Building Secure Communities in a Post-Liberal Age: A View from Kyrgyzstan

How to build sustainable peace, forge livelihoods, and create a basis for development?

These questions have been of central interest to scholars in the fields of development, peace and conflict studies, and area studies, among others. As we approach the end of the third decade since the end of the Cold War, it has become increasingly obvious that liberal democracy and free markets are not the only way to achieve—or at least are not sufficient for achieving—sustainable social and economic development. This is particularly apparent in Kyrgyzstan, which has seen fundamental political, economic, and social changes but has not attained the stability and welfare that successive governments promised.

Rather than treating this condition of under-development as something supposedly innate to the country or to the Central Asian region, my research seeks to understand the way in which this “post-liberal” transition politics is embedded in a global network of international organizations, governments, and other geopolitical actors.

“Post-liberalism” denotes the fact that Kyrgyzstan, like other “young” states emerging from socialist or authoritarian regimes, is facing conditionalities, expectations, and imperatives that make the adoption of neo-liberal policies and liberal-democratic rhetoric less a political choice than a logical consequence of integration into the international community. However, this path dependency often leads to performative, rather than substantive, implementation of reforms and new policies and practices, as well as fatigue and resistance built up by the empty promises and adverse effects that have accompanied capitalist development in the post-independence period. The challenges facing the construction of secure communities must be understood in this context.


Philipp Lottholz

Philipp Lottholz is a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant at the UN and Global Order Programme, University of Reading and is currently completing his PhD in the International Development Department, University of Birmingham. He was awarded the Christiane Rajewsky Prize for the best work by a young scholar in the German Association for Peace and Conflict Studies. Besides his main interest in peacebuilding and security practices, he works on topics such as cooperation between academia and practitioners; researcher safety; decolonial theory; and statebuilding and peacebuilding in societies across Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

Economic Precarity, Conflict, and International Peacebuilding and Security Programming

Kyrgyzstan is known as the Central Asian republic that was most receptive to the programs and prescriptions of Western donors, international financial institutions (IFIs), and multilateral organizations. The country’s rapid transition to a market economy, which included the dissolution of collective farms and the privatization of state assets and industries, has caused a massive drop in GDP and industrial employment, which in 1995 stood at 50 percent and 35 percent of the 1990 level, respectively. As service and retail sectors could only partially compensate for the decline of industrial manufacturing, mining, and agriculture, large parts of the population came to depend on labor migration to other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, China, Turkey, or further afield.

Kyrgyzstan thus faces similar challenges to other countries in peripheral and structurally weak regions in the global economy. Rural-urban migration puts increasing strain on the infrastructures and administrations of urban centers like the capital, Bishkek, and the southern city of Osh. Large-scale international labor migration has served to disrupt social, communal, and family relations, as children are often left with relatives or neighbors, or even in special boarding houses (Russian: internaty), all of which are often unable to provide appropriate support and upbringing. Furthermore, a number of factors have served to impede state institutions in the educational and social sectors from confronting the issues outlined above.

How do people address these challenges, given their entrenched nature and the state’s limited capacity?

Part of the answer relates to the involvement of multilateral organizations such as the UN, the EU, donors (especially Germany, Japan, and China), and NGOs. Especially since inter-communal clashes in and around the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad in June 2010, Kyrgyzstan has arguably become another hotspot for internationally-supported peacebuilding and security programs. The UN Peacebuilding Fund alone has disbursed about US$28 million since 2010, and in the same period Kyrgyzstan has received over 1.1 billion USD in official development assistance according to OECD statistics.

The question is, however, what changes these programs effect in the long term and how they affect the way communities deal with conflict, insecurity, and the factors underlying them. Among other analyses, Megoran and colleagues showed how peace and reconciliation projects suffered from a conceptual bias toward reconciliation and a geographical bias toward the above-mentioned urban centers, where people reportedly did not feel animosity and had even helped each other during the conflict. On the other hand, and especially in light of such shortcomings, there has been significant demand for reconciliation, tolerance-building, and conflict and crime prevention, especially in more rural and marginal communities across southern Kyrgyzstan. Furthermore, in the medium term, conflict prevention has become more important than assistance in dealing with the direct consequences of the conflict during its immediate aftermath.

Community-Level Peace and Security: Municipal Initiatives, Civil Society, and the State

My research has examined the efforts of different international and local actors to reform, strengthen, or build from scratch municipal and higher-level bodies that help address conflict, insecurity, and crime.

