Activism and Social and Political Engagement in Central Asia

Wednesday 7 April 2021

Elodie Phillips is a MECACS intern and a final year undergraduate student studying International Relations and Russian at the University of St Andrews. 

Source: Radio Free Europe/Serhli Nuzhnenko

On March 16th, MECACS hosted a roundtable on activism and social and political engagement in Central Asia, featuring a varied panel of experienced activists. The panelist’s testimonies highlighted the diversity of civil society in the region in terms of both the issues being addressed and differentiated networks of engagement with the state and other civil society groups. In the last few weeks, women’s rights activism has been extremely visible in Central Asia, from Alytn Kapalova’s public court battle to give her children matronymics to the first officially permitted 8th March demonstration in Almaty. This was echoed in repeated references to these feminist activist initiatives in speaker’s remarks. Each contributor also spoke to the cross-cutting, interwoven nature of regional issues and gave importance to collaboration between Central Asian activist networks. Overall, the audience was left with the impression that the panel, to varying degrees, felt optimistic about the possibilities for a vibrant, active Central Asian civil society in future. Below are summaries elaborating on the contributions of each activist to the discussion. 

Aery Asiyeva is a feminist activist from Kazakhstan. Her activities include journalism, participating in KazFem (the first feminist activist group in Kazakhstan), and writing. Aery was one of the main organisers of the first official 8th March feminist demonstration, which took place in Almaty.  

The feminist march in Almaty on March 8th was a significant achievement for Kazakh feminist activists, given that it received official permission to proceed. Considering this, Aery was asked to speak to her experience in organising the demonstration. Aery highlighted that this event was not the first of its kind to take place in Kazakhstan, as is being portrayed in international media, mentioning her own experience of persecution as a result of participating in similar events in the past. Rather it was the first with official sanction, as a result of a change in the political situation under Tokayev in 2020. It was clear Aery considered the event a success as participants numbered three times the amount expected and as activists have not experienced any serious persecution from government authorities following the rally, despite subsequent problems regarding what kind of social issues could be raised. Aery’s experiences spoke more generally to the dynamics of protest in Kazakhstan; she drew attention to lack of free media in the country as well as the differing ability of civil society groups to engage in activism depending on their location. According to Aery, protest is easier in Almaty due to an increased level of free speech and comparatively less government control. Interestingly, Aery put forward the argument that “protests have a woman’s face” in Kazakhstan. This refers to the fact that many generations of Kazakh women are expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo and some are being jailed for their activism, which further galvanises other Kazakh women’s involvement in the feminist cause. Finally, when asked about the ultimate goal of her activist activities, as a feminist and LGBTQI activist, Aery named gender-based, sexual orientation, and gender identity-based violence laws as a starting point. She concluded that activists must work to change legislation, but also societal attitudes if laws are to have a positive impact. 

Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan (formerly known as Citizens Against Corruption) is a human rights movement which focuses on the rights of vulnerable groups, advocacy for women’s leadership, as well as prison and criminal law reform. The team from the organisation present at the panel included founder Tolekan Ismailova, executive director Aida Baijumanovaand co-ordinator of community outreach Murat Karypov. 

The team summarised their activities in Kyrgyzstan as protecting minorities and trying to ensure equality in the “poly ethnic” republic as well as advocating for imprisoned human rights defender Azimjan Azkarov and victims of the July 2010 conflict in Osh. Alongside these activities, Bir Duino also brings attention to human rights violations in Kyrgyz prisons and is currently making new connections with state officials and agencies to bring attention to the importance of human rights and to ensure international obligations are upheld. In discussing the importance of supporting community level activists, Tolekan summarised the mission of the movement in Kyrgyzstan as moving “from the local to the global”. The global element of the group’s work became clear in the detailed description of the movement’s international activities, such as a joint research project with UK-based NGO Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction. According to Tolekan, the group is also currently striving to build transnational solidarity networks in Europe and the USA as well as Central Asia. As co-ordinator of outreach programmes, Murat strongly emphasised the importance of co-operating with local communities and decreasing the “identified gap” between the Kyrgyz metropole and rural areas. Aida stressed the bravery of communal women’s rights activists in rural areas, whose work is complicated by the dominance of traditional patriarchal society. In terms of the future of Kyrgyz activism, Tolekan praised “brave Kyrgyz women” such as Altyn Kapalova, who are currently emerging as important participants in civil society. Aida also expressed hope that the election of Sadyr Japarov on 10th January could breathe new life into criminal justice reform as Japarov, who himself was serving time in prison a few weeks prior to the presidential election, had personally witnessed the dire human rights situation in Kyrgyz prisons. 

