“Protests are not always the unification of the masses on a negative foundation, but an attempt to show the authorities that the population is dissatisfied, where urgent and effective measures are needed, in order to solve the population’s problems,” expert Zamira Isakova reveals the triggers of protest moods in Kyrgyzstan in an article, written specially for CABAR .asia.
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There was an obvious awakening among the citizens of Kyrgyzstan, which grew into a decisive readiness to use their fundamental right to freedom of expression and, through peaceful protests, convey to the authorities the message “we are not happy with you”. There are several triggers of the protest mood in the country: impunity for corrupt officials, nepotism, pressure on the media and activists, attempts to limit citizens’ rights to freedom of speech (the bill “On Manipulating Information”), ugly mutation of the public service providing agencies into the service of persecution and punishment, but the final flourish became insufficient effectiveness in the fight against the spread of COVID-19.
Several protests have already taken place since the end of 2019. In November, people gathered against corruption, in December – against corruption and pressure on the media, and in July 2020 – against the adoption of the law “On Manipulating Information”. All three #ReActions were peaceful demonstrations of public discontent, in which thousands of Kyrgyzstanis took part. During the quarantine from late March to June 2020, several online rallies were organized against domestic violence and against corruption. Interestingly, the above systemic peaceful protests do not have any definite political leaders. Moreover, during the last #ReAction 3.0, the performance and participation of Omurbek Tekebayev was sharply criticized by other active and passive participants of the action. He was accused of populism and misappropriation of the merit of civic activists in the “awakening” of the population.
Such actions, as a rule, are recognized as more popular and more moral. At least the last July action brought a positive result – in August 2020, President Sooronbay Jeenbekov signed an objection to the anti-democratic bill “On manipulating information”. The President recommended finalizing the project with the involvement of the public and experts. This is a great victory that proves the effectiveness of peaceful actions to bring the will of the people to the decision-makers.
These actions symbolize disagreement and withdrawal from an implicit contract – a kind of negative consensus. Russian political scientist Andrei Kolesnikov emphasizes that everything is negative in the regime of negative consensus. The people adapt and lower their expectations (“it won’t be worse”), the society is mobilized against an external (often) non-existent enemy, and the population begins to identify negatively (Kyrk Choro). Attempts by the authorities to maintain a negative consensus often lead to stagnation and never lead to positive reforms and modernization, since they are focused on retention, not development. Such a regime reeks of damp.
What factors led to “awakening”?
Usually this phenomenon is called the victory of the fridge over the TV, when people massively and systematically call for justice and equal rights. However, it must be admitted that the citizens of Kyrgyzstan have not been asleep, and the TV has not yet become a priority over the fridge for the majority of Kyrgyzstanis. It became clear that mutual distrust of society and the authorities had grown, and the expectations of the population did not come true. The bubbles popped and people decided to actively express their opinion about the inadmissibility of lawlessness and injustice.
Persecution of political opponents, ineffectiveness of the anti-corruption campaign, loyalty to those whom people and independent investigators consider criminals, unpopular decisions in terms of personnel appointments, corrupted law enforcement agencies and parliament accumulated in discontent with the way the authorities treated people.
The people to whom the state should provide services in the field of security, health care, self-expression, and much more, has nearly became enemy to the state. Eventually, all this led to an existential impasse: which is not surprising, since the state should serve not only the head of the country and their apparatchiks (political staffer), but everyone. The state is obliged to protect the basic values of the entire population. In addition, according to Ronald Inglehart, and not only him, for Kyrgyzstan as a developing country, security and guarantees of survival are valuable.
Sociologist R. Inglehart in his map of values placed Kyrgyzstan in the lower left corner. In his coordinate system, the values of survival (left) and values of self-expression (right) are designated along the horizontal axis. The vertical axis shows traditional values (at the bottom of the map) vs secular-rational values (at the top).
Moreover, here protest sentiments are fueled by the inability of the state to ensure the basic necessity of survival. The pandemic, which struck the whole world hard enough, inflicted particular damage on underdeveloped countries, including Kyrgyzstan. The pandemic exposed all the weaknesses and flaws in public management and showed the real face of corrupt officials who did not miss the opportunity to enrich themselves through humanitarian aid provided to the country during the spread of the virus. In the 21st century, the economy of services reigns, the state is the main provider of basic services for its population, and if it fails in the provision of health services, one should not be surprised at the dissatisfaction of the population.
