OCA #21  SPRING 2015  WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM Text by Christopher Schwartz Photo: Umida Ahmedova

It is no secret that at present there is growing discomfort with Western influence throughout Central Asia. One can encounter it from elite and everyman alike. From a Western perspective, it is easy and tempting to attribute the emerging difficulties to various cynical forces in the region, just as much as it is easy and tempting from a Central Asian perspective to cast them as an inevitable backlash to ignoble designs from the West. And although the unhappy truth is that there is indeed a lot of ignobility to go around, there are some genuine issues, as well.

One crucial issue concerns the philosophical baggage that Western aid agencies have brought with them to Central Asia. An especially problematic piece of conceptual luggage, one that has been a centrepiece of Western human rights and democratisation advocacy efforts since the region’s independence in 1991, has been their notion of civil society. Specifically, civil society has been, in a sense, iconized in the visage of the non-profit non-governmental organisation (NGO), which is moreover represented by Western agencies, both to themselves and to their local partners, as an entity that confronts government – and in extreme moments, even seeks to overthrow or supplant government altogether – rather than one that checks and holds it accountable, and even assists and counsels it.

This difference in models, which can be loosely described as adversarial versus counselory, is fundamentally a difference in vision about the ethical nature of government itself – namely, whether it is composed of human beings who are either essentially immoral and materialistic, and hence must be compelled to do the right thing, or who are essentially moral and motivated by some sense of public duty, and hence can be worked with. It is similarly a difference in vision about the role of elites, as either puppet-masters or latter-day aristocrats. Put another way, a counselory model of civil society is not blind to the influence of corruption in governance, but it is also not blinded by such difficult and disappointing realities, either. It does not automatically assume officials and elites are inevitably nothing more than egoists.

Besides taking an adversarial approach to government, there is also an often unspoken and even more fundamental notion that civil society is something not native to Central Asia, and hence is something that has needed to be introduced into the region (i.e., in the guise of the NGO). One can discern this assumption not so much by looking at what Western agencies and their local partners do as by what they do not do – namely, their tendency not to work with local alternatives to the NGO. Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that they actively ignore or distrust most of the interesting and unique things that Central Asians can offer as indigneous civil society institutions, some of which have been around for centuries (later in this editorial, I will discuss three examples of such institutions).

In sum, these assumptions come together to engender an over-fixation upon the Western-style NGO as simultaneous source, substance, and supporter of civil society in Central Asia. It also engenders a strange view of the region’s human landscape and the kind of partnership possible between Westerners and Central Asians, according to which the majority of locals constitute what is essentially a passive battlefield between heroic activists and villainous officials.

Such a view is proving to be very dangerous for the cause of human rights and democratisation in the region. The region’s governments and general public, already deeply frustrated by Central Asia’s weak sovereignty and immense economic dependence, are internalizing yet inverting this view into an “ours versus theirs” or “local versus foreign” framework. The further down this path the West and Central Asia go together, the more likely they will part ways at the end.

Consider the example of Kyrgyzstan, whose citizens have been the region’s most active local partners with Western advocacy programs, observers often tout the country’s impressive number of registered NGOs: 14,880 in 2015 according to the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law. Such numbers translate to an average of approximately one NGO for every 400 citizens in this tiny nation of 6 million. Although reliable numbers for comparison are hard to come by, Kyrgyzstan probably has one of the highest nominal concentrations of NGOs per capita in the world (Haiti is often said to be the world’s “republic of NGOs”, but it has approximately one NGO for every 1000 citizens).

Unfortunately, beneath the surface is a sadder story of an institution becoming alienated from the population it is intended to serve. According to the Association of Civil Society Support Centres, 53% of all NGOs are concentrated in Bishkek, with the rest scattered across the country. Furthermore, the Association believes that only 33% of registered NGOs are even active. More problematically, a 2012 sustainability assessment by USAID, one of the country’s main NGO donors, found that “strategic planning is not a core element in the decision-making processes” of NGOs. Instead, NGOs “often develop their activities based on the agendas of international donors, while neglecting their strategic missions and goals”. Problematically, these donors have often inculcated a vision of civil society, in the words of civil society researcher Ann-Katharin Rothermel, as “the antonym of authoritarianism” and hence as a force that by its very nature must engage in a power struggle with government.

