TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Section VS 1 The multitude of Theatre of the Oppressed techniques: From Theory to Practice
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair:
Birgit Fritz (University of Vienna), Matthias Thonhauser (Art in Progress/Austria)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

English | Русский

Changing Society through Art in Post-Soviet Areas?
Historical, social, and Cultural Context of the Theatre of the Oppressed Project in Central Asia

Features of social, cultural, and political development in Kyrgyzstan – a personal view

Peter Felch (ARTilek, Vienna, Austria) [BIO]



Like other former Soviet republics of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is a country in transition. At the same time, its society is very much in search for an identity of its own, after having been merged into the effort to create a Soviet identity for seven decades. It finds itself exposed to newly created borders and a precarious, even unwanted statehood, to a globalized environment as well as to the geopolitical interests and aspirations of three great powers and powerful neighbours competing for regional hegemony.

It is a country and society in transition and in the “in between” state, in many senses, geographically, culturally, economically, and politically, with the challenge to turn this “in-between-ness” into an asset in a dynamic and creative process of development.

This condition of transition and “in-between-ness”, in terms of time and space, physicality, and virtuality, is a permanent state rather than a one-way development with a clearly visible or defined point of destination.


The geographical “in-between”

Central Asia has always been a region in between and on the way from East Asia and Southern Siberia to the plains of southern Russia and the North Caucasus and further on to the borders of Europe and the Near East. With its mountain passes, it constitutes the very central and most challenging part of the Silk Road. It is the area at the origin and on the way of most of the major historical migration movements in Eurasia, from the time of the Skyths and Saks of ancient times to the Huns, Mongols and Turks of the Middle Ages. In this region, many other people moved through or settled in as invaders and conquerors, nomads or traders, the names of whom are not familiar to even well educated Europeans and European history-connoisseurs.

In modern times, many Kyrgyz themselves have crossed the border to and from China several times, fleeing from attacks on their lifestyle and economic basis as nomadic herders. Large numbers of people of European, Crimean and Caucasian origin were transferred or deported to Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan. Some of them, like the German minority, have mostly left again. At present, a large part of the country's working-age male population works as seasonal or permanent labour migrants in neighbouring Kazakhstan or Russia, while many young women are trafficked to the Emirates and other countries.

Newly created borders, especially in the Ferghana Valley, create obstacles and hardship, but do not prevent cross-border movement and trade in an area, which used to be a borderless cultural and economic space.

Kyrgyzstan is now again the centerpiece of a new Silk road, the TRASECA project, a transport corridor between the booming China and the West, a region rich in mineral and energy resources, contested by customers in the East and in the West and attracting both Western and Chinese investors and exporters.


The cultural “in-between”

As a result of migration and conquest, Central Asia and the Ferghana Valley in particular have always been exposed to most diverse cultural influences, ideologies, and religious traditions from the East, the West and the South, which were transported along the Silk Road or imposed by invaders: Buddhism and Chinese art from the East and South, Christianity – first in its Nestorian and Armenian form and lately as Russian Orthodoxy – and European culture from the West, Islam and Persian culture from the South West.

The Russian and Soviet reign over the region finally introduced and installed its own version of European culture, resulting in the opening of theaters and opera houses, museums and universities and the creation of “national in its form, but socialist (i.e. European) in content” traditions of music, dance, theater, art and literature. As a somewhat strange consequence, Kyrgyz and Kazakh traditionalists defend the sovietized version of their tradition against “alien” trends of cultural globalization and modernity”, claiming it to be the genuine and original national culture in the present discussion about identity.

Furthermore, the domination of Russian language and culture in the educational system, civil service and industry as well as intermarriage and the promotion of a “Homo Sovieticus” identity has left a large part of the ethnic Kyrgyz urban population completely russified without active knowledge and command of their own language. Young urban professionals are more motivated and inclined to learn English in order to increase their chances to obtain jobs abroad or with international organizations, than learn and improve the knowledge of their own mother tongue.

On the other hand, non-Kyrgyz ethnic groups stick to Russian as their lingua franca, and resist the pressure to learn Kyrgyz, while Kyrgyz children in the rural areas are increasingly deprived of good language skills in Russian, as a result of the deteriorating quality of rural and suburban education due to insufficient state funding.

As a consequence, there is a growing gap between urban and rural culture and living opportunities with prevailing Russian and Western traits in the former and traditional and Kyrgyz traits in the latter.


The socio-economic “in-between”

Besides import of foreign cultural identities, it was also the change in lifestyle, from nomadic and semi-nomadic to settled and urban - forced upon Kyrgyzstan by sovietization and globalization - that created cultural and socio-economic “in-between-ness”. 

