Kyrgyzstan: Reading, Writing, and Riots

reading writing and riotsOSH, Kyrgyzstan | One afternoon a few weeks ago, the school where Svetlana Karpushkina works as a principal was attacked by a gang of 40 teenagers from another school.

“The teachers and I blocked the main entrance and didn’t let them in. We called the police, and when the gang saw the police, they left,” Karpushkina said.

It was a dramatic scene, but by no means rare. Security guards stand watch outside many schools, but they cannot stop the mass fights that teenagers have taken to staging.

Teachers, students, parents, and administrators say Kyrgyzstan’s schools are falling victim to the rising tide of violence that plagues the entire country.

Blaming the Revolution

Far from being a sanctuary, school has become a threatening place for students like Alexander Antonov, 13, who stopped attending a few months ago.

“For a few weeks I didn’t know that my son had stopped going to school,” his mother, Natalia Antonova, said. “He didn’t want to tell me what was going on. It turned out his schoolmates made him pay so-called tributes and then participate in fights for the ‘honor’ of their school. When he refused, they began mistreating and humiliating him and threatened to beat him.

“Now my main concern is not my son’s schooling, but his safety,” Antonova said. “I applied to another city school, but its director refused to admit my son, saying that if he has problems with schoolmates at his school, he will have similar problems at a new school, too.”

Some say the epidemic of school violence has its roots in the events of two years ago. Under the long rule of the country’s first post-independence president Askar Akaev, many Kyrgyz grew frustrated at the rise of poverty and corruption. For years Kyrgyzstan has ranked among the most corrupt states in Transparency International’s annual corruption survey. According to the UN’s Common Country Assessment on development indicators for Kyrgyzstan in 2003, 46 percent of the Kyrgyzstan population lives in poverty.

Yet, corruption, entrenched poverty, and bad governance afflict all the Central Asian states to various degrees, and on many indicators some of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors do as badly or worse. If Kyrgyzstan really is becoming a more violent place, many blame a general decline of order since March 2005, when street protests ballooned into a mass uprising against the political system, sending Akaev into Russian exile and many of his political and economic supporters into opposition. Since then the new political class has struggled to balance competing ethnic and economic claims and has failed to keep its promises to stifle corruption and organized crime.

Teen gang activity “was connected with the change of power [in 2005] and continuous demonstrations all over the country,” an official with the Osh Interior Department commented. “[T]he police forces couldn’t completely restore order, and teenagers sensed impunity in the air,” department spokesman Zamir Sydykov said.

But there are plenty of other theories.

Sergey Makarevich, a juvenile issues expert from the Osh Education Department, said migration patterns have also spurred juvenile delinquency.

“Migrants come to towns and cities from rural areas in search of new jobs, or they leave Kyrgyzstan for Kazakhstan, Russia, and other countries,” Makarevich said. Children are often left behind, “out of their parents’ control. Adolescents easily fall prey to negative influences,” he said.

Some 70 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s poor live in rural areas, the UN’s 2003 development report stated.

Pupils at more than half of Osh’s secondary schools are involved in juvenile crime, Makarevich said. “But educators don’t teach them to steal, to rob, to run rackets and commit other offenses. It’s our society that teaches them that.”

Taxing the Vulnerable

Sydykov said police actively combat school violence and teenage gangs. “Last year we liquidated the Patriots gang, which controlled a few city districts,” he said.

That’s news to one school principal, who said the gang continues to shake down students. “I met and talked to them. They told me they collect more money than ever the mayor could dream of,” said the principal, who wished to remain anonymous. “They said, ‘If we impose our “taxes” on 40,000 schoolchildren and take even one som from many of them, we can make 40,000 soms a day’ ” – about $1,000.

This gang member’s talk of the Patriots’ hegemony may be sheer boasting, but his estimate of the “tax” they extract is probably far too low. Typically, according to young people interviewed for this article, gang members accost fellow students two or three times a month, collecting from 50 to 300 soms, or $1.30 to $7.80, each time.

Osh, the country’s second largest city, is home to 400,000 people. More than 58,000 students attend its 57 secondary schools. Students in many schools have adopted the argot, and the methods, of adult gangs.

“The leader of a class is the ‘locomotive,’ who maintains his power with his fists and collects money from the ‘carriages,’ in other words, other pupils,” said one seventh-grade boy.

Senior students in many schools form a “circle” that brings together strong boys and represents a kind of caste. In a well-established hierarchy, they impose strict discipline and collect “tributes.”

Having established a structure similar to those in prisons, schools fight one another to expand their spheres of influence, students claim. Gangs from stronger school impose their will over weaker opponents, demanding “tributes” or “taxes.” If a weak school refuses to pay, the strong school attacks it.

School administrations can hardly cope, and, according to the principal of the school harassed by the Patriots gang, youngsters have learned that the police can be bought off. When police do detain a suspected young extortionist, it is a matter of honor for gang members to buy their “brother’s” freedom.

There are plenty of role models for high-school students who would rather steal than work. The new government took office two years ago promising to end the close ties between politics and business that were rumored to have made Akaev and his family rich. The official drive to sell off companies with links to the old regime and bring more transparency to business dealings was largely unsuccessful and had the unintended consequence of unleashing quasi-legal property expropriations and even violent property seizures that have gone unpunished.

High-schoolers who plan to continue their education know that university students commonly give their teachers “gifts” of money to ensure better grades and exam scores.

With nowhere else to turn, some students and parents have simply opted out of the school system.

One mother said her 15-year-old son asked in December to attend a correspondence school. “At first I thought he was just lazy or didn’t want to study. But then I started asking questions, and I was told that he was not the first or the only one who left school to escape mass fights,” said the woman, Mrs. Israilova. She did not want her full name to be used.

Israilova took a contemporary Kyrgyz approach to the problem. “Our son’s security is our first priority, so what we are going to do is ‘buy’ him a school certificate, as secondary schools practice such a ‘business.’”


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