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The Avengers vs the Orcs: Social media nuances in Kyrgyzstan's (almost) third revolution

Kyrgyzstan is currently in political turmoil. How the country got there you can read here, also here, and here, and elsewhere. A lot has been well written on this topic already, while the events are unfolding still.

Photo by Medet Tiulegenov. Protests in Bishkek, Ala-Too square 05.10.2020

A very general overview

I will provide a very surface-level context because my task here is to focus on the role of social media and not on the details of the turmoil. In sum, there is deeply-ingrained corruption, ubiquitous power-abuse and shameless (not sure it's the best term) resource extraction in the country.

There is also a history of protests and coup d'états with two presidents overthrown already in 2005 and 2010.

Within Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has been informally proclaimed "the island of democracy" as unlike in the neighbouring "stans" active citizenry with a strong voice is (still) present.

After a series of journalistic investigations into the criminal schemes of extracting and laundering money by the country's politicians and power brokers, complete disenchantment in state leadership led to the demands of changes and justice.

Parliamentary elections that took place on 4 October 2020 confirmed the fears that the status quo would prevail.

On 5 October protests against the election results erupted and on the night of the 6th led to the storming of the country's "White House" - state-building shared by parliament and president.

It is premature to say that this was either a revolution or a coup d'état because acting president Jeenbekov is still in power, though is due to resign in the coming days. Besides, a revolution implies a change in the system, which is not likely to happen this time around.

Protestors storming the "White House" in Bishkek. Foto by Bekjan Asylbekov,

Twitter: Lost in translation

Kyrgyz Twitter is its own universe that can be characterised as a public sphere of well-educated Russophones. Most political tweets are in Russian, for which the authors get criticised by people demanding that the Kyrgyz language is put in priority for communication.

Journalists, academics, diplomats, restauranteurs, students, activists, doctors and many others are hanging out here 24/7.

Kyrgyz Twitter segment is famous in other Central Asian countries for its active political debate culture. Several authors enjoy a large following and provide a clever, sharp, sarcastic, entertaining and most up-to-date account of the country's life.

New "heroes of the day" emerge in no time on Kyrgyz Twitter and even faster they get demolished via public shaming and exposure.

An interesting terminological phenomenon used in the Kyrgyz Twitter segment is "Balkonskie" - a term resembling Bolkonskie family in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace but spelt with an "a". In this case, referring to a "balkon" - a Russian for balcony - basically, people living in the inner-city apartment blocks.

It is perceived that Balkonskie have been looking at the state's domestic events from the comfort of their balconies, not willing to take any risks.

The word is used as a self-irony by city dwellers in the capital of Bishkek and as a derogatory term in sociological othering in the context of confrontations between the "privileged" capital and the "depressed" periphery.

Amid the current turmoil, the divide between Russophone Balkonskie and the rest of the country has been made ever so apparent. On Twitter, Balkonskie are starting an initiative to tweet more in Kyrgyz, to burst own filter bubble and create discourses in the language accessible beyond the apartment blocks of Bishkek.

Not sure how the rest of the country will handle the sharp sarcasm of Bishkek Twitter, but a dialogue inside this fragmented society is in order.

Cultural acupuncture

References to popular culture and science fiction have been prevalent across social media platforms in the posts addressing current events.

Some compare the power-grabbing operations in the country to The Game of Thrones, presenting a prototype of each character among the Kyrgyz political elite.

Others make references to the villains and the heroes, comparing the druzhina to The Avengers and looters to the Orcs.

The creativity and the imagination of Kyrgyzstan's social media users are envy some.

Druzhina on Telegram

A booming platform in Central Asia that has been put under pressure in Russia and Iran while it enjoys unprecedented popularity in neighbouring Uzbekistan.

Amid the turmoil, Telegram has become a central stage for the coordination of the so-called "druzhina" - citizen-organised guard squads. A type of a vigilante force, druzhina formed to fill the void of law enforcement in the city of Bishkek.

Previous unrests resulted in mass looting, business and infrastructure destruction. To prevent such cases from happening this time around, citizens gathered in key locations, such as city hall, markets, telecommunication offices, etc., and protected these sites from their own countrymates.

The main Telegram channel of the druzhina gets overloaded with messages as nights come down on Bishkek. People navigate each other to key locations, offer co-shared rides, sign up into the ranks of the guards, offer financial support, tea, food, clothes...

Some messages penetrating the feed are fake, inadequate and designed to disinform. Admins take on the task of weeding out bad information and provocateurs.

Bishkek withstood the pressure of looting and lawlessness so far. The druzhina members are Bishkek's heroes.

Political mainstream on Facebook

Facebook received the mere bits and pieces of the rich discussion and exchange observed on Twitter.

Kyrgyz Twitter's most popular persons are either not active on Facebook or keep it as a space for other types of interactions, while sharing a fragment of their daily Twitter posts, to keep their English-speaking friends across the globe in the loop of what's going on, for instance.

President Jeenbekov and his supporters (politicians) used Facebook as the means of communicating with the constituency.

Cultural mainstream on Instagram

Instagram's role and place can be summarised as a stage for the country's pop stars, informal leaders and influencers, many of whom took the opportunity to stream politicised messages.

Some of the "stars" came forward supporting the status quo and president Jeenbekov. Screenshots of such posts were widely shared on Twitter with disapproving tweets and captions.

Kyrgyz pop stars have been accused of being sponsored by the mafia and supporting criminal elements.

A prime exception is singer Mirbek Atabekov who joined the protestors and demanded changes in the country.

Troll armies online amid lawlessness on the streets

The trolls are present across social media platforms and rush to post thousands of comments beneath political statements critical of the formal and informal ruling elites.

Trolls have Twitter accounts with 1 or 2 followers and engage in personal attacks on the authors.

Trolls comment on Facebook, Instagram and penetrate Telegram channels.

Whoever is sponsoring the troll army is well-aware of the power of information and discourses amid power-grabbing operations.

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