Akyn Activism

Challenge

The Kyrgyz Republic is post-Soviet Central Asia's lone liberal democracy. In 2005 and 2010, people openly revolted against authorities in an attempt to weaken presidentialism and strengthen parliamentarism. The revolts finally succeeded with a series of constitutional reforms following the second uprising. Unfortunately, this fledgling democracy is beset by an intense problem of political corruption. The problem is also conceptual and cultural, as it concerns differing visions of rule of law (zakonduk ereje” in Kyrgyz). On the one hand, corruption (uuruchuluk”) is popularly condemned as a social-political evil but simultaneously considered a necessary evil that is crucial to maintaining the weakness of the central government. This is because a weak, as opposed to a limited central government, is popularly considered the real meaning of democracy. On the other hand, corruption is also conflated with traditional Kyrgyz tribalism (uruuchuluk”), thereby equating it with national identity. This obviously limits the conceptual options available to the Kyrgyz Republic.

Meanwhile, another danger lurks in the lingering Soviet legacy of “political technologies” (politicheskikh tekhnologii in Russian). This philosophy promotes an instrumentalized legal epistemology, reducing law to a mere tool for resource control and distribution. Thus, law ceases to have its own inherent moral qualities. The result is that when Kyrgyz are presented by Westerners with the concept of "rule of law", many of them immediately ask, "Whose law?”. This understanding has been actively designed and cultivated by certain intelligent political actors, many of whom are involved in organized crime and maintain extensive informal patronage networks. Even more worrying is that several of these godfathers have managed to manipulate the democratic process to ensconce their agents in the national parliament and occasionally themselves in office.

Meanwhile, there are two indigenous “alternatives” to Western-style rule of law, but they are dangerous. One arises from the Kyrgyz shamanistic tradition where the conceptual model is the "transcendent leader" (“bashi”), like the mythological warrior-hero Manas. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for authoritarianism. The other arises from the Kyrgyz Islamic tradition of "divine law" (“shariyat”), the practical orientation of which bears some proximity to the Western notion (since the Western notion also has its distant historical roots in monotheistic religion). However, where the Western notion asserts a distinction between public and private spheres of life, shariyat is typically interpreted as denying this.

Program Summary

NewEurasia believes in leveraging the combined forces of universal technology and local tradition for the purposes of long-term positive grassroots change that will ultimately contribute to a just and stable global order. In the particular case of the Kyrgyz Republic's struggles with corruption, NewEurasia believes that applying the technological concept of hacking to long-standing Kyrgyz performance arts to promote a program of rule of law could yield positive results in terms of opening new conceptual horizons within the general Kyrgyz public.

Specifically, we will hack the institution of the akyn, an ancient “battle-poet” which during the pre-Soviet period served the role of information provider and social-political critic; in the Soviet period served as a propagandist, and in the contemporary post-Soviet period is returning to its original function, but under the conditions of economic duress which have beset the Kyrgyz nation as a whole. The akyn is a deeply unique institution, in that he/she is authorized by the collective to openly say what everyone knows but cannot voice and he/she can do so without any fear of reprisal. It is thus a common sight to find akyns at state-sponsored events, personally invited by the government, explicitly and systematically criticizing political figures and policies.

The institution of the akyn is normally deconstructive in nature and usually does not actively promote a program. Nevertheless, as the Soviets themselves proved during their nearly-70 years of rule, this deconstructive capacity can be used to create new conceptual horizons. Concretely, NewEurasia will do the following:

  • Assemble a gastrol (“folk ensemble”) of akyns and musicians to systematically travel across the country conducting a total of seven aitysh (“lyric-battle”) concerts in the main culture centers of the Kyrgyz Republic: Bishkek, Osh, Jalalabad, Batken, Naryn, Issyk-Kul, Talas, and Toktogul.
  • The content of the concerts will be focused upon the need for rule of law in the country. Specifically, the akyns will explore and de-construct the competing models of rule of law that exist within the Kyrgyz cultural landscape. They will do so using the lyrical and performance skills inherent to their profession.
  • Through precise surveying designed by a professional anthropologist, NewEurasia will attempt to monitor the intellectual effect of the concerts upon audiences. Specifically, they will measure the change in ideas immediately before and after the aityshes, three months later, and then six months later.
  • Through numerous contacts in local media and government, the aityshes will be heavily publicized, performed in centrally-situated venues, and broadcast live on radio, television, and online. Broadcast journalists will be requested to ask their viewers to phone in their responses for live debate.
  • The aytishes will also be recorded and the lyrics written down for reproduction and redistribution in textual form, both hard copy and electronic copy. This will give them posterity longer than the moment of performance. It will also allow the monitoring of reactions online, by assessing viewership trends and comments to the videos.

Impact

The impact of the program is expected to be very subtle but far-reaching, especially after the amplified effects of the aityshes' videos and lyrics spread across the "Kyrgyznet". Expected impacts include:

  • The short-term impact will be the effects on the way Kyrgyz think about the issues of law, government, and statehood. One of the key changes will be the disentanglement of uuruchuluk (corruption) and uruuchuluk (corruption conflated with tribalism). On one end, the connection between them will no longer seem so evident but at the other end, audiences may come to understand the manner in which their traditions have been co-opted by certain socioeconomic and political actors.
  • The medium-term impact will be helping audiences to not simply see these political actors as the source of the problem, but also to think critically about the ways in which they as a citizenry have contributed to the problem. This would be very important in order to prevent the possibility of aityshes instigating more violent political change. Audiences will hopefully begin to understand that political instability begets more political instability and also provokes the conditions that have enabled the conflation of uuruchuluk and uruuchuluk – and hence, the weakening of rule of law – to begin with. Achieving medium-term impact will possibly require repeat performances.
  • The long-term impact would be the stabilization and strengthening of the Kyrgyz Republic's governmental institutions in a fair, just, and democratic manner, with an authentic indigenous culture of rule of law established at the grassroots level.

 

Partners

The partners for this project include the Central Asian Free Market Institute (CAFMI) and the Bishkek Business Club. 

Project Details

Program Status:

Program Type:Partner

Region:Eastern Europe & Central Asia

Program Countries:Kyrgyzstan

Rule of Law Index Factors: Absence of Corruption (Factor 2), Fundamental Rights (Factor 4), Order and Security (Factor 5), Civil Justice (Factor 7), and Informal Justice (Factor 9).

Issue Areas: Arts and Culture, Education, Government, Human Rights, and Media.