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OBON: Rent-A-Mob Groups in the Volatile Kyrgyzstani Reality

The term Moherowe Berety (Mohair Berets – a tongue-in-cheek expression for people who support the views of the Polish conservative Catholic movement – editor’s note) immediately rings a bell to anyone familiar with Polish public life, and often causes a grim smile on the faces of those who experienced the people it describes. Well, what would you say if I told you that there is a place where you can rent a squad of them? If you don’t believe me, let me take you on a journey to Kyrgyzstan and introduce you to OBON.

December 6, 2012 - Marcin Szymanek - Articles and Commentary

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This year steadily approaches its end. For Kyrgyzstan it was again an intensive and turbulent time with several events which deserved to be highlighted. Firstly, it is two years since the 2010 ethnic clashes, and on the second anniversary besides the official commemoration the Kyrgyz government seemed to do little to help their citizens who have been affected and victimised during the conflict, fueling the same swelling grievances and resentment. Furthermore, this summer Bishkek witnessed the breakup of its ruling coalition, which pushed the leading party and so far incumbent prime minister into opposition, later prompting unrests linked to certain politicians claiming the need to nationalise the biggest gold mine in the region, yet again creating grounds for further conflicts.

One could argue these are marginal events which have very little in common with each other, but what emerges is a picture of a fragile country frequently shaken by various upheavals. In spite of the fact of whether we agree or disagree on presentations given by certain media, this is enough to understand that politics in Kyrgyzstan should be conducted in an extremely cautious and diligent way. Moreover, to acknowledge the entire spectrum of danger to the fragile peace and stability reinstated so recently in Kyrgyzstan, one relevant phenomenon persistently overlooked by many commentators has to be recognised.

This phenomenon is called OBON: an umbrella name for the informal groups organised into rent-a-mob structures, who offer services such as staging protests, breaking them up or heckling and harassing opponents of their clients. The last two revolutions in Kyrgyzstan which overthrew regimes in 2005 and 2010, as well as manifestations and other public gatherings which entailed the clashes in the city of Osh, were battlegrounds in which OBON “activists” actively took part.

Who are OBON?

One of the most surprising facts about OBON is that the people making up these groups are not necessarily the most obvious ones. In most cases, the first impression is that they have to comprise of young, politically motivated people or muscular shady characters. Such assumptions could not be more wrong. The truth is that these groups emerged from the most excluded and vulnerable social strata, namely older women who either start up riots or rent their services to crackdown on various public events.

The acronym OBON itself stands for Otryady Bab Osobogo Naznachenya which literally translates into “Women Units for Special Purposes”. This refers to another abbreviation – OMON. The latter, in turn, is an abbreviated name for special reinforced police forces designated to disperse urban disorders. OMON is infamous for its harsh approach to protesters and severe operational methods. The similarity between the two groups is most likely the reason why the name OBON has emerged in the last couple of years.

The core group consists of several women instigators at local level who are responsible for the recruitment and selection of other women to participate in demonstrations or rallies. The most common incentive is money or other favours or rewards. However, since these groups have an obviously informal character there is little reliable information about the money they receive. The alleged daily wage varies from 40 to 440 dollars per person, depending on the goal of the “action” and accompanying circumstances.

Shouting, heckling and other loud behaviour are the standard activities at all OBON rallies. Nevertheless, despite Central Asia’s propensity to protests and upheavals, compared to Europe or the United States, Central Asia does not find itself in a constant state of riot or revolution. During times of peace, therefore, the OBON women found an additional “part-time” employment, expanding their services to threats and beatings, and offering their services to anyone who is eager to pay.

The implications of OBON

There are several ideas where OBON comes from. According to Kyrgyz and Uzbek human rights activists, the creation of OBON groups originated from Uzbekistan and were developed by the local National Security Service (Sluzhba Natsionalnoy Bezopasnosti – SNB). However, the Uzbek variation of OBON is more sophisticated and harsher. Instead of direct action, the SNB decided to force certain women to stand up against people opposing the regime or local representatives, in order to intimidate them without being accused of involvement.

