joined by two other regime-friendly parties in parliament.  By Almaz


WHY I WON'T VOTE IN KAZAK ELECTIONS  Ballot outcome predictable, and
opposition wouldn’t do any better than current regime, says local
journalist.  By Almaz Rysaliev


people and must realise present system is unsustainable, according to
leading analyst.  By Alexandra Kazakova


under way, but little light shed on what really happened.  By IWPR
Central Asia

prompts debate on which traditions really count as Tajik.  By Lola

RENT-A-MOB PROTESTS IN CENTRAL ASIA  In Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan,
police and politicians recruit women as professional campaigners or
just as troublemakers.  By Alexander Kim, Asyl Osmonalieva, Inga
Sikorskaya, Bakhtiyor Rasulov, Lola Olimova

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President’s Nur Otan now joined by two other regime-friendly parties
in parliament.

By Almaz Rysaliev

President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s Nur Otan party is no longer alone in
Kazakstan's parliament, as the January 15 election brought in two
other parties, Ak Jol and the People’s Communist Party. But Nur Otan’s
victory was still overwhelming at 81 per cent of the vote, and neither
of the newcomers is going to ruffle feathers.

Preliminary results give Ak Jol and the People’s Communist Party 7.5
and 7.2 per cent of the vote, respectively, enough to get them a few
seats in the Majilis or lower house. The authorities have hailed their
success as a step towards political pluralism.

The only opposition group able to stand for election, the National
Social Democratic Party, also known as OSDP-Azat, did not make it past
the threshold, gaining only 1.6 per cent of the votes cast.

Other opposition groups were out of the running. The environmental
party Rukhaniat was eliminated from the race on a technicality; the
opposition Communist Party of Kazakstan (not to be confused with the
party that won seats) is under a temporary suspension order, and the
opposition Alga was barred even from registering as a legal party.

In their post-election assessment, monitors from the Organisation for
Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, said the Kazak authorities
“did not provide the necessary conditions for the conduct of genuinely
pluralistic elections”.

Several political parties were prevented from standing; there
restrictions on candidate eligibility were excessive, public debate
was limited, and the media operated in an environment characterised by
self-censorship, the OSCE statement said.

The head of the OSCE observer mission, João Soares, said if Kazakstan
had been serious about getting more parties into parliament, it
“should have allowed more genuine opposition parties to participate in
this election”.

IWPR asked Almaty-based political analyst Talgat Ismagambetov to
comment on whether the authorities had to engage more state resources
in order to secure the desired outcome because of unrest in the west
of Kazakstan last month. On December 16, police opened fire on
demonstrators in the oil town of Janaozen, leaving 16 people dead.

Talgat Ismagambetov: I don’t think the deployment of [state]
administrative resources played a key role in how people cast their
vote, for the following reasons.

OSDP-Azat has largely failed to be become a real alternative to Nur
Otan. Its co-chairman, Jarmakhan Tuyakbay…, was stumbling and lacked

It was anticipated that Rukhaniat might offer an alternative to the
president’s forces, with its environmental platform. Where the greens
stood out from the rest was their strong disagreement with the
processes of integration [with other former Soviet republics], namely
the Customs Union [with Russia and Belarus] and the idea of a common
economic area. But Rukhaniat didn’t offer voters a clear programme of
economic development, and hence failed in this basic requirement.

Very few parties were able put up a good performance, so people voted
for the usual suspects, just to avoid things getting worse.

The electorate voted for Ak Jol based on an out-of-dated recollection
of the party in 2002-04, when it was regarded as democratic and wasn’t
loyal to authorities, as it is now.

As for the communists [the People’s Communist Party], they had a very
well-thought out election campaign. They knew their electorate and
their local powerbases well and their messages were put together
properly. [Party leader] Vladislav Kosarev got through the [January 12
TV] debates, and performed fairly well.

IWPR: Some analysts have suggested that aside from political
pluralism, another reason for letting Ak Jol into parliament is that
it might serve as a vehicle for Timur Kulibaev, the president’s
son-in-law and possible successor, when the time comes.

Ismagambetov: That’s unlikely. The authorities have already had a
negative experience with Asar party [led by the president’s daughter
Dariga Nazarbaeva, and since dissolved].

IWPR: What’s the point of having Ak Jol, then?

Ismagambetov: Initially, the idea was just to have another party in
parliament…. They considered several parties for this role.

Why Ak Jol? Because it still had residual support from the kind of
party it was in 2002-04, and because a change of leadership had made
it loyal to the political establishment.

