PANNIER: Kyrgyz cabinet chief’s strictures on public behaviour have echoes of Iran and Afghanistan

PANNIER: Kyrgyz cabinet chief’s strictures on public behaviour have echoes of Iran and Afghanistan
Japarov appears to have a particular bee in his bonnet about "daughters-in-law who do not respect their mother-in-law and father-in-law". / public domain
By Bruce Pannier March 13, 2024

The head of Kyrgyzstan’s government says he is concerned about the behaviour of some of the country’s citizens. The question is, how far will the authorities go in addressing his concerns?

Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers Akylbek Japarov met with Bishkek city officials on February 14. He had some complaints about the way the city looked.

“Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan…. People should feel like they are in the capital,” said Japarov.”

“Don’t spit, keep your shoes clean, don’t get on the trolleybus with dirty clothes, don’t scare people,” he instructed, and, recalling when he was younger, added: “Before boarding the trolleybus, we always cleaned our shoes, and if suddenly our clothes turned out to be dirty, we walked.”

“I have said many times that they should not allow the sale of sunflower seeds and samsa [traditional Central Asian pastries stuffed with meat or vegetables] in the centre,” Japarov also complained.

At a meeting with officials from the Ministry of Culture on February 26, Japarov moved on to other topics.

He lashed out at lavish family celebrations, a common theme addressed by Central Asian leaders for many years.

Wedding receptions in particular are often elaborate events in the region, with some lasting several days. Such practices are rooted in Central Asian culture. Besides a wedding occasion being one of the biggest days in the lives of the two people getting married, there is often some underlying competition with other families. Boasting rights for hosting the best wedding reception push up expenditure. Often parents save money for years in preparation.

Japarov told the Culture Ministry officials: “Nowadays people enter the celebration hall on horseback. If there was an elephant, they would bring an elephant into the restaurant.”

He seemed particularly irritated with “daughters-in-law who do not respect their mother-in-law and father-in-law [and who] go on social networks and, instead of fulfilling their duties in their husband’s house and becoming a respected wife, get divorced”.

The word for daughter-in-law in Kyrgyz is “kelin”. It is often an unenviable  status. Nearly all Kyrgyz, and many other Central Asian, girls are taught from childhood how to attend to their future husband and his parents. Tales of the abuse of kelins are numerous.

Japarov said in social network posts that “some kelins praise their own father, but at the same time denigrate their father-in-law and mother-in-law” and “when they get divorced, they post their opinions on social networks”.

Divorced women criticising ex-husbands and in-laws on social networks “should not serve as a model” to women in Kyrgyzstan, Japarov remarked.

Japarov neglected to mention that of 13,104 cases of domestic abuse registered in Kyrgyzstan in 2023, 95% of the victims were women.”

“We must restrict the dissemination of information that contradicts our traditions and customs,” Japarov said and tasked Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers Edil Baisalov with resolving the issue.

Japarov’s  choice of a meeting with Culture Ministry officials to make these statements was likely not accidental.

The Culture Ministry has expanded its role since Altynbek Maksutov was named head of the ministry on October 7, 2022.

The ministry was responsible for ordering the website of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL’s) Kyrgyz service, Azattyk, to suspend operations at the end of October 2022. It kept the order in place until July 2023.

The Culture Ministry also ordered the blocking of the website of independent news outlet Kloop in September 2023. It was the first step in eventually shutting down the outlet in February.

Member of parliament and former foreign minister Chyngyz Aidarbekov commented in February last year that the Culture Ministry had “turned into a tool of persecution and censorship.”

Aidarbekov was speaking about the law on fake information introduced by the Culture Ministry that went into effect in August 2021.

The ministry plans to establish a monitoring centre for social networks to watch for illegal activities.

Comments deemed to contradict what Japarov called “our traditions and customs” now appear likely be added to the monitoring list.

Kyrgyz traditions and customs have played a major part in the policies of Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov [no relation to Akylbek]. Images or activities deemed as in conflict with these traditions and customs are harshly and publicly criticised by top officials.

Akylbek Japarov is the head of the government, so his comments on behaviour should be taken as state policy.

His recommendations on public behaviour are not as severe as those in Iran or Afghanistan; however, they have echoes of Iran’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice and the Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue in Afghanistan.