They stopped the looting, helped save the new government, and gave many frightened residents in strife-torn Kyrgyzstan peace of mind. But there’s a danger now that members of Kyrgyzstan's volunteer militia formations – or narodniye druzhiniki – may develop into players who exert undue influence over the next phase of the Central Asian nation’s political development.
Amid the early April tumult that brought down former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration, young men in Bishkek and other cities began forming druzhiniki groups to patrol the streets and restore order. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
These groups were originally envisioned as a temporary solution to security challenges. But in the ongoing unrest that has plagued Kyrgyzstan since April, militia groups have kept on amassing influence.
Daniyar Terbishaliev, director of Patriot, the largest volunteer security group that counts more than 3,000 members across the country, told EurasiaNet.org that the provisional government would not have survived without the volunteers because “the police turned out to be incapable to fulfill their primary tasks.”
It reached a point in mid-June that – as violence engulfed southern Kyrgyzstan – the Ministry of Interior began contracting some 12,290 registered druzhiniki from at least 12 militias for $4 per day. And at least 7,500 druzhiniki – some paid – helped secure polling stations nationwide during the June 27 referendum that approved a new constitution, the AKIpress news agency reported. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
The constitution’s approval paved the way for the holding of parliamentary elections in October. Some experts now wonder whether druzhiniki groups will evolve, going from security providers to activists intent on influencing voting outcomes. Already, political parties are creating their own volunteer “security” groups.
The Zamandash (Contemporary) Party offers one example. The party – established in 2007 – set up a militia after the early April events and is planning to seek parliamentary seats this fall. Janybek Abdyrahmanov, leader of the party’s youth wing, does not see anything wrong with creating a party-affiliated paramilitary force: “We are far from pursuing political ambitions. What we do is merely undertake the civil initiatives of our members.” He went on to say that the party used its militia for humanitarian purposes, such as distributing aid to victims of the recent ethnic conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Meanwhile, observers say the formation of what are essentially armed wings of political parties is setting a harmful precedent. A major concern is that druzhiniki could be used as instruments of intimidation. “The possibility that the druzhini could merge with political parties is very dangerous,” said Bishkek-based analyst Mars Sariev.
Hoping to introduce an element of government oversight into druzhiniki activity, the Interior Ministry has set up a headquarters for the various groups and, with help from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has begun organizing formal training for volunteers. According Deputy Interior Minister Nikolay Soldashenko, head of the newly formed druzhini headquarters, “there is a danger that [political parties] will misuse volunteer security groups in the political competition.”
If Druzhinki bands can find alternative sources of funding, such as from wealthy, politically ambitious individuals, they could very well start operating beyond the control of government agencies, Sariev suggested. “They can easily turn from a civil guard to a private political party’s army for promoting someone’s political goals, especially considering that a lot of weapons are in the population’s hands after the recent interethnic conflict and the events in April,” Sariev said.
Some militia leaders downplay the notion that they harbor political ambitions of their own. On June 27 Bolot Satarkulov, a representative of the Sakchy (Guardian) militia, announced that the suspension of the group’s activities. “We are not members of any political party and do not pursue aims to achieve power,” he said. “We are a little tired after more than two months. We should get back to our normal life. As the situation is becoming normal, we decided to suspend our activity.”
But those groups that continue to operate set a dangerous example, warned Sergey Ponomarev, the executive director of the Association of Markets, Trade and Services Sectors in Kyrgyzstan. “Political parties will recruit young people in their druzhini under the pretext of stabilization of the situation, but really to enforce their campaign activities,” Ponomarev said.
Ulan Temirov is the pseudonym for a journalist based in Bishkek.