a decision by Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission, CEC, not to allow businessman and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party leader Urmat Baryktabasov to compete in the July presidential ballot.

The government maintains that many of those involved in this and the numerous other demonstrations staged since March’s “tulip revolution” are a new breed - poor and unemployed women who can be hired to protest on demand.

"This ‘profession’ has become most popular for women, because there’s a belief that the police will not use force against them. But behind the woman there are thugs carrying rocks," said Sutalinov.

The rent-a-crowd trend has not been confined to the Kyrgyz capital.

Parliamentary deputy Iskhak Masaliev said he encountered an angry group in the southern Batken region in early June.

“Five to six women came to the district administration building and started protesting as though they were having nervous breakdowns,” Masaliev said. “They almost tore their hair out, trying to explain that if we appointed the candidate that we wanted, it would be a tragedy for the country.

“I talked personally with each of the women and discovered that none of them knew either our candidate or the one they were proposing. Later, I found out that these women took part in any [public] meeting, on any issue, for money.”

Bishkek mayor Askar Salymbekov joked in an interview with IWPR that he would hire his own group of demonstrators to combat the group of 200-300 people who gather daily to shout slogans outside his office.

"There’s a certain group of women who appear at all pickets and meetings,” he said. “They don't listen to sensible persuasion and aren't scared of anything, because they are paid to do it. They are used everywhere. This is proven fact.

Acting president Kurmanbek Bakiev blamed the regime of his predecessor Askar Akaev for creating the economic difficulties that drive this phenomenon.

"It is a social problem when it becomes possible to pay unemployed people to seize Government House. This problem has been building up for many years" said Bakiev.

It was not hard for IWPR to find protestors for sale while investigating the government’s claims. A correspondent pretending to be recruiting for a demonstration had little trouble finding women willing to take up the offer.

"We won't go for less than 500 soms, and we get the money in advance. Some women went last Friday, and they still haven't been paid the 100 soms they were promised," said 43-year-old Ainura.

She said she came to Bishkek from the town of Karakol several hundred kilometres to the east, where she has three children and an alcoholic husband. Everything she earns she sends to her children, though she hasn’t yet taken part in a demonstration.

Another woman who spoke on condition of anonymity admitted she had taken money for protesting, saying her dire financial situation meant she has little choice.

“Why hide the fact? Of course we get paid money for our work. But what can we do?” she said. “I have no job, my husband is a terrible drunk, there's no money to feed the children... Sometimes I'm ashamed.

“Yesterday, one of us was shown on television [and] she couldn't remember the name of the politician who she was 'prepared to die for'."

Some human rights activists expressed concern at the growing trend towards paying protestors. Anara Dautalieva from the NGO Civil Society Against Corruption said those she met during the recent seizing of the Supreme Court didn’t realise the dangers facing them when they got involved in confrontational potentially violent situations.

Dautalieva believes the trend is serious enough to threaten Kyrgyzstan’s precarious stability.

“This is a very bad and dangerous profession which really is gaining

momentum. These women, who shout at the top of their voices for the

rights of a person they do not know, may sell their country and children for this money.”

Although the practice of hiring protestors undoubtedly exists, some observers say there are people involved in the wave of demonstrations who do have legitimate concerns.

"They have a strong feeling for justice, so they court conflict,” said parliamentary deputy Murat Sultanov. “They are so angry with politicians and the authorities that they think that they can… milk the politicians for all they are worth.”

Human rights activist Aziza Abdurasulova added, "I don't agree with the assertion that these women who have been taking part in pickets do so for money. On the contrary, there are only a handful of people like this.

“Most of the women come from remote villages to fight for their rights and the rights of all Kyrgyzstan citizens. They truly believe that their involvement can affect the political situation and help them get what they want."

A woman who gave her first name as Aliya told IWPR she was entirely genuine when she took part in demonstrations in support of Sharipa Sadybakasova, who was contesting the outcome of the parliamentary ballot earlier this year, in which she failed to be elected.

“I wasn’t paid any money, because I know him to be a professional and a decent woman. People like me are in the majority here. Maybe some do get paid - I don't know, I can't answer for the others. But people like me do not sell themselves, they go on pickets solely for ideological reasons."

Whether they are acting out of conviction or just for the money, the protesters find themselves supporting an array of politicians who are opposed to the current interim administration for a variety of reasons. In the case of Baryktabasov, for example, the protests began after he was barred from standing for the presidency because he is not a Kyrgyz citizen.

Yrys Omurzakov, editor of the newspaper Tribuna, believes only politicians who enjoy little popular support need to hire demonstrators. "These politicians want to prove that they have supporters, and an electorate, but in fact they are not popular, so they get people to protest purely for money. So you could say that they are weak politicians."

Parliamentary deputy Kubatbek Baibolov is concerned that the authorities , which itself came to power on a wave of demonstrations described the situation as a “calamity for the people”.

“This profession has become widespread because until recently no charges were pressed against these people, there was a policy of playing along with them, and so now this has become such a large-scale problem," Baibolov told IWPR.

Kyrgyzstan’s general prosecutor, Azimbek Beknazarov, promised to target not the women themselves but those who hire them.

“We will now find and press charges against the organisers,” he said.

Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?