Two peaceful anti-corruption rallies were held in Kyrgyzstan in November and December 2019 gathering about two thousand people. The demonstrations erupted as a reaction to a journalistic investigation on corruption schemes and alleged money laundering of $700 million. A group of like-minded young people calling themselves “Oilon” (from Kyrgyz “think”) triggered the protests by encouraging people to join and speak out. They worked mainly through social media networks, disseminating several short videos and positioning themselves as the voice of young people. The protests became the major non-violent action promoting justice and calling for changes in Kyrgyzstan.
Media Investigation and Public Reaction
On November 21 2019, journalists of Radio Liberty along with Bishkek based news portal Kloop.kg and an international network, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), published an investigative report about corruption at the customs office of Kyrgyzstan. The report revealed that businessman Khabibula Abdukadyr and his family members, along with their supporters, Aierken Saimati and Raiymbek Matraimov were involved. While Matraimov was the former-deputy chairman of Kyrgyz customs, Saimati helped funnel $700 million out of Kyrgyzstan. He was later murdered in Istanbul.
After the report was published, Kyrgyz society actively reacted with activists and youth sharing their opinion on social networks and media outlets about the incident.
Civil activist Ulan Usoyun initiated a peaceful action called “Reaction”. He read about the investigation while he was in Uzbekistan and decided to write a post on Facebook. He called on people to react and come to a peaceful rally. Social media users supported him by commenting on and sharing the post with their networks. Some young people aged 22-25 also actively supported him and shared posts and posters of peaceful action on social networks. Nevertheless, the youth audience was not quite active. Some of them thought that it would be similar to the violent rallies of 2005 and 2010 and wrote that it was impossible to agitate such events. Others were silent and did not react at all. Nevertheless, there were still people who were supporting at the very beginning.
On November 23, a group of young people discussed the situation related to the investigation and held a peaceful rally. They wanted to reach out to the youth and show that it was impossible to remain silent. During the discussion, the activists came up with the idea to make a video that would show the problems of the country and how it affected each person. First, they wanted to engage the older generation and famous and respectable people from society. But when approached, many refused to participate. Young people feel that the older generation has connections in the government, and they are afraid to express their position. Therefore, Oilon movement decided to engage young people aged 22-25, because, at this age, a person wants to gain experience and has no relationship with the authorities and the government.
One day Oilon found the place and equipment to make the video and invited their friends to participate. The video lasted for one minute, and it was recorded in the Russian language with Kyrgyz subtitles with the following text:
“When we were growing up, our country went through a lot of trouble and all this time we were patient. When we lost 17 of our migrant girls in a fire in Russia, we were patient. We had conditions where the only solution we saw was to leave the country. When we learned that the air in Bishkek was killing us, we were silent. We were sitting on the sidelines crying when Burulay died. And all this time we knew that resources were stolen from our country, and us – the bright future. And we didn’t think we could make a change. And you think it doesn’t concern you. But it does. Kyrgyzstan is not 120 members of parliament; it is neither a ministry nor a government. Kyrgyzstan is you and me. It depends on you what Kyrgyzstan will be in the future. Who, if not us? When, if not now?”
The video showed problems the country had faced since independence: two revolutions of 2005 and 2010 that overthrew two presidents and brought deaths; the indifference of the authorities to the deaths of girls in a fire in Russia; air pollution in the city; bride kidnapping and more.
On November 24, Oilon posted a video on Facebook and Instagram, two social networks that young people actively use. Before the peaceful rally, the video gathered about 15,000 views.
The First Rally: “Reaction”
On November 25 at 11.30 am, Bishkek residents gathered in Bishkek Square to express their civil position and demanded to take steps to fight corruption. People protested with slogans that read “Reaction. We Demand Real Reforms” and “Arrest Raiym”. Hundreds of people held leaflets depicting Raiymbek Matraimov and posters demanding justice and action against those involved in corruption.
The rally was peaceful, without disturbing public order. No one could speak with a microphone. Moderator Ulan Usoun led the crowd and did not let anyone talk out of turn. According to Oilon, no one was aggressive. About 500 to 1000 people came out to defend their civil position, which included popular bloggers, journalists, politicians and representatives of human rights organizations. The rally was supported in other cities of Kyrgyzstan as well.
The video of Oilon’s peaceful protest has already received 35 thousand views, with 17 thousand and 700 reposts on Facebook, and five thousand on Twitter. People’s reaction to the video can be divided into three categories. While the first one supported and praised young people, the second one expressed negativity and used bad language. However, Oilon members were confident that they were bots. The third category was neutral and generally interested in one question: Why was the video message recorded in the Russian language and not Kyrgyz? Oilon participants said that they felt that this group wanted to distract attention and support a corrupt government; therefore, they (Oilon) ignored them as much as possible.
State TV channels also reacted to the rally, but no state media journalists mentioned the name of the former deputy head of customs, Raiymbek Matraimov. Also, there were no comments of protesters in two news stories. Instead, there was mention of “third forces” that tried to destabilize the situation and prevent the country from developing. According to TV channel, “third forces” were a powerful foreign people and organizations. The public broadcasting corporation of the Kyrgyz Republic also showed a part (1:47- 1:57 minute) of the video alleging the US State Department for financing the rally and sponsoring the video referring to opinion of people in social networks. Oilon participants were shocked when they saw the news story of the Kyrgyz TV channel. They began getting messages including from older people in the comments section that they received money from the US State Department. Activist Ulan Usoyun expected such reaction from state TV channels and ignored their stories, saying that this would always happen and that he was ready for it.