Case 1: Local Crime Prevention Centers (LCPCs)

The UK-based international NGO Saferworld, for instance, has a comprehensive community security program, under the umbrella of which it partners with the Kyrgyzstani Foundation for Tolerance International to initiate local community security working groups in rural administrations (aiyl okmotu). After receiving training on security analysis; planning and execution of measures; and final evaluation (see p. 6 in this Saferworld report), these working groups join Local Crime Prevention Centers (LCPCs). Created by the 2008 Law on Crime Prevention, these bodies are supposed to coordinate various other institutions of public and communal life: elders’ courts (aksakal courts), women’s councils, youth councils, neighborhood committees, and the police. During profiling visits and follow-up interviews I conducted with representatives of LCPCs, the latter demonstrated how they successfully dealt with issues ranging from illegal border crossings to violation of inter-communal water usage arrangements and from early marriages to school racketeering and youth conflict. The measures taken by LCPCs included roundtables and other events for joint analysis and dialogue with the population and higher-level authorities, as well as engagement in cultural and sports events and outreach conducted via brochures and other informational materials.

Case 2: Territorial Youth Councils (TYCs)

A similar approach was taken by the Territorial Youth Councils (TYCs), activist groups of around 30 individuals in each of the twelve districts of the city of Osh. In the direct aftermath of the inter-communal conflict known as the “2010 events,” young leaders and a number of NGOs formed groups to facilitate outreach, exchange, and tolerant attitudes among youth from different communities and of diverse origins. The first project was titled “I am a Kyrgyzstani.” With support from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Osh-based NGO IRET, select TYC members went to trainings and seminars across Kyrgyzstan and abroad, in Northern Ireland and the Austrian capital, Vienna. In 2013, the TYCs were officially constituted as part of the local mayoral administration (meriia) and the twelve leaders of the TYCs became salaried members of staff in the Committee for Youth Affairs, which was made responsible for the TYCs’ activities. This served to make the youth groups sustainable and institutionalize their status within the municipality.

TYCs have made—and continue to make—a major contribution to peaceful social relations in and around the city of Osh. In view of its success in Osh, this model was extended to other cities across the country, including Batken in the southwest and Tokmok in the north. One TYC head explained how the exchange visits between largely mono-ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities gave her and other youth the chance to get to know people whom they would not otherwise have met:

We looked at everything, made friends, and we saw with our own eyes that Uzbeks are also good people and that there are no bad nations [natsii], but only bad people. And they also came to our district and stayed with us; they saw the Kyrgyz, what kind of cuisine we have, what kind of schools, how school students are learning here…and they became friends with us and are making friends to this day.

Tolerance and the dismantling of stereotypes are also promoted by art contests and by the so-called “Kids from Our Courtyard” events, which offer a stage for young people to perform and share their talents and interests (see photos below).

“Kids from Our Courtyard” (Rebiata s nashego dvora) event, November 2015

At these district-level events and on municipal or national holidays, youth groups deliver performances as diverse as breakdancing and enactments of the legend of Kurmanjan datka, a 19th-century Kyrgyz tribal leader who is now a celebrated national hero. Furthermore, TYCs have organized festivals for intercultural exchange between different ethnic communities in the city of Osh under headings such as “We Are All Different, but Together We Are United” or “Festival of Friendship.” These events feature presentations of the costumes, cuisine, and folklore of the different ethnic groups living in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Finally, TYCs take on a supporting role in the prevention of crime, violence, and conflict, as they raise awareness and initiate dialogue about possible solutions to issues such as gender violence, school racketeering, early marriages, or the above-mentioned issue of “social orphans.” TYC members even organized a weekend camp in which individuals involved in racketeering were given a chance to learn about youth activism and join the TYCs, which made them listen and take a genuine interest, according to one TYC leader. TYC activists stated that besides fulfilling their mission to build peace and tolerance, they saw their activity as a way to change and further develop their city and country as a whole, at the same time as improving their own talents, skills, and career opportunities.

The struggle with juvenile delinquency and vulnerability and the organization of fundraising and charity initiatives for people in need indicate the limitations of TYCs’ mandate, however. Working with local councils, schools, universities, and other authorities, they are normally confined to attempts to help young people in Osh deal with their situations. Changing these conditions more fundamentally—by affecting local government and state policy—is beyond the scope of TYCs. This has sparked a desire among some young activists to represent youth interests at higher levels, such as during assemblies of the Osh City Council (gorodskii kenesh), in public hearings, or in youth parliaments at the municipal and national levels. While the latter, especially, are confined to rather infrequent articulation of interests, national-level organizations such as the Institute for Youth Development and the NGO network “Youth Policy in Action” have successfully lobbied the authorities to take steps to develop a systematic national policy on youth that takes into account young people’s needs and abilities in a wider context.

