The Struggle for Civil Society in Central Asia:
April-June 2011… April 7th was “black and red” day as Bishkek’s evening paper put it: one year after Kyrgyzstan’s bloody uprising, during which the President’s forces shot over 80 protestors dead on the main square…That event happened as I was putting the finishing touches to my book for Kumarian “The struggle for civil society in Central Asia”. As Kumarian’s editors “got their teeth” into the book, an even worse loss of life took place, in June 2010 – over 400 people dead after inter-ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital Osh and neighbouring Jalalabad.
I have been living in this region for almost ten years, working in civil society development. The ex-Soviet countries that seemed so similar are now moving apart so fast. Kyrgyzstan having had two revolutions (2005 and 2010) while in Turkmenistan there are few independent NGOs at all, and in Kazakhstan President Nazarbaev has just won a new term with – apparently – 95% of the vote in a turnout of over 80%!
Some brief thoughts for Kumarian readers:
Indeed, civil society development is a “struggle”. Often we don’t see clearly where the CS struggle ends and the political struggle begins.
Over the last year, as the political struggle in Kyrgyzstan took more and more of people’s energies, CSO had the important role of trying to ensure some basic rules (legality, non-violent behaviour, not sacrificing everything for the sake of power) still obtained.
It is CS’s fate seemingly to be used by other actors. Unfortunately, our region has seen it used for neo-liberal gains, then sidelined by the foreign donors as their government focus on the search for oil or political stability. We see civil society used by national government (setting up their own “GONGOs”) and by political radicals. But the more it is used, the more important, it seems, is the struggle to keep open a space for debate and collective action by citizens.
Watching the news from the Middle East… Having seen violence close at hand in Central Asia, I can’t say I feel euphoric about the demonstrations. Like here, the motor for them is ordinary people’s pent up economic and social demands. It is not clear what the new regimes will or can do, especially as far as democracy is concerned. When big changes come, the little changes (our project work, more participative ways of doing things, attention to minority – or majority - groups of all kinds) seem to take a hit. All we can say is there are more difficult times ahead.
Last week I was in Osh starting a programme training local NGOs and government staff in analytical and research skills. The idea is to help develop new policy and practice around the idea of diversity – to increase government accountability to citizens and reduce the risk of violence. I hope my own analysis in the Kumarian book will be of use in the region – both to international development practitioners, and to local NGO activists.
Charles Buxton, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 23.6.2011
About the Author:
Charles Buxton is an INTRAC Capacity Building Specialist based in Central Asia. The Struggle for Civil Society in Central Asia was published in May 2011 and is now available in paperback.