IWPR: Why did the People’s Communist Party get into parliament?

Ismagambetov: As strange as it may seem, the communists have managed
to win substantial electoral support, in relative terms. Their slogans
focused on social justice, which is very appealing these days. Social
justice encompasses not only pensioners but also industrial disputes,
selection to public-sector jobs, and economic and legal issues.

For instance, there are the small investors who put their saving into
property during the boom years, professionals unable to move ahead
because they are outside of the system of clan and other forms of
patronage, while less talented colleagues clamber up the career ladder
thanks to their contacts.

Suicide bombings in western Kazakstan and in Taraz [in 2010] have
shown the authorities that when freedoms are restricted, calls for
justice can be appropriated by other forces like the Islamists. It was
therefore decided that it was preferable for the communists to fulfil
this role

IWPR: What can we expect of the new parliament?

Ismagambetov: So far we know only the names of the parties, and we’ve
yet to find out the exact number of seats they will get. We don't know
which party members will enter parliament. And will Ak Jol and
communist members find there’s anything they can do there?

On the one hand, there are higher expectations of this parliament than
of its predecessor, which wasn’t very effective. The new members will
have to shake things up move them along, and come out with new
initiatives. But on the other hand, when a legislature has no powers
of oversight [over the executive], that restricts what it can do. Will
they find the golden mean whereby, despite these obstacles, they will
be able to influence things?

In addition, I believe the future of the Majilis, and its reputation
and authority, will be also influenced by any changes that take place
in Russia, which is at currently at a crossroads. Is it to be all
talk, or real change?

Almaz Rysaliev is IWPR editor in Kazakstan.



Ballot outcome predictable, and opposition wouldn’t do any better than
current regime, says local journalist.

By Almaz Rysaliev

The result of Kazakstan’s January 15 election was fairly predictable –
the governing Nur Otan retained a massive majority but the authorities
allowed a minority to appear in parliament. The only surprise was that
not one but two pro-government parties got past the threshold for
winning seats – Ak Jol and the People’s Communist Party of Kazakstan.

Most opposition parties were barred from standing. The National Social
Democratic Party did compete but gained under two per cent of the

IWPR asked a Kazak journalist from the eastern city of Almaty to
explain why he stayed away from this election and plans to carry on
doing so. The journalist asked for his name to be withheld as he works
for a regime-friendly newspaper.

Why did you decide not go and vote?

I don’t see any point in voting, as everything that happens in
politics here is decided in advance. Was anyone actually surprised by
the landslide victory of Nur Otan and the two other pro-presidential

Virtually everyone I know told me they voted for the National Social
Democratic Party. This is hardly because they’re dreaming of a change
of regime. They earn well and are generally happy with their lives.

One of my colleagues tells me he isn’t against President Nursultan
Nazarbaev, or against him continuing in power. He just wants to see an
opposition party in parliament that can keep an eye on what the
executive is up to and prevent it doing whatever it wants. Most people
would agree that this is fair enough – that’s how it works in advanced
countries with democratic systems. One political bloc keeps the ruling
one constantly in check, monitoring and highlighting its mistakes.

For Kazakstan, that’s a utopian ideal. The presidential administration
doesn’t want the opposition holding any power. Too many things go on
in the higher echelons of power that need to be kept well away from
the public eye. Kazakstan’s national wealth is purloined on a scale
that many dictators couldn’t even dream of.

So no real opposition can get into parliament. The whole performance –
the ballot boxes that are supposedly safely sealed up, the so-called
independent observers, institutions serving the authorities at arm’s
length, the extensive coverage in pro-government media – is all just a
veil that conceals illegal vote-rigging.

Why not vote for the opposition, then?

Why should I support anyone? From my observation of politics in our
country, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no good or bad
players, no friends or enemies. There are just conflicting sides, each
with its own vested interests and the single purpose of gaining power
and thus access to strategic resources.

They think of the nation only when an election is coming up, or when
they raise some populist issue to score points.

It’s only now that the authorities are “bad” and the opposition is
”good”. If the regime’s opponents came to power, do you think they
would roll up their sleeves and conscientiously set about implementing
their Prosperous Kazakstan programme? Not at all. They’d start
dividing up the country’s strategic resources among themselves –
assets that are really public property. The government would contain
the same people who now serve Nazarbaev. There would be no end to the
violations of constitutional rights, corruption, or social problems.

