Most people expect the main space of contestation in Kyrgyzstan to be found on the streets or with the use of violence on provincial roads. My ethnographic observations, however, indicate the presence of other emerging forms of social contestation.
On 8 April 2010, following the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, a smaller change of power took place in one of the major state owned factories, Kyrgyzneftegas, located in Kochkor-Ata monogorod (a town where the majority of the population work at a single industrial enterprise), in Jalal-Abad province. This was initiated when a group of active workers, with a partial affiliation to the local branch of Ata-Meken party (the oldest opposition party which participated in the two revolutions), accused the director, Iskhak Pirmatov, of corruption and money laundering. According to them, Iskhah Pirmatov used “corruption schemes” to extract rents from the local production of oil. The ousting of Pirmatov provoked confrontations between him and opposition workers. However, the conflict escalated when the now rebranded Pirmatov joined the newly created Respublica party and when the party took control of the Ministry of State Property, which is responsible for the supervision of state holdings. From this moment on the conflict shifted from the local playground to the higher echelons of power.
When I first began studying this conflict in 2010 I was struck by the media coverage of these events. Articles in newspapers and discussions in public forums suggested that Kyrgyzneftegas was a story about a fierce competition over resources between Ata-Meken and Respublica. Portrayed as such, the factory’s workforce was simply reduced to puppets either in the hands of Pirmatov or Ata-Meken. However, when I visited the factory during my fieldwork, I was exposed to the intricate dealings inside the factory walls; the ongoing complex negotiations between the local trade union and the state.
I would like to illustrate one such instance that sheds light on an alternative form of contestation. In the spring of 2013 I attended the annual general meeting organised for the 223 Kyrgyzneftegas shareholders and their trustees (the state is the main shareholder and owns 85 percent of shares, the remaining 10 percent belong to the Social Fund and 5 percent are divided within factory workers). Representatives from Bishkek and regional government, as well as members of the board of directors and management, attended the meeting. It is worth noting that as a result of the workers’ protests, important meetings such as the AGM were moved from Bishkek to Kochkor-Ata. Through this move the workers gained a greater position of influence upon important decisions within the company.
The meeting was highly anticipated by the workers because of the highly controversial question of the new composition of the board of directors. The current chair of the board of directors, the well-respected Aman Omurzakov, was unexpectedly removed. The Ministry brought two candidates to the meeting, one of whom was a local activist of SDPK party (Social-democrat party created by the current president Almazbek Atambaev and which participated in two revolutions). This man had allegedly helped the party during the second revolution (2010) and the subsequent elections, but was rather inexperienced in management. Workers were concerned with these shifts and demanded clarifications from the Ministry. This was all in vain:
- Worker 1:
- Last year, thanks to the board of directors, we acquired a new factory and a drill. Our salaries were raised and our dividends were secured. These achievements were made possible by this board. We are concerned with the fact that Omurzakov is being removed. Explain the reasons to us! Why? This board must remain because they have proven their commitment to honesty and zero corruption! Leave them alone or stop the meeting! (Applause and cheers).
- Nurbek Kalmatov, the State-secretary of the Ministry of state property [spokesperson of the Ministry]:
- Dear shareholders, I am familiar with your problems as I was myself born and raised in Kochkor-Ata. The state doesn’t want the privatization to happen. But the Ministry is not entitled to make such decisions – the question of privatization is to be decided by the 120 members of Parliament. The Social Fund is another shareholder; and, together with you, we are all in the same position.
- Worker 2:
- Oh, give us a break with your origins!!! You are saying the ‘same position’, but you have the largest stake of shares and hence impose your decisions!
- On your insistence, we have reserved three directors of your choice!
- Worker 3:
- But we demand four! Respect the people! (Applause and cheers).
- Aman Omurzakov [current chair of the board of directors]:
- You know yourselves that today everything functions along the party principle. But my support doesn’t come from Respublica or SDPK. The work force backs me. I have no idea why they are getting rid of me. I have been working here for three years and you all know my work. We are one of the best companies – we made a great contribution to the national economy without any investors, all by our means! (Applause and cheers).
- Worker 4:
- We are repeatedly instigating revolutions but nothing changes! The people are satisfied with the government and with the board of directors. However, if these games don’t stop, the people will take to the streets again! Let’s close down the meeting! (Applause and cheers, movements in the auditorium).
By this point in time, the discontent of the workers was building. After dubious movements on the stage involving secret talks and phone calls, the state secretary invited everybody to take a short break. During this break, people left the building and conducted negotiations. Rumors circulated that the Prime Minister, Jantoro Satybaldiev, had been called. When the meeting was reconvened the workers exhibited a dramatic change in attitude.
- Worker 1:
- Dear stakeholders, well…, you see, today’s power is not as weak as it used to be. The power is even able to imprison deputies (A reference to the recent case of the trial of members of Parliament Kamchybek Tashiev and Sadyr Japarov) and can also punish us if we continue doing things at will. We can lose everything and roll back to where we were standing three years ago. We better accommodate Satybaldiev’s person in order to save our remaining directors. So, let’s carry on the meeting and come back to Omurzakov’s question later.
- A female worker
- You are hypocrites! A minute ago you were calling everyone to sabotage the meeting if Omurzakov’s question was not resolved immediately. Now, you say just the opposite. You are proving your southern mentality in its best tradition!
- Worker 2:
- No, he’s right. We ought to listen to the state and carry on the meeting.
The overall atmosphere was tense. Nevertheless, people looked as if they were accustomed to such intense discussions with each other and with state representatives. Ultimately, the chair Aman Omurzakov was removed and the workers had to approve the new SDPK affiliated chair. This short episode indicates that contestation in Kyrgyzstan doesn’t only occur on the streets but also in institutionalized spaces such as the factory. The Kyrgyzneftegas factory has been transformed into a bargaining arena in which party, state and workers’ interests clash. Far from reaching their final goals, we see that workers are highly reflective of changes in the political system and are flexible in order to accommodate the “power” but also to save their own interests.