Little wonder, then, that local politicians fear NGOs and recently have been taking forceful legislative steps to curtail their activity. Moreover, the idea that Western-back NGOs not only participated in the country’s 2005 and 2010 revolutions but actively planned and instigated them at the behest of Western donors or governments is nearly universal in the population. And despite all the positive things that these donors have given to Kyrgyzstan through NGOs – ranging from public works projects to schools – public opinion seems inclined to take the government’s side in the perceived conflict: in a September 2015 public opinion poll performed by the International Republican Institute, 59% of respondents positively assess the government versus 43% for NGOs.

Of course, there are many ways to explain such a statistic. Yet, I firmly believe that it is to a great extent the fruit of Western agencies’ confrontation-focused and NGO-centric model of civil society. And what is especially frustrating about this model is not even how defeats itself, but how antiquated it is, as arguably, it can be traced back to the nineteenth-century ideas of G.W.F. Hegel and Alexis de Tocqueville.

Hegel was arguably the first thinker to identify civil society as such, describing it as a zone of competition between government and citizens, and moreover that this competition generates itself perpetually in a kind of cat-and-mouse game. According to Hegel, modernity is the consciousness of this clash, and a modern society is one that actively understands itself as at war within itself. As for de Tocqueville, he was the first thinker to articulate not only the existence of the NGO, which he initially identified during his famous travels to the young United Sates, but also what he perceived to be its function in society. His thoughts on the subject intersected with Hegel’s in that he more or less portrayed the NGO as the embodiment of that zone of competition – and hence, as the sign and engine of modernisation.

Keep in mind that de Tocqueville was visiting what was then the world’s controversial and experimental democratic republic, and he was coming from France, which had been rocked by democratic revolutions and aristocratic counter-revolutions for over forty years. For this reason, the confrontaional power of the NGO made a distinct impression upon de Tocqueville. He went so far as to argue that “citizens joined together in free association might … replace the individual power of noble”, or in other words, the NGO is at its best a revolutionary institution, constituting something of a vanguard comprised of everyday citizens who come together to combat the tyranny of the elites – a tyranny that is exercised through officials.

To be sure, Hegel and de Tocqueville were complex thinkers. However, what is important is not so much what they actually believed as how their ideas have gradually transformed into a vision of civil society – unhealthily fixated upon the NGO and antagonistic toward government – that is still in the back of the minds of many Western agencies.

Simply put, the West needs to do some serious re-thinking about what civil society should look like – and is looking like – in Central Asia. There are a wealth of distinctive institutions in the region, arising from a rich array of deep-historical sources as far and wide as ancient China, Russia, and Siberia, that we could and should consider as indigenous forms of civil society. Take for example the subbotnik, the chaikhana, and the akyn. All of these institutions have long served as interfaces between government and citizens in Central Asia. Even by the confrontational standards of Western conceptual preferences they are quite promising, as they actively contributed to the fall of the communist regime a generation ago. However, it is important to note that their contributions to that world-historical event were done not so much with confrontation as their primary modus operandi, but with akyikattyk (“rectitude” in Kyrgyz), i.e., publicly holding the Soviet government accountable to its own promises.

Unfortunately, these instititions are frequently overlooked or dismissed by Western agencies because of the perceived “taint” of state control that they all underwent during the Soviet era. They thus seem “not serious” to a Western mind. This is a serious mistake, although it is certainly true that some institutions do have legitimacy problems, such as the subbotnik (the Saturday of volunteer community work originally innovated by the Bolsheviks). Although subbotniks should have been organised voluntarily by neighbourhoods, during the Soviet era more often than not they were enforced by authorities (in local slang, “dobrovol’no prinuditel’no”, “voluntarily compelled”). Consequently, subbotniks became associated with a kind of public sphere that in general was experienced as fake. However, today parts of the population are reclaiming this institution from its authoritarian past, using it as an organizational mechanism to maintain apartment blocs and entire neighborhoods. This process of reclamation and repurposing should be interpreted as an important sign of the subbotnik’s ultimate validity and power. In a society such as Kyrgyzstan, in which the ability of government to deliver public services is rapidly declining, could the subbotnik be pointing in the direction of a people ready and willing to take its infrastructural needs into its own hands?