Look at how Rahat Aliev [Nazarbaev’s exiled son-in-law] started
talking about the problems facing his fellow-countrymen only when he
fell out of favour with his former father-in-law. These days, his
statements are full of love and concern for ordinary people in
Kazakstan, who he says are being “oppressed by Nazarbaev”. Many people
have fallen for this.

It’s just more evidence of how politicians – both in power and in
opposition – excel at the art of play-acting.

Do you see any hope of improvement?

Nothing is going to change, regardless of which candidate or party
name we put a tick beside. In my view, the individual players may
change, but the rules of the game remain the same.

That is why I boycott elections, and why I will never go and vote for anyone.

Almaz Rysaliev is IWPR editor in Kazakstan.



Leadership alienated from people and must realise present system is
unsustainable, according to leading analyst.

By Alexandra Kazakova

Kazakstan’s leaders have set up the forthcoming parliamentary election
as a way of perpetuating their rule. But recent violence in the west
of the country highlights the extent to which they are alienated from
the public, and underlines the need for major reforms of political

The election was called by President Nursultan Nazarbaev in November,
and has been presented as an attempt to replace the one-party
parliament with a more pluralist system. It is more than likely the
January 15 vote will go as planned, but as political analyst Marina
Sabitova told IWPR, that will not resolve the fundamental problems
that threaten the country’s future.

Kazakstan’s long-held reputation for stability has been badly dented
by unrest in the western oil town of Janaozen, where police opened
fire on demonstrators, killing 16. The violence took place on December
16, just as Kazakstan marked the 20th anniversary of its independence,

Sabitova, who heads the Panturania Centre for Humanitarian Research, a
think tank in Kazakstan, described the reasons why she believes
political reforms are now urgently needed.

IWPR: How would you describe the situation ahead of this parliamentary election?

Marina Sabitova: Kazakstan faces many serious problems as it marks 20
years of independence. The principal one concerns the political system

Over many years, there has been an unspoken consensus that economic
development should come first, while political reforms will follow
later. The idea of political modernisation is always there in the
background, but as something that can be put off till later. The
argument that stability takes priority over everything else has become
a sort of fundamental truth.

Stability come to mean preserving the status quo. And on the back of
this, a system has grown up that is built around one man.

Kazakstan is now at a turning point. The search is on for options for
handing over power, so that one generation of politicians can be
replaced by another.

In its present form, the system has no future. It needs to be
modernised as quickly as possible. Modernisation doesn’t just mean
resuscitating the principles of democracy, it also means a pragmatic
approach that ensures the political system fulfils its basic

Effective governance of the state is seriously hampered by problems
like corruption – so widespread that it has spawned a parallel economy
worth an estimated 25 or 30 per cent of Kazakstan’s gross domestic
product – a lack of professionalism among the ruling elite, and

There are a host of social problems in this country, many of which are
worse now than they were in the early Nineties.

It is obvious that the lack of channels to communicate the public’s
concerns, the tight control over politics, the absence of a legitimate
sphere for political activity, and the monopoly of power by those at
the top are hindering economic development and blocking social

The system is overheating, destructive centrifugal forces are growing,
and radicalism is appearing in places. Kazakstan has undeniably
entered a phase of political crisis.

IWPR: What are the possible outcomes of this election?

Sabitova: At the heart of the election is not competition between
parties, but rivalry between elite groups.

The Janaozen unrest, for example, can be seen as connected with the
tensions within the political elite. As well as the mistakes committed
by oil company managers, it’s been argued that the disturbances were
driven by groups linked to oligarchs in the opposition-in-exile, and
by groupings based in western Kazakstan trying to assert themselves.
So the workers’ protests have been used as an instrument for
power-struggles within the elite.

History provides numerous examples of how the self-centred politics of
the elite can lead to political and economic collapse.

In light of two defining moments – the Janaozen unrest and the
protests in Russia following the parliamentary election there – I
believe the the Kazak authorities seek to demonstrate that they are
totally in control.

There is a vicious circle here – support for the president’s Nur Otan
is not supposed to fall under 85 per cent, yet that is going to be
hard to obtain after Janaozen.

The authorities have made no secret of their intention to get Ak Jol,
an artificially created right-of-centre party representing the
business elite, into parliament alongside Nur Otan.

At the moment, the authorities’ main aim is to minimise political
risks, maintain control and ultimately preserve themselves.

IWPR: How many parties are taking part in the election?

Sabitova: There are seven of them taking part. The Rukhaniat party has
been eliminated from the election race on a technicality, the
Communist Party has been suspended temporarily, and the opposition
Alga Party has been barred from registering.