Later on December 6, some news portals published the news that Raiymbek Matraimov had filed a defamation and moral harm lawsuit against Radio Liberty and other media outlets, demanding protection of honor, dignity and business reputation. According to claimants(Raiymbek Matraimov), the Bishkek court seized the defendants’ bank accounts(kyrgyz media outlets). The total amount of the claim was 60 million kyrgyz Soms ($860 thousand).
Peaceful Rally in Support of Freedom of Speech
After the news report about lawsuit against media outlets Bishkek activists once again decided to show up on the square and organize “Reaction 2.0” in support of freedom of speech. A few days before the rally, different user accounts on social networks spread the news that an LGBT parade would be held on that day. As a result, both organizers and participants were prepared to engage in possible provocations.
On December 18, people began to gather on the square. Near the white house dozens of people with placards and flags approached the participants and said their operation “Reaction 2.0” was paid. It became clear that they were the representatives of the “Kyrk Choro”(from kyrgyz “forty warriors”) national patriotic movement.
The leader of the movement stressed that they also participated in a peaceful rally in support of the participants. In addition to the demands made in the previous reaction movement, the rally participants demanded not to ignore facts and not to suppress freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan. During the action some unknown people (provocateurs) also tried to unfurl the flag of the LGBT community and tell the operators about the fact that that “dozens of people of non-traditional orientation” came to the “Reaction”. No one knew whether they were a part of LGBT movement. Still, the participants of the rally did not succumb to these tricks. The action ended quietly and peacefully.
Appeal to the President of the Kyrgyz Republic
Rally participants who support Oilon live beyond the borders of Kyrgyzstan. One of them lives and works in Dubai. On December 12, President of Kyrgyzstan, Sooronbai Jeenbekov met with Kyrgyz citizens living in the United Arab Emirates. One of the attendees asked the President about the investigations surrounding the real estate property of Raiymbek Matraimov worth $ 12-13 million in Dubai. In response, according to the video, the President said that he had read about the inquiry into corruption and the investigation team was verifying all the information. Moreover, he suggested the attendee go and check the address as referred to in the investigation herself. The attendee published the video response of the President on her Instagram page. Oilon and other media outlets shared the video, which gathered 4.6 thousand views with comments supporting her and criticizing the President for his response and reaction to the investigation.
Oilon Movement’s Activities
After the Oilon group gained audiences, they often received messages about joining the team. The participants did not necessarily plan to create a team, but just wanted to do their part of the civil action. Therefore, they decided to make Oilon as a platform for conversation between the younger and older generations. Following the President’s reaction on the investigation, Oilon decided to create another video titled, “How Would You Like to Remember Our President ?” with the following text:
“Kurmanjan Datka remained in history as a queen who at the cost of the life of her son preserved the integrity of her people. Mahatma Gandhi has remained in history as the man who liberated India from violence. Adolf Hitler remained as a tough man who organized the mass genocide of Jews. Abraham Lincoln is the man who united the United States and put an end to slavery. Sooronbai Sharipovich, how do you want the next generation to remember you?”
In the video, the younger generation turns to the President in the wake of recent events in the country. The video has gained popularity on social networks and has gathered 500,000 views. Young people posted the video on the same channels of communication as their first video, and several other media outlets have added them too.
Parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan will be held in October 2020. Kyrgyz elections are usually held unfair due to selling of votes. Oilon will work in this area to make
youth consciously participate in the elections and learn about the candidates for whom to vote. They want youth to understand that their actions affect the future of the country. Participants shared that basically, they will focus on informing the public about the parties and their candidates, goals, and projects.
Results of Peaceful Protests
In general, young people and activists were satisfied with the result of two peaceful rallies that took place in the country in 2019. It is one of important events in the history of Kyrgyzstan where people participated in a peaceful demonstration and defended their civil position.
Oilon participants said: “Peaceful actions allow bringing changes in the country. If a person wants changes in the country, he or she should speak openly about the problem without the use of violence and provocations”.Although there was no reaction from the government and state bodies, the peaceful rallies demonstrated that people were ready to fight for their future and eradicate corruption.
This case study was compiled by Aidai Chekirova for the Centre for Training and Consultancy (CTC).
Aidai Chekirova was born in Bishkek. In 2019 she graduated from American University of Central Asia, department of Journalism and Mass Communications. She works in financial portal “Akchabar” where she writes news and articles about finance, business and economics of Kyrgyzstan. Aidai Chekirova is an alumni of CAT programme (Tbilisi, Georgia) and ProKG leadership program (Kyrgyzstan). She took part in Enactus AUCA, Media Camp program(IDEA CA), Incubasia LAB and other international trainings.
Full journalistic investigation: https://www.occrp.org/en/plunder-and-patronage/
First Oilon video:https://www.instagram.com/p/B5QWFF6FILh/
Second Oilon video: https://www.instagram.com/p/B6H3HDaHQ7X/
Third Oilon video:https://www.instagram.com/p/B6TAObxHoQ_/
Part of Oilon video in the news story of TV channel:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5P4IgHMnV1Y
Moscow Fire Kills 17 Kyrgyz Migrant workers:https://www.rferl.org/a/deaths-in-moscow-warehouse-fire/27949394.html
Air pollution in Kyrgyzstan causes more than 2,500 premature deaths:https://24.kg/english/107320_Air_pollution_in_Kyrgyzstan_causes_more_than_2500_premature_deaths/
Raiymbek Matraimov files lawsuit against journalists:https://24.kg/english/137225_Raiymbek_Matraimov_files_lawsuit_against_journalists/
Kyrgyzstan election: A historic vote, but is it fair?:https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41594816