That attempts to inform national-level policy making and institutional reform are not straightforward and can incur disagreement with decision-makers is demonstrated by a third case study.

Case 3: Civic Union “For Reforms and Result”

The NGO network Civic Union “For Reforms and Result (Russian: Grazhdanskii soiuz ‘Za reformy i rezultat’) formed of 28 NGOs, gathered almost 11,000 signatures for an “Alternative Conception for the Reform of Law Enforcement Organs in the Kyrgyz Republic” in 2011.

My research traces how the young activists were invited to consultations with successive prime ministers and Ministry of Interior Affairs (MIA) officials and could claim a stake in legislation on the cooperation between police, local administration, and population, as well as the creation of national bodies overseeing law enforcement reform. However, the activists lamented that law enforcement practices on the ground, as well as the internal structures and governance of the law enforcement apparatus, remained largely the same as before their efforts, despite symbolic and attention-grabbing measures like the reshuffling and renaming of the MIA’s Road Patrol Service. The Civic Union’s local-level projects have proven that its approach—collaborative security provision, where local administrations, civil society, and the police work together—can improve the situation, as demonstrated in communities where the strategy was piloted. The necessity of such cooperation was even confirmed by former prime minister Sapar Isakov in a recent conference. Despite these efforts and positive reactions from the political establishment, significant steps toward the comprehensive overhaul of Kyrgyzstan’s law enforcement system demanded by Civic Union activists remain to be undertaken.

Civic Union activists in national- and community-level discussions. Photo credit: Civic Union and P. Lottholz

Post-Liberal Statebuilding: Outsourcing and the Reassertion of “Sovereignty”

All three case studies demonstrate the post-liberal trajectory on which Kyrgyzstan and the other Central Asian states have embarked, marked by the reconfiguration, extension, and strengthening of state structures. Authorities such as the MIA and regional or lower-level law enforcement divisions and administrations demonstrate their willingness and ability to change the structures and practices of municipal-level crime prevention and peacebuilding. However, these changes are usually undertaken with the support of international actors and donor funding, which was provided by Saferworld and the OSCE in the first two cases and by the UN Office for Drugs and Crime in the final one. Meanwhile, local-level bodies are confined to problem-solving and preventive measures: both LCPCs and TYCs were mainly tasked with preventing crime and violence and promoting peace, tolerance, and resilience in the districts of southern Kyrgyzstan. While these bottom-up initiatives serve to strengthen people’s awareness and appreciation of human rights and peace among different cultural, religious, and ethnic groups, policymakers on the regional and national levels do not always act according to these values. Indeed, it has been argued that political elites could do more to alleviate the factors underlying continuing tensions and economic precarity in the country.

Two processes are at play in this post-liberal trajectory. As far as peacebuilding and security provision on the municipal level are concerned, we can see a process of outsourcing to communal activists and civil society, as well as to the international partners and donors supporting their projects. At the same time, the power to determine the challenges faced by communities and the steps to be taken continues to lie with rural/district administrations (aiyl okmotu, territorialnyi sovet or akimiat), mayoral offices (meriia), and/or law enforcement and ministerial bodies. These and the political leadership in the country thus retain the upper hand in deciding how unity and peace are promoted in Kyrgyzstan, structuring the process of political deliberation in the country into a strict hierarchy. Rather than a fully open, accessible public sphere, as might be expected in a classically liberal polity, this forges a post-liberal trajectory of ordering, peacebuilding, and statebuilding aimed at the maintenance of sovereignty and regime security.

The normative conclusions from this analysis are not, as they may seem to some, straightforward. Heavy contestations around Kyrgyzstan’s future path and especially its language and cultural policies preceded the so-called “April revolution” in 2010 and the deadly conflicts in June of that year. Such political conflict and the corresponding emergence of nationalist sentiments are—at least in part—prevented by the hierarchical division of labor in the ongoing post-liberal politics of peacebuilding. Still, the challenges faced by people who are marginalized—economically, culturally, or otherwise—call for policies that secure the livelihoods of all Kyrgyzstanis and, to that end, hold political decision-makers and key economic actors accountable. While these challenges are paramount in Kyrgyzstan, it is abundantly clear that they, and the post-liberal lens for understanding them, are equally relevant in many other contexts in the current late capitalist period.

Photos by
Philipp Lottholz


Subscribe now to our newsletter