The two main sparring partners are Nur Otan and the National Social
Democratic Party or OSDP, which represent two conflicting models –
stability and change.

As for the voters, their main concerns are social – the rising cost of
utilities, unemployment and the state of the healthcare system.

They also have existential fears about what’s going to happen when
President Nazarbaev leaves office, and how the succession, inevitably
accompanied by a redistribution of assets, will play out.

Kazakstan’s Russian-speaking population, accounting for 40 per cent of
the electorate, traditionally votes for Nur Otan, as they see
Nazarbaev as embodying ethnic stability and restraining the emerging
trend towards an ethnocratic state.

Political life is so tightly controlled that there is little space in
which to express views that differ from official policy. That gap
makes more radical ideologies more attractive. Both religious and
political forms of radicalism are now on the rise, although neither
has traditionally been a feature of Kazakstan.

IWPR: Are there any complicating factors for campaign period and the
election itself?

Sabitova: Calling an early election at this time was a ruse, timed to
coincide with the independence celebrations, New Year, and [Russian
Orthodox] Christmas – a period when it isn’t really appropriate to do
political campaigning.

This plan was undermined by two events – the popular protests that
mobilised civil society in Russia, and duly noted by people in
Kazakstan, and then the tragedy in Janaozen tragedy, which divided an
already fragmented society.

It is patently obvious that the ruling elite is very much alienated
from its own people economically, politically, and psychologically.
It’s the crystallisation of a class war.

In this context, the parliament that is going to be elected will not
be representative of the public, and will serve merely as an
instrument by which those in power give themselves legitimacy and
exercise control over citizens.

IWPR: What is the opposition’s strategy for this election?

Sabitova: The only opposition party standing is the OSDP which is
registered and therefore legal. There are no others in the race, and
no opposition representatives on the election commissions.
Nevertheless, opposition parties have decided to pool their resources
in a joint campaign called the Social Democratic Alternative.

I don’t think the opposition has any illusions about pursuing the
electoral route, since that is dominated by those in power.

What is more important is how changes in the public’s thinking play out.

The time is ripe for change. It isn’t that important what the catalyst
is – political opposition, NGOs, civil society or trade unions. The
country is on the verge of change – that’s what is important.

IWPR: How effective is the new parliament likely to be?

Sabitova: It’s questionable whether we really have a representative,
lawmaking institution in Kazakstan. Parliament has become a redundant
appendage to a strong presidency. The government drafts bills and
parliament can only debate them. The legislature has no authority to
control, let alone dissolve, the government. In turn, the government
answers to the president, who can dissolve it at any moment.

Alexandra Kazakova is IWPR country director for Kazakstan.



Several investigations under way, but little light shed on what really

By IWPR Central Asia

Nearly a month after the bloodshed in the town of Janaozen in western
Kazakstan, the authorities have arrested 20 people and a several
commissions are looking into the violence.

Sixteen demonstrators were killed and more than 100 were injured on
December 16, when Kazak police opened fire on protesting oil industry
workers. Another man was killed in the nearby village of Shetpe the
following day, when police fired into a smaller protest. A state of
emergency in Janaozen will last until the end of January.

Witnesses say police in the town opened fire indiscriminately, and
footage posted on YouTube appears to show confirm this. The police
themselves maintain that they were forced to defend themselves.

Rights groups have raised concerns about the mistreatment of
individuals detained after the violence, and the New York-based Human
Rights Watch claims that one detainee has died, apparently from
injuries sustained in custody. The government denied mistreating

Amidst these contradictory accounts, seven government and independent
inquiries are examining the events and aftermath of the violence.

On the government side, Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeev, the
presidential party Nur Otan and the labour and welfare ministry are
all running separate investigations, in addition to the official probe
by the interior ministry and prosecution service.

Three independent commissions have also been established, made up of
opposition leaders, journalists, trade unions and NGO workers.

IWPR asked Andrei Grishin, a staff member of the Kazakstan
International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, for his
assessment of the situation, and the progress of the various

Andrei Grishin: Considering that [during the violence] the town was
practically cut off from the outside world, one can imagine that a lot
of things were going on there.

According to the first journalists who managed to get there, and
judging by the videos posted on the internet, it is possible to
imagine how detainees have been treated.

Members of one of the investigative commissions visited the locations
where detainees were being held [on January 6]. They did not report
incidents of torture. But three days are sufficient to pressure people
into not talking about things, if they want to avoid suffering
something worse.