With respect to the chaikhana, the traditional teahouse whose earliest beginnings can be traced to three thousand years ago in China, this appears to be one of those ancient institutions that seem to have a life of their own, confounding authorities since time immemorial. For instance, Soviet architects and urban planners were under the impression that the chaikhana was an apolitical and nonreligious space that they could enlist for their own purposes. They sought to establish “red teahouses” (krasnyye chaynyye, qizil choyxonalar, kyzyl chaikanalar) physically attached to factories that were clean, contained newspapers and musical instruments, and showed propaganda films. The red teahouses were promoted as an example of “proper” Soviet institutional and social culture, although apparently Central Asians flocked to the new institution to use it simply as a place of rest and were disinterested in participating in programs offered to help them better understand communist ideology. One wonders, then, whether the Soviet planners understood the chaikhana to begin with (much less the exhaustions of factory labour).

The chaikhana today continues to resist industrialisation, which is a good indicator of its credentials as a civil society institution. In terms of Western analogues, it bears the most resemblance to the cafe or coffeehouse, which during the Enlightenment era was a crucial institution for the emergence of a democratic public sphere. Yet, unlike the cafe, the chaikhana has not evolved into a knowledge-economy workspace. Instead, it is expanding upon its age-old purpose as a meeting-place, serving the middle class, business class, artists, and activists. Another important difference between the chaikhana and the cafe is postural: chaikhanas do not typically have chairs, but instead carpeted elevated booths for lounging and cross-legged sitting. Such an arrangement immediately invites a deliberative peer-to-peer use of the space much more than the rigid straight-back office-style of the Western chair. Nor has the chaikhana remained a male-only territory as it appears to have been a century ago prior to the Soviet era, as it is increasingly admitting women.

Finally, a very promising local institution from the Turkic tradition is the akyn, the battle-lyricist of the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen. According to as-yet-unpublished field research by anthropologist Mustafa Coşkun, akyns provide a rapidly growing venue for grassroots civic expression in Kyrgyzstan. Akyns are also translatable into terms familiar to Western culture. For instance, they are readily comparable to the Hip Hop artist, as both improvise lyrics based upon his/her immediate surroundings. The typical setting, an aitysh contest, certainly resembles “rap battles”, even in terms of scale (a single aitysh can draw audiences of as many as 2000 attendees, without any prompting by authorities). And importantly, there is almost always political content in a Kyrgyz akyn’s lyrics, articulated through caricature and sarcasm. Even in government-sponsored aityshes, an akyn may criticise politicians to their very faces, frequently calling them out for a criminal or immoral act.

However, where the akyn diverges from the rapper is that he or she ultimately has the goal not of tearing down the authorities, but of akyikattyk – holding them accountable, even advising them. What is remarkable to an outsider is that, despite numerous brazen performances in which Kyrgyz akyns have publicly reprimanded important officials and elites, they have all so far appeared to be immune from reprisals. This suggests that the modus operandi at work here is shame, honour, and morality, not confrontation and struggling for power. In other words, the assumptions underlying what the audience expects in an aitysh are the exact opposite of the adversarial model of civil society: the ruling class, for all its problems, is seen as constituted by inherently ethical beings who can be convinced to do their duty.

To close, the truth is that the Western model of civil society is not only maladapted to a Central Asian context, but it is increasingly unable to meet the unique challenges of modern Western life, as well. It is hard to imagine how Hegel and de Tocqueville have much to say to us in an era of mass digital surveillance, the intrusion of corporations into individual private life, and the decline of sovereign nation-states vis-à-vis regional and global super-structures. My argument here can be summed up in the Russian proverb, “V Tulu so svoym samovarom ne yezdyat” – “One does not travel to Tula with one’s own samovar” (in the eighteenth century, the Russian city of Tula was famous for its samovars). On the one hand, Western agencies should begin to re-think their engagement in Central Asia in more local terms, but on the other hand, Westerners striving to make a positive change in the world should consider whether there is anything we can learn from Central Asians. Indeed, why would one journey so far from home just to bring one’s own ideas?