The use of OBON’s services has yet another advantage for the SNB. Police orders usually prioritise the harassment of men and if the victims defend themselves, they can be arrested by the police and charged with assaulting a woman. In the Uzbek case, the women selected to become OBON members (euphemistically called by SNB officers “women battalions”) usually come from groups such as minor bazaar traders, former sex workers and people with a criminal record. These groups are frequently exposed to the police and are highly dependent on decisions taken by law enforcement agencies who take advantage of their superior position and coerce these women into “working” for them.

With time, this method has been altered to accommodate local conditions by politicians, businessmen and other parties across Central Asia capable of gratifying the women’s efforts and “supporting” their cause. As opposed to Uzbekistan, the women selected to become members of OBON groups in Kyrgyzstan are not forced to do so by the law enforcement agencies, but are rather unemployed and the main driving force for them is the opportunity to earn extra money and possibly realise some of their ambitions.

The press in Central Asia is full of examples of the work of OBON. For instance, in 2010, during the trial of the human rights activist Abduman Khalipov, over 50 women broke into the courthouse, pulled the defendant outside the building and beat him up so severely that he lost consciousness. A fact worth noting is that the entire scene took place in front of the police who didn’t intervene. Until now it is unclear who ordered OBON to attack Khalipov, but judging by their discipline, by the fact that only one person was harmed and by the police’s passivity, the action was clearly mercenary and must have been masterminded by someone in advance.

Central Asian women do not enjoy as much freedom as their European or American counterparts. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, all of the “Stans” suddenly found themselves independent and in an ideological vacuum where they had to restructure their national identity. They have therefore leaped back into their historical and cultural references to revive traditions and customs in almost every aspect of their lives. Although, from a practical viewpoint, this approach to seek and retain existing nations as coherent entities was correct, for many women who enjoyed a fairly equal position to men in a secular and comparatively modern Soviet society, this new historically oriented culture has brought about a dramatic drop in their status.

Most women have been downgraded to the role of mere housewives whose main responsibility is to give birth, look after the household and obey their husband. This image might be slightly diminished in bigger cities such as Bishkek, however everywhere else it is a fact. Despite the legal provisions officially enforcing gender balance in parliament, only approximately 30 per cent of the Kyrgyz parliamentarians are women, and in practice most women are still underrepresented in many state institutions as well as in public life in general.

Moreover, last year’s rejection of the bill meant to discourage infamous bride kidnapping was a huge setback for the gender equality process. Therefore, in this political and social setup the OBON groups seem to contradict current restraints imposed by the misogynistic society, and for some their emergence appears to be the first evidence of women suffrage in Central Asia. However, one has to keep in mind that the majority of women who join OBON, do so because of the helplessness of their situation aggravated by economical hardships.

Legislation is not going to change

In this setup there is very little room for cold calculation and digression of whether the cause and means are just or not. As long as society understands and puts up with it, legislation is not going to change, women will be marginalised, eventually embracing more desperate and radical measures to temporarily improve their situation adding unnecessary fuel to the already restrained social relations. Therefore, if we combine all the outlined factors: the inferior position of women, economical hardship faced by all Kyrgyz and political instability, we will be able to understand why frustration and radicalism has found fertile ground in Kyrgyzstan, and why the causes behind OBON should be tackled with the highest degree of carefulness for the sake of the country’s future.

Thank you to Daniel Kislov from Ferghana News for allowing us to use the photograph.

Marcin Szymanek is a graduate of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, and the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic. He has also participated in several election monitoring missions in Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. His research areas of interest include: foreign policies and security in Central Asian states, nation-building and nationalism issues, as well as democratisation processes. Marcin is currently interning with the PIR Center in Moscow.

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