The commission’s members reported seeing bruises on one of the
detainees. The rest can only be guessed at. There is at least one
confirmed death from the torture of an innocent person.

IWPR: What difficulties are relatives of the detainees facing?

Grishin: When a person is detained, it hasn’t been clear what
[government] body was responsible for this. Even before December 16,
law enforcement agencies could do what they wanted [in Janaozen], and
the prosecutor’s office did not respond to complaints from the public.
I am more than convinced that since the disturbances, the human rights
situation has deteriorated.

IWPR: Has it become easier for the media to cover the situation on the ground?

 Grishin: There is a state of emergency in Janaozen. Under such
circumstances, of course, the work of a journalist becomes very
difficult. In the days when the town was cut off, it was easy [for
officials] to “explain” to residents what they could and couldn’t

What’s more, in addition to the stick there is also the carrot. The
authorities have offered substantial amounts of money to the families
of victims.

IWPR: It's been reported that police are trying to locate the people
who filmed the shooting of protesters. Are those who posted footage on
the internet being persecuted?

Grishin: The police are continuing to look for people who filmed
footage from their homes [using mobile phones] and it’s hard to say
what exactly they will do to them. But on the other hand, what crime
can they be accused of?

IWPR: What is your view on the work of the commissions that have been
set up to investigate?

 Grishin: There are six commissions [aside from the interior ministry
investigation], but half of them are loyal to the authorities. None of
them has drawn any serious conclusions so far.

What was required was an immediate investigation right after the
events. But it’s very likely... that the authorities have had
“confidential” chats with local residents.

Judging by the authorities’ reaction to the visit by opposition
representatives [as part of their investigation]... they have
something to hide.

As a rule, any alternative account of the situation – either from
Janaozen or Shetpe – is going to differ from the official version.

IWPR: In your view, how well are the authorities handling the aftermath?

Grishin: There have been a lot of statements, the majority of them
calling for a thorough investigation. But in my view, the most
significant of the statements made by officials – and these are quite
contradictory – show that those in power are at a complete loss about
what to do.

The Kazak president [Nursultan Nazarbayev] has acknowledged that the
oil workers’ demands were largely legitimate, and what’s more, he said
that they are our citizens.... At the same time, though, he admitted
that he did not know exactly was happening in Janaozen. It seems
strange that the head of state was unaware of it.

The compensation payouts of one million tenge [nearly 7,000 US dollar]
to the families of those who died is a sign of [the authorities]
acknowledging responsibility.

But at the same time, the political adviser to the president,
Yermuhamet Yertysbayev... has said that he finds it difficult to
describe people who took part in the Janaozen events as fully-fledged
citizens of Kazakstan.

He claimed the violence was instigated by Kazaks returning from
neighbouring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. who are now threatening
Kazakstan’s stability.

Everyone is trying to avoid responsibility and place the blame on someone else.

Although a criminal investigation has been launched into the use of
firearms, it is doubtful that anyone will be held accountable. If the
police are prosecuted, they might be reluctant to follow orders in


New Year's Eve killing prompts debate on which traditions really count
as Tajik.

By Lola Olimova

The murder of a man dressed up to celebrate New Year on December 31
immediately raised the spectre of Islamic extremism and intolerance
towards other cultural traditions.

Parviz Davlatbekov, 24, was dressed as Father Frost – the Russian
equivalent of Santa Claus, but without the latter’s Christian
associations – when he was confronted by a group of young people and,
after an altercation, stabbed several times. He died later in

The circumstances of the attack meant that it got wide coverage in
Tajikistan and abroad. Tajik police flatly denied suggestions that the
killing was the work of Muslim extremists, or that the assailants
called Davlatbekov an “infidel” when they set on him. It was just a
drunken brawl that got out of hand, they concluded.

After the initial shock, a wider debate took place about the timing
and context of the attack. After all, not long beforehand a top
Islamic cleric in this Muslim-majority state had appeared to disparage
New Year festivities as something alien both to the faith and to Tajik
culture generally.

New Year celebrations became widespread in Tajikistan in the Soviet
era, and remain so today despite the reintroduction of other dates
like the traditional solar new year, Nowruz, in March, and major
festivals in the Islamic religious calendar.

Despite its enduring popularity, some believe New Year is an imported
secular tradition that should be left behind as Tajikistan develops
its own national identity.

In late December, the head of the officially-sanctioned Islamic
clergy, Saidmukarram Abdulqodirzoda, told the BBC’s Tajik Service that
the year-end holiday was imposed by the Soviets and was “alien” to
their culture.