Suna Park is an international institutional expert currently advising Central Asian governments on a range of issues under the broad concept of sustainable developmentBased in Uzbekistan, Suna is the author of the “Hashar Week” social project, a week-long environmental awareness campaign in Tashkent, with a focus on waste. 

Suna began her talk with the assertion that she would be telling a “different story” from previous speakers, based on her belief that the best approach to activism is to collaborate with government agencies. Suna put forward the idea that the concept of activism is different in Uzbekistan, as it is a constant phenomenon viewed in society as a tool of “smart power rather than loud power”. As reported by Suna, this means that it is not necessary to “go out into the streets” and oppose the government in order to engage in activism and to push certain issues in Uzbekistan. Therefore, it is better to work with the government agencies, which in her experience can yield good results and lend achievements a certain degree of authority. Suna believes the Uzbek government is currently willing to work with civil society, albeit in a “controlled environment”. Suna describes her approach to activism in this regard but also as an approach which seeks to present sustainability not as a “trendy, Western concept” but as something indigenous to Uzbekistan. Based on conclusions from her research, Suna identifies notable predispositions to practices of sustainability, which are inherent in Uzbek and Central Asian traditions and cultural institutions. Indeed, her social project “Hashar Week” stems from the Uzbek folk practice of ‘Hashar’, which involved voluntary, communal participation in the beautification of common areas. Moreover, Suna presents sustainability as a relatable, deeply rooted concept for Uzbek society. Suna praised the environmental awareness of Uzbek local communities, bringing up communal activism around trees during the current era of frenzied construction in the country. Community vigilance has meant that in this regard “everyone knows, when it comes to trees, people are watching them”. Suna is optimistic about the future and argued that “it is a wonderful time for civil society engagement[in Central Asia]”, but quickly modified this somewhat by adding: “at least in Uzbekistan”. 

Ernest Zhanaev is an investigative researcher and analyst with extensive experience in human rights journalism and activism in Central Asia, particularly in Kyrgyzstan. He is currently working as a freelance consultant studying internet freedoms in Uzbekistan for Freedom House and pursuing an MLitt in Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Caucasus Studies at the University of St Andrews. 

Giving an overview of his career in human rights and activism, Ernest described himself as a “child of post-colonialism” and a member of a new generation of Kyrgyz activists who oriented themselves away from Moscow and towards constructing a new Kyrgyz society, which would no longer be on the periphery of the USSR but “its own centre”. Ernest demonstrated evident, contagious excitement about developments in Central Asian civil society after the collapse of the Soviet Union as he repeatedly emphasised the vibrancy of civil society activism in the region. Ernest highlighted the international community as a key source of support for civil society activists in Central Asia, asserting that Kyrgyzstan is “flooded with international aid”. Ernest noted the “overwhelming” presence of international donors in Kyrgyzstan and characterised Kyrgyzstan as an attractive prospect for international NGOs, who can implement their “so-called fast projects” in the small country and then “resell” them for bigger countries. In contrast to this, Ernest brought up the downgrading of Kyrgyzstan by Freedom House and classified it as “quite obvious” given the current instability in Kyrgyzstan under Japarov. Congruent with this authoritarian turn under Japarov, Ernest asserted that the Kyrgyz government is currently endeavouring to cut resources being provided to Kyrgyz activists by the international community. However, in his eyes, social mobilisation in Kyrgyzstan will ensure the continuing promotion and defence of human rights. It is Ernest’s view that it is now an inevitability that no authoritarian regime or violence response from either the proxy government or criminal groups will prove fatal to Kyrgyz civil society. It is also inevitable that the government must co-operate with civil society, not only in its long-held capacity as a conflict resolution mechanism (such as during the June 2010 violence in Osh) but also as a way of preventing future conflict. The current Russian administration may hold anxieties about the development of national identities in the former Soviet Union, but Ernest argues that Kyrgyzstan is firmly on the path to building a civil society based not on “postcolonial identities” but on “something new…something civilian”. Ernest believes that significant changes and increased dynamism in civil society have been “infectious” in the past and will continue to be in future.

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