Since helping topple President Kurmanbek Bakiyev last year, Kyrgyzstan’s youth activists have agitated for more say in how their country is run. But a year after voters approved a constitution promising parliamentary governance by “people’s deputies,” youth groups are having difficulties finding a niche and appear increasingly open to manipulation by their political elders.
Over half of Kyrgyzstan’s population is under the age of 25. Elections last fall returned many of the same old faces to parliament, which is again dominated by an aging post-Soviet elite—with a few exceptions.
One of the youngest deputies in parliament, 27-year-old Joomart Saparbayev says he is “disappointed when youth [activists] try to play by the rules of the older generation.”
“Corruption takes place in youth politics by the same methods it does at senior levels. People pay money for positions, for influence and for access to certain political figures,” Saparbayev, a member of the opposition Ata-Meken party, told EurasiaNet.org.
Indeed, several recent events have fueled suspicions that youth movements have been co-opted by older politicians with their own agendas.
A June 18 protest outside a Turkish-owned supermarket in Bishkek highlighted how youth activists are being drawn into the same arguments about national pride that are dominating the legislature. One of Beta Stores’ employees, a Turkish citizen, had been accused of assaulting and attempting to rape a female cashier, who is Kyrgyz. Acquitted by a district court, the man quickly left the country.
The demonstration, initiated by the Zhashtar Keneshi (“Youth Assembly”) organization, began as a protest against corruption in the judiciary -- activists alleged the man had paid for his release -- but soon assumed a nationalist character. Protesters appealed to authorities to “protect our citizens against discrimination.” In an interview with the 24.kg news agency, Zhenish Moldokmatov, leader of Zhashtar Keneshi’s Naryn branch, warned that there had been “calls to burn sales outlets belonging to Turkish citizens.”
“It seems the protest was geared toward something bigger,” Timur Shaikhutdinov, co-chairman of the Free Generation Alliance, a Bishkek-based youth organization, told EurasiaNet.org. “I know Mavlyan Askarbekov [head of Zhashtar Keneshi] and he is cleverer than this. It is possible that senior politicians co-opted the protest for their own specific goals.”
Repeated calls to Zhashtar Keneshi went unanswered.
In April, a Canadian government plan to open a biological laboratory in Bishkek was met with similar hostility from youth groups arguing that the laboratory, which would be staffed with Kyrgyz scientists researching deadly pathogens, could produce biological weapons that one day might be used against Kyrgyz people.
Critics who dismiss such ideas hope that the opening of Kyrgyzstan’s first youth parliament will provide the space for young people to discuss pressing issues and slowly introduce change to the country’s aging leadership. Opened on June 20, the experimental body -- which gives young people the chance to suggest legislation -- will operate for five months and pass proposals to the grown-up version via the newly created Ministry of Youth Affairs.
But Shaikhutdinov argues that “certain political forces” are using the youth parliament as a tool to affect policy ahead of presidential elections, slated for this fall.
“Of course it is good that young people are getting a chance to debate issues and gain some sort of political experience. However, unfortunately, some of our talented young people lack confidence in themselves to the extent that when an older, more experienced political ‘uncle’ comes calling, they go running to him, forgetting about all the things they talked about and believed in yesterday,” Shaikhutdinov said of the young “deputies,” who are drawn from the youth wings of 12 parties.
Ata-Meken’s Saparbayev admits that when he was head of his party’s youth wing, he was “almost totally dependent” on the party’s elders.
“It’s hard when you are young. You lack political knowledge. You are not confident in certain areas. You rely on senior politicians for certain information,” he said.
Of the Beta Stores protest, Saparbayev added, “It is well known that some politicians are using nationalism as an instrument for manipulation and some of our young people are following them. Our youth lack the knowledge and education to analyze political situations at critical moments.”
But while corruption, manipulation and nationalism threaten to trap Kyrgyzstan’s political youth, there are also signs that all is not lost. The growth in influence of young advocacy organizations such as the Free Generation Alliance, and the Central Asian Free Market Institute (CAFMI), offers hope that the next generation can provide new ideas and a dash of impetus as Kyrgyzstan continues along its painful path toward development.
The key for youth activism, argues Shaikhutdinov of the Free Generation Alliance, is a mixture of head and heart.
“Many youth organizations have grown up in recent times. Where before we used to scream and shout, now we offer real alternatives and new policy ideas,” he said. “Emotions, spirit, these things are important – but without concrete goals they can be manipulated.”