Decorating fir trees, dancing, consuming alcohol, and overeating all
went against “the laws of Islam and Tajik traditions”, he said.

Abdulqodirzoda is not the first senior Muslim cleric to rail against
the New Year holiday – several others have done so in recent years,
and it is a frequent topic in sermons.

Interviewed a few days after Davlatbekov’s killing, Abdulqodirzoda
said he his comments had been misinterpreted and he never called on
Tajiks to stop celebrating New Year.

A Dushanbe-based political analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity
said Abduqodirzoda’s original remarks had been ill-advised.

“With statements of this kind, it needs to be remembered that the
words of the Muslims’ head carry irreversible force for many
believers, and some of the more zealous might take it as a call to
action,” he said.

The analyst said the position of the Tajik government itself was
unclear, in that it carried on marking New Year with decorated trees
and a speech from President Imomali Rahmonov, yet tolerated a
religious establishment that launched attacks on secular symbols. He
concluded that this ambivalence reflected a desire by officials to
show that they too are devout Muslims.

There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest social attitudes are
shifting so that observance of Islamic traditions is seen as the norm.

Tahmina, a 27-year-old resident of Dushanbe, said her husband, who
attends the mosque on a regular basis, had banned New Year
celebrations for the last two years.

“It’s hard for me to adjust because ever since childhood it’s been my
favourite holiday. The tree, Father Frost and the presents were all
part of the magic atmosphere of celebrations that I looked forward to
all year,” she said. “We still mark it, but we don’t put up a tree
because my husband says that’s forbidden by Islam.”

A 55-year-old Dushanbe resident recalled how she was told off by other
women wearing Islamic dress or hijab when she took her teenage
daughter to a health centre.

“They told me I should be ashamed of visiting public places without
covering my head. They also reprimanded me because my grown-up
daughter wasn’t properly covered up or covering her head,” she said.
“Since then, I’ve started considering moving to another country.”

Lola Olimova is IWPR editor for Tajikistan.


In Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, police and politicians recruit women as
professional campaigners or just as troublemakers.

By Alexander Kim, Asyl Osmonalieva, Inga Sikorskaya, Bakhtiyor
Rasulov, Lola Olimova

When angry citizens take to the streets in Kyrgyzstan, not all of them
are there out of conviction – some may be “activists for hire”, part
of a band of people prepared to express public outrage in return for
some kind of remuneration.

More often than not, they are women recruited as a cheap way of
filling out crowd numbers, and perhaps reducing the likelihood that
the police will storm in, batons flailing, as they would do if
demonstrators were predominantly male.

In neighbouring Uzbekistan, meanwhile, major public protests are
non-existent, and the state uses rent-a-mob tactics for a more ominous
purpose. In order to discredit and assault dissidents, it hires women
to set on them in the role of outraged citizens unconnected with the
state. According to sources IWPR talked to in the country, it is
standard practice to coerce civilians into committing acts of
intimidation and violence.

IWPR interviews with hired “activists”, police and commentators in
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan reveal that hiring female labour is an
effective way of creating a stir, at little cost and at arm’s length.
Despite considerable differences in the way such women are deployed in
the two states, they are typically from marginalised groups and in
need of an income.


In Kyrgyzstan, political groups began actively recruiting women as
protest participants some years ago, in the belief their presence on
the streets could help defuse confrontations with the security forces.

Women played a key role in protests in the southern town of Aksy in
2002, turning out in the altruistic hope that this would offer some
protection to their male relatives and neighbours who were taking
part. In the event, this did not happen, and police killed six of the

Many more protests ensued, often against President Askar Akaev until
he was ousted in 2005, and then against his successor Kurmanbek
Bakiev, forced out in 2010.

These days, the motives of protest participants of either sex are
often less clear. According to Pavel Dyatlenko of the think tank Polis
Asia, rent-a-mob schemes have become widespread.

The phenomenon of hiring female protesters is so common that they have
acquired the jocular collective nickname OBON – “special-assignment
female units” – by analogy with the OMON riot police.

Selecting women for the role may be a calculated move to play on the
perception that since “their place is in the home” in this
male-dominated society, they must be resorting to protest out of
genuine desperation.

In contrast to Uzbekistan, women are less likely to be employed as
provocateurs in Kyrgyzstan than as general campaigners for some kind
of political cause. And because the political climate is less rigidly
authoritarian than in Uzbekistan, the cause may be either pro- or
anti-government, depending on who is paying.