A nomadic society was forced to settle down and come to terms with the  influence of people and cultures from all over the Russian and former Soviet empire, not only as trading partners in traditional exchange of goods and representatives of hegemonic powers, but also as neighbours, colleagues and partners in mixed marriages.

As it was mentioned above, this change of lifestyle occurred several times in history, urban settlements were destroyed by invaders, inhabitants forced to assume a nomadic lifestyle, nomads forced and lured into settlements, e.g. by the necessities of education and the vacuum created by the re-emigration of German, Russian, Tatar and Caucasian settlers, and villagers again forced to become labor-nomads.

As a result, Kyrgyz and Kazakh mentality and identity is still very much influenced by nomadic traditions and psychology, used to mobility and short-term rather than long-term planning, use of resources and economic activity. Horses and cars appear to be more important than houses, apartments and domestic lifestyle. Nature is idealized and worshipped, but at the same time exploited with little understanding and concern for sustainability.

Besides the nomadic strain, the Kyrgyz society and economy is amidst a transformation process from a heavily subsidized Soviet economy to a largely unregulated “wild” capitalist market (or rather bazaar) economy. This economy is exploited by the ruling elites (see below) impoverishing the rest of the population. Subsistence agriculture and traditional breeding are in contrast to sprawling trade activities, other tertiary sector activities, a building boom and real estate speculation without a sound production and manufacturing basis, while socially deprivated groups like pensioners, scientists, teachers, cultural and former industrial workers dwell in nostalgic memories of the “good old Soviet times” and civil servants, police, and judges use their positions to make a living from the extortion of bribes.

Corruption and nepotism, which were not alien to the Soviet system, have become a dominant factor of social and economic life and are main obstacles for economic and political development. And as everywhere else, it is the corrupt elites, who permanently declare and pretend their willingness and commitment to fight and abolish corruption.

Labor migration, emigration and urbanization also have a strong but little investigated and discussed impact on social and economic structures, both of the rural and urban areas. These phenomena result in conflicts, the break-up of traditional generation and gender structures and eruptions of social unrest as observed in the aftermath of the “Tulip revolution”, when youth from the squatter settlements of Bishkek participated in the looting and squatters from the tshanty towns and rural areas occupied plots within privileged parts of the city.

Lack of tax revenues and misappropriation of the few state resources as a result of poverty and corruption leave large parts of formerly subsidized sectors and infrastructure such as education, culture, health and social welfare without or with minimal funding, often concentrated on politically motivated and propagandistic projects.


The political “in-between”

The traditional system of leadership and power in the tribes and clans of the nomadic population that coexisted with the urban Islamic power structures of the city states along the Silk Road was first replaced by the colonial rule of the Tsarist military and civil administration and – in a more drastic way - by the Soviet dictatorship of the Communist Party and its specific agenda of forcible modernization. Gaining the independence, Kyrgyzstan, like most of the other post-Soviet countries, has officially embraced Western-style democracy and market economy. 

The main actors are, however, still very deeply entrenched in the Soviet perception of economic activities as being deeply interdependent and linked with political power, leading to the instrumentalization of political power as a means to ensure and defend economic success and excluding competition.

Democratic institutions and mechanisms are tolerated and used to the extent they provide and secure economic benefits for those in power. Accordingly, they are easily suppressed or reduced to a pure facade, if they become an obstacle to the preservation of power and access to economic resources. Very few political actors have embraced the political culture, understanding, and content of democracy as a means for the control, distribution, division, and transition of power and the participation of the largest possible number of citizens.

Kyrgyzstan is still  in transition from the old Soviet centralized and paternalistic system to a more than formal democracy. The process is still very contradictory and far from being irreversible, with restrictive tendencies towards authoritarianism on the side of the rulers and both nostalgic moods and anti-authoritarian reflexes on the side of the population.

Civic society is growing, both in quantity and quality, but is to a large extent dependent on foreign financing, thus still remaining a source of income for civil society actors rather than a vibrant social force of participation and development. Only ten percent of the existing thousands of civil society institutions are active on a permanent basis and with a permanent staff of activists. Most of the rest have been or may become active only when a foreign grant is allocated.


The search for identity

Independence and statehood have forced the Kyrgyz society to deal and come to terms with the question of a national identity, which is even more essential in view of the close ethnic and linguistic relationship with its big and powerful Turkic neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The question is particularly precarious when it is raised during unsettled disputes over the partly artificial borders and discussions about the economic sustainability.

