Organized crime is making inroads into Kyrgyz schools. This trend is forcing students like Turgunbek, a 16 year old at Bishkek's School Number 67, to worry just as much about carving out a safe spot in the school's pecking order as he does about his studies.
The social order at some schools in the Kyrgyz capital has come to resemble that which exists in prisons. Students not only have to master the basics of reading writing and arithmetic, they must also develop a skill for astute observation in order to identify who is important and who is not. Those on the lowest rung of the gang ladder, dubbed bratishki, or followers, perform favors in exchange for power and protection from a bratyan, or an older brother. A few kingpins maintain control over a certain territory or social group. These school networks often have connections, according to Turgunbek and other observers, to older thieves-in-law - members of adult gangs and mafia networks who monitor criminal activity in the neighborhood and receive a cut from lesser crooks.
Over the past decade, youth gangs have achieved alarming levels of sophistication and complexity in schools throughout Kyrgyzstan. "Earlier, if you had a problem with someone, you could just solve it man to man," says Turgunbek. "But now everything is done with a crowd. Friends are everything."
One in three schoolchildren in Bishkek confirms the presence of school-based rackets, according to the El-Pikir Center for the Study of Public Opinion. Even Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has bemoaned the trend recently: "The criminal world and extremist movements have made the school a target for their influence," he said, according to comments carried in June by the AKIpress news agency.
"There have definitely been some very awful incidents," says Assan Atabaev, Superintendent of the City Department of Education in Naryn. Atabaev first realized the severity of the problem when he was a school principle in the late 1990s. One day, he received a letter from children panicking that they could be murdered.
The children "were afraid of those people, the people who were taking their money, their clothes." At the time, a new type of student was emerging. "They were called 'leaders,'" he continued, "and they acted through their bratishki to achieve their own aims. They were telling students, 'give [your possessions] to us or we'll punish you.' We knew we had to take action."
The most common form of crime in schools is extortion. For example, an older student threatens a younger one with violence unless paid.
"People stand at the entrance of the school and monitor who is coming and going," Turgunbek explained. These bullies pay particular attention to anyone with an ostentatious display of wealth, such as an expensive mobile phone or camera. Once a victim has been marked, he will be "invited to come for a chat," during which the bratishki or bratyan will attempt to determine his wealth and connections. If the criminal decides that the victim is vulnerable, he will "take the phone, put it in his pocket, and say 'That's all, if you don't want problems.'"
The variety of school crime depends on the location and prestige of the institution, and the age of the pupils. A teacher at the Aidarbekov Middle School near Kant, who asked not to be identified, compares school bullying to the infamous practice of military hazing. "We have boys who charge a regular tax from younger students. They are afraid to talk - if they talk, they will be beaten." Students have also begun incorporating new technology into their intimidation techniques, she says, citing a recent incident at her school in which a group of girls filmed the beating of a rival girl and then posted it on the Internet to further humiliate her afterwards.
Not all criminal groups are restricted to individual schools. Some organize to control neighborhoods and engage in turf battles with gangs from adjacent districts.
"Kids from other villages used to come to our school and beat our kids," explains the middle school teacher. "They came to collect taxes." The problem got so bad that the school began charging 10 som (US 25 cents) a month from every student to hire a security guard. "Since we hired the guard, they no longer come," she says.
While the problem of racketeering is well documented, many disagree about its causes. Superintendent Atabaev thinks that school rackets are simply the result of life in a country with challenging social and economic conditions. "The main reason is economic interest," he says. "Children want to have something, but because their parents do not give them money, they find other ways to obtain it." Others blame the breakdown of the Soviet education system, widespread corruption in all social and business spheres, and even increased violence in the Kyrgyz government.
Even more contentious are methods of eliminating the problem. "The new education minister can't do anything. The police don't help, and neither do local non-governmental organizations," says Lira Karagulova, of Intercultural Education, a Bishkek-based non-governmental organization that conducts trainings and organizes self-help groups for Kyrgyz teachers. "To fix the problem you must start with society and work with parents and teachers to educate children. Our system of education should have a defined program" to combat criminality.
Meanwhile, Turgunbek gives his school a dim forecast, saying the problem is too entrenched. "It gets worse every minute. There are programs to get rid of it, but they don't work. It will never be stopped, it can't be stopped," he says. "It's all related to respect and money. And here, if you have no money and no friends, then you're nobody."
William OConnor the pseudonym for a journalist covering Central Asia.