Social media can be a catalyst for social change. Ahead of the parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan on October 4, social media provided unique platforms for parties to campaign on amid the coronavirus pandemic. In the social media space, vivid, borderless political debates emerged. During the election, social media was an important tool for observers to document election violations. Eventually, social media was used to share and amplify the protests that followed the election, beaming images of occupied government buildings and the political instability that ensued around the world.
But in addition to social media, and its power to both amplify and intensify events, it’s critical to highlight the power of the people using social media and those whose voices can be heard more clearly than ever before through its use.
The most “muted” voices in Kyrgyzstan are arguably those of the youth and women.
Edwin Ardener and Shirley Ardener’s muted group theory focuses on the role of language in the silencing of marginalized groups. Kyrgyzstani society is patriarchal and the significance of youth and women is an under-studied and under-recognized issue in part because these groups cannot be “heard” in their own terms. When they can be heard, they speak in the language of “dominant” groups — in this case patrilineality and patriarchy.
The present situation in Kyrgyzstan, however, is revealing how these “muted” groups can, and have, used social media to be heard openly challenging the patriarchy. Their voices are not as muted as before, even if there are attempts to dismiss them still. In this regard, the role of media has been important not only in allowing people to share information with each other, but allowing previously marginalized groups to participate in the conversation.
Generational conflict is another lens through which we need to assess the current situation in Kyrgyzstan. The consolidation of elites became obvious when older elites selected Sadyr Japarov, who had been released from prison by protesters that same day, as acting prime minister. His nomination, by a fraction of the parliament in the Dostuk Hotel in Bishkek, stirred discontent among young people for a few reasons, including the illegitimacy of the naming given that the proper quorum of parliament was not present.
The same day, several established politicians from various opposition parties — all male, mostly older — created a Coordination Council that called for the creation of a “government of people’s trust.” A cynical observer might suggest the effort was merely the seizing of an opportunity for old politicians to divide portfolios and positions among themselves amid the chaos.
In the eyes of many young protesters, any such “council” in Kyrgyzstan is illegitimate insofar as it does not represent the people, including the youth and woman. Many such protesters have called for a “lustration” of the political class.
As Colleen Wood explained in Foreign Policy:
“Lustration”—a term that means “‘to ceremonially purify” in Latin and has been used recently in Eastern European countries to describe the process of dismissing and blocking people with experience in previous regimes from holding office—is the central demand of progressive Kyrgyzstanis, who don’t see any possibility for meaningful reform if new leadership is selected from the pool of politicians who have played musical chairs in government positions for the last two decades.
Young activist groups are actively working in the social media space introducing the idea of lustration. The intention is to clear politics of old voices and allow a new generation to carry ahead under the laws of the land.
According to a young lawyer specializing in constitutional law, Saniya Toktogazieva:
[T]he only constitutional body now is the Jogorku Kenesh (Parliament of Kyrgyzstan). The whole situation has to be returned to the constitutional field and there are all conditions for that. It will already be possible to re-elect the speaker at the session, because according to the constitution, if the president is unable to fulfill his powers, then his powers are executed by the speaker. If they re-elect the speaker, they can start the procedure of impeachment of the president, at this time his functions are taken over by the speaker, at the same time they can form a new government.
According to young people with whom I’ve spoken, they want the younger generation and women to be represented in parliament because only such people can change the situation in another direction. In their opinion, it was the young people who did not allow the criminal authorities to destroy the country with the corrupt practices that marred the election, and they risked their lives in the central square sounding the alarm.
On Tuesday, after a chaotic and violent night in the streets, young volunteers came and cleaned up the square and distributed food and water to people. They have provided order in the city in the evenings since, forming volunteer groups to protect people and property from further violence or looting. The Central Election Commission annulled the election results, presenting the path to a new election, which could be better conducted if the urgings of the youth are heeded.
Young activists created a movement, “Zhany dem” (New Breath), firmly against the politicians of the older generation. The youth of Kyrgyzstan demand a cleansing of the political field of old faces, saying, “We will not let the old generation rob Kyrgyzstan again this time.” Young people express their concerns through social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) that the older generations have not been able to lead the country toward change for 30 years. They are adamant that they won’t let the older generation of politicians steal victory from young people. They reject old politicians and claim that the time has come for the young, educated, progressive, and honest youth to lead.
Young people are demanding that political parties refrain from attempts to usurp power by establishing “supervision” over various state bodies. This is a dangerous form of usurpation of power, which can lead to corruption via the redistribution of property, seizing of important offices, and political pressure and struggle against opponents. It’s important that power be arrived at legitimately.
Many are now looking for a way out of the political crisis through the existing parliament, which should meet in an extraordinary session and elect a provisional (transitional) government. The leadership of ministries and departments should continue to work, to ensure the functioning of the state despite the political turmoil, until a new government can legally and legitimately name new leadership.
This is a revolution of muted groups, such as youth and women, and they are openly standing up against old political, patriarchal, elites. They are powerful now because of technology and the power of social media, among other things like education, creativity, and passion. The youth and women are aiming to build a progressive country for their future if only the older generations would allow them to.
Aksana Ismailbekova is research fellow at Leibniz- Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin, Germany.