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Kyrgyzstan: Ravshan Jeenbekov and the Facebook Generation

Of all the divides in Kyrgyzstan’s fractious political society, one too often overlooked is the divide between generations. Unlike the famed North/South schism, which manifests itself in elections and street-protests, the generational split is subtle in its complexion; existing within political factions rather than between them, as members of a younger, tech-savvy elite openly challenge their blog-phobic bosses in the national parliament.

The recent effort to install a Prime Minister to head the government is a case in point. The majority of the candidates who put themselves forward for the appointment were under forty-five, something which in itself represents a sea change in domestic political circles.

Following firm backing in the coalition vote, Omurbek Babanov, aged 41 , took the post on December 23. But the leader of the Respublika faction, to a great extent, was the establishment choice. An ally of recently elected President Almas Atambayev, he can be reasonably relied on to do the head of state’s bidding while Atambayev himself enjoys the more glamorous lifestyle of grand interstate summits and security staff reshuffles.

A more independent, reform-minded PM might have been Ravshan Jeenbekov, also 41. But with only 5 coalition votes, his candidacy flopped.  Moreover, he failed to win the support of many members of his own party, Ata-Meken, who under the leadership of veteran politicker Omurbek Tekebayev, pragmatically decided to endorse the Atambayev-inspired status quo. After the announcement of the coalition’s vote on December 19, Jeenbekov’s Facebook wall was flooded with condolences.

“Mr MP Jeenbekov, after your party didn’t support you during voting for the post of Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan, do you intend to continue working with the traitors?” asked [ru] Aziz Abakirov

“Aziz, hello. Each person chooses their own path. I work according to my convictions and I travel my own path. Many members of my party made their choice. It is their right, although not completely, I think, given [their obligation to] their ideological and political position. I will have to work among them, yes, because I am an MP of this party. I am obligated,” replied [ru] Jeenbekov.

“But answer, how can you love a woman after she has cheated on you?” pressed [ru] Abakirov.

“Aziz, love for a woman and politics differ strongly from one another ),” Jeenbekov [ru] answered.

Even during less exciting moments in Kyrgyzstan’s political calendar Jeenbekov’s wall overflows with discussions. While the MP responds unfailingly to praise (he is human, after all) and ducks the odd difficult question (he is a politician, after all), perhaps the most important element of his profile is that it offers his nearly 4,500 followers a single space where they can discuss topical issues and meet edninomyshliniki (like minded people) with whom they share common values. The fact that an elected representative frequently participates in these exchanges brings the whole process a step closer to Rousseauian visions of direct democracy.

“Pity that many MPs do not realize that the consciousness of the young is growing, and that this is no longer the same people who just nod at what their “bosses” say. Or maybe they understand it and are therefore hiding from us, because our thoughts and ideas knock them down. Inevitably there will come an intellectual ‘revolution’. Now, many young leaders realize that they can participate in the government, as is their complete right to do so!” Uluk Kydyrbaev concluded during the December 19 wall discussion, to a score of ‘likes’ from other users.

Indeed, by showing the ambition to nominate himself for the PM spot Jeenbekov didn’t nod at his party bosses, he defied them. And, with growing online followings that undermine more traditional forms of political loyalty in Kyrgyzstan (regional, patronage-based, deference to seniority etc), the day when he and other social-media-friendly deputies seek to challenge the aksakals on their own terms may not be too far away. As Jeenbekov predicted in a reply to one of his contacts, Ilyas:

“Ilyas, I think, that at the next elections the [Ata-Meken] party will be reformatted. I am sure that [at the next elections] a strong party, with a liberal-democratic position will appear.”

Watch this space.

Social Media in Kyrgyz politics: No Magic Wand, Yet 

Cynics will make the argument that social media such as Facebook and Twitter are limited in their ability to transform either the agency or the fundamental structure of Kyrgyz political society and currently, the numbers support their case.

