Power to the people

September 18 2009

I’ve almost finished the feature for The Guardian, and although I hope to write more on Kyrgyzstan soon, it feels sad that this particular adventure is coming to an end. So here’s a final post about an incredible art project to round things up for the time being.

A giant bonnet emblem for the whole city of Bishkek.

Like a giant bonnet emblem for the whole city of Bishkek.

It’s easy to forget, living in post-Blair Britain, that in some ‘less developed’ countries people can still force their governments to listen.

In the UK, a million people can take to the streets to protest against an illegal war and be written off as a mere trifle. London be brought to a halt by crowds complaining about bank bailouts, but the public money is still pissed away on bankers’ bonuses. A postal strike can damn near bankrupt the likes of me, who still mails cheques to his bank, but the case for keeping local branches goes unheard. Despite decades of state investment in high quality comprehensive education, the idea that the general public might have a better idea of what they want to do with their money than the government is still an anathema to the political classes.

They wonder why a generation has given up interest in Westminster. Our politicians could learn a lot from ‘backward democracies’ like Kyrgyzstan, where the public can not only force politicians to listen, but an art project can change the world.

A single standpipe is currently working in the 1,000 home settlement of Kyrman

A single standpipe is currently working in the 200 home settlement of Kyrman

Just to put things in perspective, it’s no worker’s paradise, the Kyrgyz Republic. Lenin may point with revolutionary fervour at the parliament building, but forty odd percent of people live on less than the dollar a day standard for absolute poverty and corruption is endemic. If you’re ill and can’t afford to bribe your way into hospital, there’s a good chance you’ll die before a doctor can see you. In one settlement we visited last week, at least four women had recently passed away giving birth in their homes.

Critical to understanding Kyrgyzstan is awareness of the two tier legal structure. The constitution is one of the most liberal – if not the most liberal – in the former Soviet Union. Great swathes of it were imported wholesale from places like Switzerland and Sweden. Freedom of movement and expression are guaranteed, healthcare and education are promised to be universal and free.

The reality, though, is that state institutions have held on to communist rule books for day to day life, and are resistant to change because doing so is lucrative for them. If you move from countryside to city, you’d better be rich enough to bribe someone to stamp your papers to confirm your new address, because without this ‘propiska‘ in your passport, you’ll have no access to medicine, education or utilities in your new home. The endemic corruption spread from this point out: ambulances won’t even drive to your front door unless you can guarantee an up front bribe, and if you can’t pay the police to look the other way when they stop and search you for your passport, it’s fifteen days in the cells for you. And here, they don’t bother with a mattress when they beat you, they just keep going until you’re ready to phone a friend who might be able to pay them off.

And the politicians are happy to turn a blind eye. Until a recent survey by the American University of Central Asia actually put a figure on the number of unregistered internal migrants living in poverty in Bishkek (about 25% of the city population), the problem of the squats and shanty towns around the edges of town and the major markets was invisible to parliament. Why bother to stop police from beating up migrants as they queue outside the labour exchange? It’s not like they’ll be voting any time soon, they don’t have propiska.

Five families live in this one house in Nijnyaya Ala-Archa

Five families live in this one house in Nijnyaya Ala-Archa

Problems are easily buried underneath other problems here, like Satan’s own Matroishka playset. When I asked an MP whether or not any action was being taken against the front agencies who advertise lucrative bar work in Russia and Europe for young girls, but actually force them into the sex trade, he told me the issue had never been discussed. “We have too many other problems to solve first” he said.

And yet, and yet… People can make things change. A week ago, almost as an afterthought to our tour of Kyrgyzstan, our Red Crescent hosts asked us if we’d like to see their art project, and meet Orla and Tarot from the Irish organisation Active Art that was helping to organise it.

It was astounding. Two groups of women – some of whom we’d met earlier in the week – that had separately been through training in sewing and computer skills have joined together to create an art installation that will be open to the public in November. The project is called ‘Marshrutka‘, or minibus. The centrepiece will be a minibus, of the kind that passes for public transport here, covered in traditional felt hangings to be made to look like a travelling yurt. Once inside, visitors will be able to see felt pictures depicting the migrants’ journey into Bishkek from the country side in just such a vehicle, pictures which depict officials asking for bribes, families crushed into single rooms, and the violence meted out against them by the system.

The women have created video and audio stories that tell their own personal tales, too harrowing to ignore. Of giving birth in the middle of only room you have, surrounded by your seven children. Of being turned away from shops and kiosks, and stopped and searched by police. Of starvation and fetching water from a shared standpipe. Of… well, you get the idea.

Can you see what it is yet?

Can you see what it is yet? I didn't say the artworks were subtle

The installation will be open for a few days, and then the fun begins. The marshrutka will take to the streets of Bishkek, and pull up on corners for anyone to get in and see the truth about their city’s invisible, yet economically essential, inhabitants. That last point is important: because whatever the local residents think about the migrants – and it’s the usual ‘smelly peasants taking our jobs’ kind of thing – without them the city would cease to function.

Bishkek isn’t huge – around a million inhabitants – and the downtown area has lots of big open spaces that a brightly covered marshrutka will be very visible in. It’s like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters gave up on hippy tripping their way across country and decided to ram raid the White House to highlight the issue of healthcare. I can’t wait.

During the week of the marshrutka’s tour of the city there’s a round table convening to discuss the situation and rights of migrants, organised by local activists, the university, mayor’s office and the Red Crescent. Hopefully, it’ll result in a change of the law regarding propiskas and promises to address the impossible corruption which faces newcomers to the city. The marshrutka is just a small part of this process, a simple gesture, but it’s going to be a hard one to ignore.

Self-portraits of the women involved in the marshrutka project.

Self-portraits of the women involved in the marshrutka project.

1 Comment
September 21 2009 @ 16:19

Fuck. That’s mental. Thanks be to art, though.

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