In this it shows a remarkable resemblance with the situation of many small countries and “German Austria” after the demise of the Habsburg empire in particular. Like pre-World War II Austria as a “state nobody wanted” (Hellmut Andics) Kyrgyzstan was forced to carry the “burden of imposed independence” (Mangott) and has  to go through a period of self-identification and search for its raison d'etre in a globalized world. 

Already during the Akaev era attempts had been made to replace the Soviet ideology by a new national ideology based on teachings and principles extracted from the Manas epic and the revision of national history, resulting in the creation of national postulates like the 2200 years of existence of a Kyrgyz statehood.

Nationalistic tendencies contrasted with declarations of commitment towards a multiethnic Kyrgyzstan as a “Common House” for all ethnicities living on its territory. Efforts to strengthen the Kyrgyz language and Kyrgyz character of the state and its institutions have been met by concern by the other ethnicities and in particular by the big Uzbek minority and the Russian population, which now had the feeling of being subject to a “relative deprivation” in relation to their previously dominating status.

After the collapse of the illusion and claim to create a “Switzerland of Central Asia”, the Tulip revolution, and in part as a reaction to Western criticism, the search for a national ideology dominated the discussions in the Parliament and the media for many months. Unfortunately, identity is still mainly searched for in the real and mythological past of the Kyrgyz, with reference to a special mentality and the uniqueness of “Kyrgyz-chylyk” (Kyrgyz-ness), rather than having in view the multiethnic reality and the future of the country.

Identity is increasingly seen and envisaged in a polarized way to be either Western or Eastern, Europeanized or Asian, global or local, religious or secular, modern (=foreign) or traditional.  Politicians, businessmen and civil society activists, who understand and promote the country’s  opportunity of synthesis, intermediate and dynamic “in-between-ness”, are having a tough time holding their position in an increasingly polarizing context.

It could be a promising challenge for the Kyrgyz society to see and accept the chance and prospect of being a mediator and bridge between the big historical, cultural, and economic competitors and antagonists to the East and West of its territory.

“East is East and West is West, never coming together” is one frequently quoted saying. Kyrgyz often refer to the Russian expression of “Vostokdelo tonkoe” (The East is a delicate thing), suggesting that Europeans and Americans may never fully understand and appreciate their way of thinking and living.

Assuming that East and West cannot understand each other, might not Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan be those, who understand both of them, might not them be the bridge and mediator in between, while still, and in this special function, remain very much themselves?


The context for the project and
the kind of a society this project has entered

It is not a surprise that the Theatre of Oppressed was introduced to Kyrgyzstan in 2005, right after the so-called “tulip revolution”, a revolution which created concern and conspiracy theories among regional power elites, and fierce discussions about its character among political analysts.

Whichever way it can be labeled – an uprising by a frustrated population seeking fundamental change of political and social mechanisms, possibly kidnapped by a competing political and criminal elite, a simple and premeditated coup d’état by a competing political clique or a combination of both – it brought about a surge of social and political activities and – most of all – expectations.

The revolution had been preceded by a period of growing general mistrust in any of official authority and institution – be it the dominating presidency, the government, parliament, political parties, police, official religious leaders, or media.  This crisis of credibility resulted in widespread lethargy and resignation among the population at large.

Unfortunately, the long term outcome of the revolution did not create any of the credibility which is so essential for a functioning democracy. The start of the project did however coincide with a short period of hope and activation of society, before suspicions and doubts about the new rulers came to the surface again and resulted in gradual erosion of trust and motivation, disappointment, frustration, and withdrawal of personal commitment.

The youth movement “Kelkel”, which initiated the start of the theater project, was a product of the power struggles and election campaigns that preceded the revolution and turned out to be as short living as most of its predecessors.

The Soviet heritage in the field of democratic institutions and elections is a crucial aspect to be considered in this respect. In contrast to developing countries or countries with a tradition of straightforward dictatorial or autocratic regimes, the Soviet Union created and upheld a facade of mock democratic institutions and elections misusing them for propaganda, control, and mobilization purposes.

As a result, the people of those parts of the Soviet empire, who had not known any kind of real democratic structures and procedures in their memorable history, learned to deeply distrust these institutions. After a short period of hope for “real democracy”, democratic change and public participation during  first post-independence elections, people learned that their new rulers started to misuse and falsify the newly created democratic structures for the same egoistic purposes, now only under the label of  Western style democracy and market economy.

With every falsified election and broken promise by governments and parliamentarians, the crisis of credibility both of the political actors and the institutions has aggravated and that situation continues in the present.