Zugzwang – any move of the player leads to a worsening of their position
Move 1: detain participants of the peaceful action – become even less popular
The people are trying to express their discontent and motivate the authorities to take decisive measures to punish criminals, to ensure freedom of expression and equal rights. In response, the officials, who are obliged to be the defenders of the rights and freedoms of every citizen of the country, decide to go against the citizens expressing their discontent. This is exactly what happened in March 2020, when people gathered to prevent violence against women, and they were attacked, and then for some reason they were detained. Everyone was shocked when, instead of provocateurs, pseudo-patriots violently dispersed the protesters for equal rights and opportunities. Moreover, later the girls who took part in the action were tried, and the provocateurs of the ethno-nationalists did not receive the punishment they deserved.
Such dissonance cannot but cause even greater discontent. This tactic of government services is deliberately losing. A scenario in which unpopular autocrats stand up against peaceful protests almost always leads to the autocrat’s loss. In the aftermath of such situation, peaceful protests arouse even greater sympathy among the population. That is why protest moods have become more systemic.
Move 2: Why Help Sufferers, Better Make Them Apologize
There are well known facts about absolutely absurd cases when representatives of law-enforcement agencies, instead of ensuring the protection and safety of the population, spend their resources on extorting an apology from people who bring unpleasant facts about those in power. These attempts of turning into an information autocracy, when the leaders of the nation try to retain power by controlling independent media, censorship, manipulating information, and using law-enforcement agencies to suppress protests, are clearly and naturally rejected by the citizens of Kyrgyzstan.
Move 3: Blame the innocent for venality
It should be noted that there were attempts to accuse the participants of peaceful protests of affiliation and the provision of paid services.
Such technologies are not new and not unique – the “elder brothers” of the Kyrgyz Republic, such as Russia and Belarus, also see a conspiracy of the West and a paid production in all actions of the people’s will.
However, any sane person understands that the latest protests are an expression of the will of a very large active part of the population of Kyrgyzstan. Here, many may argue that several thousand participants in the actions are not representative and are not the majority of the six million population of Kyrgyzstan, but one must understand and admit that not all six million are politically and civically active. These same thousands are both active and independent during elections, as active and independent in their will. And these are not just users of the Facebook and Twitter bubble, but much more than that.
Possible development scenarios
Protests are not always the unification of the masses on a negative foundation, but an attempt to show the authorities that the population is dissatisfied, and that urgent and effective measures are needed to resolve the population’s problems. They often provide opportunities for nonviolent problem solving and democratization. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, these are indicators of the protest readiness and activity of some part of the population – mainly the capital. But the fact that the regions are not holding rallies does not mean that the inhabitants of remote areas are content and happy in their neverland.
Residents of the regions are also not very happy with the way the fight against the spread of COVID-19 is being conducted, they are also unhappy with the ubiquitous corruption, low living standards and injustice. There is a protest mood, but it is not manifest. However, it is difficult to predict whether these sentiments will translate into constructive actions. It can be said for sure that people in the regions are not ready to express their will through demonstrations: they are engaged in survival and many believe that it is not safe to express their opinion. Let us recall these demonstrative performances with apologies, interrogations at the State Committee for National Security, as well as a video of torture of a former customs officer who spoke about the lawlessness in this service.
The upcoming parliamentary elections this fall open a window of opportunity for real systemic change. Although, making predictions is not a very rewarding activity, three development scenarios can be assumed.
Scenario 1: Tired people may believe the campaign promises of negative consensus supporters for a number of reasons, and the situation will not change in any way. Although the people have woken up, they have no time to reflect on how they should act further, so they can be guided by the principle “life was not that bad before, why change something”. In addition, in our small country there is such a phenomenon as local “patriotism”, that is, “good or bad person, is still our person.”
Scenario 2: the most unpleasant of all, this is when, due to banal poverty, mistrust of the authorities and lack of faith in the possibility of positive change, people will sell their votes. In this case, people with dubious moral and professional qualities will become the people’s choices, and the people will have a hard time before the next elections comes.
Scenario 3: it is likely that the mood and analysis of the current situation will infuse to the point of realizing that it is necessary to be more conscious during the elections to be held in October 2020, and then a morally (and hopefully physically) healthy electorate will elect such people’s representatives during the elections who will root for reforms and modernization, and not for stagnation, while hiding behind stability. The main idea is that the “new” and “old” candidates for the people’s elected representatives convey their vision, and so that later they have real political opportunities to make decisions. However, in 2020 it is difficult to say what surprises it will bring us.
This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.