The OBON phenomenon has gained such notoriety that politician Ravshan
Sabirov raised it in the Kyrgyz parliament in November, calling for
such mercenary action to be punishable by law.

According to the Knews.kg news site, Justice Minister Abylay
Muhamedjanov said in response that it would be hard to include a ban
on something called “OBON” in the bill on freedom of assembly then
before parliament, and suggested the wording should be “destructive

In the capital Bishkek, protest participants are often drawn from the
shanty towns created by incomers from the countryside who are
desperate for work and easily manipulated.

The principal incentive is either straight cash or an in-kind reward
such as the offer of a good job later on.

The private TV station Channel 5 in Kyrgyzstan last year reported that
the informal pay scale for this kind of activity ranged from 11 to 22
dollars a day for taking part in a demonstration; 44 dollars a day for
recruiting and managing ten demonstrators, rising to 500 dollars a day
for doing the same with a crowd of 1,000; 22 to 33 dollars for a day’s
heckling and 66 dollars for more serious troublemaking. The fee for
hunger strikers was negotiable. Experts say these approximate rates
still apply.

Despite this, many of the women interviewed for this report played
down the monetary aspect, suggesting that they were motivated by
support for a politician from their clan or region.

At the same time, they were clear that they expected favours or
payment in return. And once they got started, just having a steady
source of income often obscured any higher motive.

Salkynay, a 40-year-old divorced mother of two from the northern town
of Karabalta, told IWPR how she got involved with a political party
campaigning for the October 2010 parliamentary election.

A neighbour offered her work distributing leaflets and recruiting new
members from her network of friends, and she was then given her own
assignment – to attend a public meeting held by a rival candidate and
attempt to derail his performance by heckling him.

“I got 500 soms [around 11 US dollars] for bombarding him with
difficult questions,” she said, admitting that on this first outing,
she had to read from a script while other hecklers had their questions
off pat.

Salkynay acknowledges that money was uppermost in her mind, but says
she was also happy to be supporting her local member of parliament,
who had built a playground and helped pensioners. She would have
campaigned for any of the parties, though perhaps not with the same
degree of enthusiasm, she said.

The election campaign earned Salkynay just over 200 dollars in the
space of a month – more than the average wage, and twice what she used
to earn in casual jobs as a market trader or restaurant dishwasher.

Salkynay said the political party agents who hired people like her
knew what they were doing, and sized each new recruit up to calculate
just how little they needed to pay them.

“They know who these people are and how they live,” she said.
“Depending on their financial situation, they can offer them 500 soms,
and top that up if necessary.”

Given the army of unemployed, she added, there was no shortage of
people willing to spend a couple of hours standing in some square as
part of a demonstration, for which they would earn as much as for a
full day’s work.


Those who join protest movements for purely mercenary aims attract a
lot of criticism.

A local government official in southern Kyrgyzstan told IWPR about one
woman who he said had worked for opposing political sides, all for

“Against Bakiev, for Bakiev, in support of the opposition, against the
opposition,” he said.

IWPR spoke to the former activist herself, who said she was just “a
woman who is always fighting for justice” and had turned against
Bakiev only when he proved to be no better than his predecessor Akaev,
against whom she also protested until he was ousted in 2005.

She insisted she never got any remuneration, saying, “I never took
part in a rally for money, or for anything else.”

Salima, 60, from outside the capital Bishkek, used to be a regular
participant in demonstrations in support of a political figure who
fell out with the government about ten years ago. Although she was
paid for mobilising and participating in protests at the time, she
said she was a committed supporter of the politician, since she was
from the same region as him.

In the end, she gave it up later, because the politician failed to
deliver when she approached him and asked him to secure a good job for
her daughter.

“Now I see women my age taking part in rallies, and I want to tell
them that no politician is worth all that time and effort,” she said.


Many rights activists believed that the OBON idea in Kyrgyzstan was
borrowed from Uzbekistan, and then modified to suit the different
circumstances there.

In Uzbekistan, where the police state has a monopoly on political
activity, rent-a-crowd tactics are used for more sinister aims.

For at least a decade, the uniformed police and the National Security
Service, SNB, have been coercing women to harass and assault
dissidents and disrupt demonstrations. They commonly use prisoners
released on probation, others with a criminal record, sex workers, or
market traders – all groups that live in fear of the police, and can
therefore be pressured into carrying out their will.

For the security services, the advantage of using proxies is that they
can dissociate themselves from the use of physical violence.

Yelena Urlaeva, head of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, has
been on the receiving end of such attacks more than once. Six years
ago, she travelled to the western city of Bukhara to attend the trial
of dissident poet Yusuf Juma.

