Aitys(h) as a Form of Civic Activism in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan

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In the wake of the Bloody January 2022 events in Kazakhstan and the rise of Sadyr Japarov in Kyrgyzstan, the governments of both countries have introduced measures to restrict media, civil society and the right to protest. In light of this shrinking space for activism, both countries are grappling with the problem of insufficient civic engagement.

This policy brief examines aitys(h) from a new perspective as a form of civic activism. At its core, activism is about “highlighting injustices and advocating for a better future” (Brooks, 2023). The capacity of aitys(h) to facilitate dialogue between the governments and citizenry requires attention and thorough research. The artistic forms of activism are deeply rooted in the local traditions, values, and culture and thus may be particularly effective in the context of decolonization and raising national identities. Historically, aqyns spoke on behalf of people and publicly criticized leaders for their wrongdoings and injustices (Levin et al. 2016, p. 199). By providing spaces for citizens to express their concerns and for governments to listen and respond, it becomes possible to address conflicts and disputes peacefully and constructively.

Field research consisted of two phases. First, we screened and monitored social media to identify and find out more about local aitys(h) initiatives, aitys(h) events to assess the spread of aitys(h) across the country and to find aitys(h) enthusiasts, reach out to famous artists, aqyns, and organizers of aitys(h) and, finally, send them an invitation to give an interview. In the second phase, we focused on in-depth interviews and their transcription. Fieldwork took place between July and November 2023. A participant observation method of data collection was employed to analyze audience and aitys(h) narrative at an aitys(h) dedicated to the national language day in Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek as well as an aitys(h) dedicated to the memory of Maira Kerim kyzy, a Kazakh aitys(h)ker that performed and contributed to aitys(h) in Kyrgyzstan (November 5, 2023).

Our main object of research were aqyn-aitys(h)kers, the performers themselves. Four aqyn-aitys(h)kers and one frequent attendee at aitys(h) performances were interviewed in Kazakhstan. The aqyns came from different regions of Kazakhstan, including Aktobe, Pavlodar, Almaty and Mangistay. In Kyrgyzstan, two aqyn-aitys(h)kers, two aitys(h) attendees, one aitys(h) organizer, and one expert were interviewed. Both interviewed aqyns are based in Bishkek and perform aitys(h) all over the country.

This policy brief is structured around three main themes. The first part focuses on the historical background and modern context in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The second part includes the interplay between aitys(h) and politics, and the social and geographic outreach of aitys(h). The third part is dedicated to exploring the role of aitys(h) in raising awareness and inspiring action. Recommendations to the governing bodies as well as aitys(h) supporters in both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan conclude the paper.


Akylai Otkulbek kyzy – independent researcher studying civic and environmental activism in Kyrgyzstan

Assem Kalkamanova – Assistant Professor, International School of Economics, Maksut Narikbayev University (KAZGUU)

This paper was published as part of the Oxus Fellowship program 2022-2024.