While internet penetration in the country, at just under 40%, compares favourably to most Central Asian states, social media statisticians estimate that only 1.17% of the country has a facebook account, the vast majority of whom are based in the capital, Bishkek.  Also, a 2009 report cited by Neweurasianet suggested that less than 10% of Kyrgyz internet users are over 40, meaning that many of the most powerful and influential in this post-Soviet society still get their kicks offline.

Nevertheless, as overall usage continues to grow, a Twitter or Facebook account is increasingly being seen by local bigwigs as a valuable source of political capital.  A September Global Voices post by Elena Skochilo highlighted a Facebook-based witch hunt which demanded Kyrgyz netizens ‘unfollow’ or ‘defriend’ politicians on Twitter and Facebook, who do not use their accounts personally, or, who set them up opportunistically, prior to elections. As human rights activist Dmitry Kabak posted [ru] on the group's wall:

“I know 100% that Dastan Bekeshev, Shirin Aitmatova, Ravshan Jeenbekov write themselves. I do not know who writes in the accounts of Nariman Tuleev and Tursunbai Bakir uulu. [Their] Twitter and Facebook [activity] intensified on the eve of the presidential race. Marat Imankulov… is not writing himself- the date of birth and positions don't tally, and there are only links to news stories “about himself.” Please add information about “suspicious activity” on political accounts and then un-follow.”

But whether Kyrgyz power-brokers see social media as an opportunity to communicate with constituents or simply another way of boosting their public profiles, their dalliances with online activity are sufficient evidence that Facebook and Twitter are gradually altering the political landscape of this year-old parliamentary republic. The latter in particular has become ‘The News Before it Happens', with online agencies such as Kloop relaying live Twitter-feeds from deputies musing on laws and coalition-formations as they spar and haggle in the legislature.

Moreover, in a small country where institutions are feeble and personal connections all-conquering, the scattergun effect of a succinct 'tweet’ may prove the equal of multiple phone calls in times when a lethargic body politic needs to be shaken into action. That, at any rate, is the conclusion drawn in a brilliant article on the Foreign Policy blog by Natasha Yefimova-Trilling, titled Twitter Vs. the KGB.

The beginning of the piece finds US photographer Nic Tanner in a spot of bother. While covering the aftermath of the November presidential elections in the southern city of Osh, he is accosted by plain-clothes-wearing men who claim to be representatives of the local equivalent of the KGB. After frantically phoning his journalist colleague, Natasha's husband David, an SOS tweet went out from @DTrilling, followers of whom include “young former and current Kyrgyz officials”. Within minutes, a tense situation was diffused and Tanner was free to go, baffled by a complete reversal in the officers’ behaviour towards him. But as Yefimova-Trilling explains:

This is not a story of Twitter's ability to galvanize grassroots protests and marshal ordinary citizens to defend just causes. Kyrgyzstan is a place where high-tech social networks meet old-fashioned patronage networks.  All those who got in touch were people we knew personally, and people with some clout…Our use of social media didn't tap a network of underground civil-society activists — it simply sped up the well-oiled machinery of string-pulling.

And sadly, Twitter is no magic wand if you are an ethnic Uzbek human rights activist. Arrested following ethnic conflict in southern Kyrgystan, a regional court convicted Azimzhan Askarov to a life sentence on a series of charges that international and domestic human rights organizations feared were ‘trumped up’ against a background of seething nationalism. Despite being one of the most tweeted about subjects in the Kyrgyz Twittersphere – #Askarov -  the Kyrgyz Supreme Court upheld the regional court's decision on December 21.

Social media then can go far in Kyrgyz politics, but probably only so far, insofar as public life in the country continues to be dominated by familiar faces, a compromised judiciary and what RFER/L's Daisy Sindelar refers to as “cynical season(s) of gray-haired power-jockeying”.

N.B  One infrastructural obstacle to the powers of internet-based social technologies in Kyrgyzstan is the nation's currently patchy supply of electricity. Following a cold snap that saw an uptake in energy consumption in the northern half of the country, the Soviet era energy grid is wheezing, leading to sustained shortages for citizens. In a parody of this bold nostradamian statement, Sadybakas Abylov has produced [ru] a lively and very readable blog post titled “There will be no electricity”.

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