“As soon as I got off the train, a group of women attacked me with
steel bars and sticks, shouting at me and demanding that I leave,” she

In April 2011, Urlaeva’s house was broken into by another group of
women, after she and her colleagues were interviewed in the Russian

An SNB officer confirmed that it was official policy to recruit and
deploy groups of women.

“It isn’t a new practice – it was employed in the Soviet era, and it
was pretty effective,” he told IWR on condition of anonymity. “At the
beginning of the 2000s, it was decided to revive it, as it was
becoming difficult to use force to crush protests and rallies held by
rights activists and other disgruntled people. With western
journalists always present in the country, brutal treatment of
protesters would be reported immediately. When the ‘women’s battalions
were used, there could be no reproaches against the police or the
authorities – it was as if people, women were unhappy with the
protesters and were taking a stand.”

According to the SNB officer, the police will put together a “women’s
battalion” and set its civilian members on an individual human rights
defender, or on a group of activists.

“There are about 30 women in such groups. Each of them is put together
to perform a particular task. If someone has to be beaten up, it will
be well-built young women aged 20-25,” he said, adding that older
women would be called on if threats and intimidation were all that was

Muhabat, a sex worker in the capital Tashkent, was forced to take part
in organised attacks after police put pressure on her.

She says she and other prostitutes had been paying off local police,
but were then visited by a senior officer who told them they were now
on a list of police agents tasked with combating “enemies of the
people” whenever required to do so.

Their first job was to break up a protest outside the prosecutor’s
office in Tashkent’s Chorsu district, where several dozen residents
were trying to get the demolition of their homes halted.

“We were instructed to mostly attack the men, to bite them and provoke
them into hitting back so that they could be arrested for beating up
women. We were told to hurl insults at them and tear at their
clothing. The instructions were to hit men in the face or kick them in
the groin and pull women by the hair where possible,” she said.

Nargiz, a market trader in Tashkent, was swept up with a group accused
of failing to issue receipts, during a police raid to stop tax
evasion. They were given a simple choice – cooperate with the police
or face punishment, and Nargiz agreed to the former.

“Two hours before being sent out to disperse a protest, we were issued
our instructions and given sticks to beat up the rights activists. For
each action, we got paid 50,000 soms [25 US dollars], plus assurances
that we could continue trading at the Kuyluk market unhindered,” she
said. “Sometimes we didn’t get paid anything, and instead we were
threatened with trouble.”

Nargiz said she used to be called up two or three times a month, but
nowadays it was less frequent. This ties in with the accounts of both
Urlaeva and the SNB officer, who said the use of these special “female
units” had tailed off in recent years.

“It used to be widespread. Such units still exist, but they aren’t
sent into action as often as before,” the security officer said.

The reasons for this have more to do with the fact that there are so
few active dissidents and human rights activists left in Uzbekistan,
rather than a shift to more liberal attitudes. After the 2005 shooting
of hundreds of civilians in Andijan, rights defenders and independent
journalists were arrested or fled the country.

In parallel, foreign reporters and human rights monitors were expelled
or forced out of Uzbekistan, so the kind of scrutiny the SNB officer
spoke about was less of a problem for the security services.

In Kazakstan, using women as an arm’s-length way of meting out
state-sanctioned violence is rarer. One case occurred in June 2011 in
the western town of Janaozen, when striking oil workers and their
wives were detained for several hours. The incident began when a woman
approached their demonstration and began insulting and assaulting

As is common practice in neighbouring Uzbekistan, the Kazak police
waded in and detained the victims of the attack, not the perpetrator.
Police later told journalists that the woman had filed a complaint
against the demonstrators.

In Kyrgyzstan, the consensus view is that OBON-type activities will
continue as long as there are people willing to do anything for money
– in other words, as long as the economy remains in severe depression.

Dinara Oshurakhunova, head of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil
Society, says she does not blame the women who allow themselves to be
recruited. But she is scathing about those with the money and will to
“exploit the knowledge that these people are prepared to come out for
a rally because they need to feed their families”.

The names of some interviewees have been changed to protect their identities.

Alexander Kim reports for the Kloop.kg website from Osh. Asyl
Osmonalieva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek. Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR
senior editor for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Bakhtiyor Rasulov is a
pseudonym for a journalist in Tashkent.

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REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA provides the international community with a
unique insiders' perspective on the region. Using our network of local
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The service forms part of IWPR's Central Asia Project based in Almaty,
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