When citizens and – most important – young people do not feel represented, with no chance to influence politics or participate in the solution of their problems, they are prone to turn to radical, non-democratic action or to actors like extremist, religious or criminal authorities, who promise to solve their problems.


The political environment of the project

In the present situation, the heritage of complete oppression of oppositional or alternative movements combined with pseudo-democratic institutions such as “elections” and “elected councils” (Soviets) still defines the political culture of the country to a great extent. Democratic structures, institutions and processes such as parliaments, provincial, district, and local councils, the electoral process and political parties, and the resulting government structures continue to face a high degree of distrust and lack of credibility.

This results in a widespread reluctance of the population to participate in the  democratic process, which is regarded as (and is in fact to a high degree) corrupted and formal, without giving the broad public a real chance of influence and choice. In a vicious circle this again leads to reluctance by the electorate to defend its rights and make use of both the democratic institutions and the judiciary.

Most parts of the presently ruling elite derive from the old Soviet ruling class, the “nomenklatura”. They see political power and democratic procedures as a mere instrument of obtaining and preserving access to the economic resources of the country, for personal enrichment and support of their power basis, i.e. the own family, clan and mostly regional clientele. Loss of political power in this context means loss of economic resources and – also a Soviet heritage – the risk of being prosecuted by a new power, which in turn executes the same aims, ambitions and methods.

As a result, most rulers in post-Soviet environments cling to power by all means, and tend to move from relatively democratic outsets to increasingly authoritarian methods and tricks. Manipulated elections, referendums, changes of constitutions and legal frameworks, restrictions of political pluralism, freedom of media and assembly are some of the methods widely used by formally democratic post-Soviet rulers to preserve their political and economic power.

Political elites claim to build and develop a democratic system along international standards and models laid down in OSCE commitments and UN covenants, justifying restrictive measures by concerns for stability and the fight against international extremism and terrorism.

This corresponds to a contradictory development on the side of the population and civil society: On the one hand, people are getting better informed about their civic and human rights and they are trained and empowered by numerous internationally sponsored projects and organizations. On the other hand they seem to become more and more disillusioned and cynical about the good will and competence of governments and their own possibility of participation. With every setback of rigged elections or referenda people become increasingly de-motivated and less and less inclined to fight for their rights, make efforts, and take sacrifices in the struggle for political participation.

The so-called “Tulip Revolution” of March 2005 was in fact a combination of a coup prepared by sidelined parts of the political and economic elite, pressure created by the mobilization of  alienated supporters of the regime and a genuine upheaval of frustrated parts of a generally passive and resigned  population.

Hopes and expectations for genuine reform, development and the possibility of change and participation, which had emerged after the collapse of the Akaev regime were very soon disappointed by the incoming – but not new - ruling elite. The new rulers quickly turned to the same methods of distributing positions and resources to their own clientele, among them clearly criminal mafia structures, and played very much the same political games and tricks as their predecessors.

What has remained is a certain degree of raised self-confidence among some civil society actors. The experience of the population that change is possible and that rulers can be chased from power has made the revolution so suspicious and potentially dangerous for rulers in neighboring countries.

As the project is progressing into new stages, the political environment of Kyrgyzstan continues to move from hopes to frustration and disillusionment, from a window of opportunity for real reforms, broad participation and democratic development to increasingly restrictive and authoritarian measures imposed by a regime, obviously inspired and supported by similar developments of “controlled democracy” in Kazakhstan and Russia.

By the beginning of 2008, the attempts by oppositional forces and civil society to force the new administration to keep its promises of constitutional reform and reduction of presidential power have largely failed. A recent constitutional referendum, parliamentary elections, and the creation of a new presidential party showed patterns of “management” by the government very much similar to pre-revolution polls. The resulting new parliament is even less representative and pluralistic than the previous ones, not to mention the lack of women's representatives.

By the time these considerations are being published, the situation may have changed again, but the question will remain:

Is after the revolution before the revolution?

Will the political environment go further down the Kazakh and Russian road towards total control and continuously less participation and power sharing, with all the risks of stagnation and the renewed danger of polarization and violent upheaval? Or will the political actors and clans come to an agreement, allow and support broad democratic participation of the population as a whole? Will they be able to put egoistic and particularistic interests aside and make credible efforts of poverty reduction, fight against corruption and crime and sustainable development of the whole country?


The socio-economic environment of the project

In the socio-economic context the environment is defined by poverty and lack of resources, both of the population and the state, especially in the rural areas of the country. As a result, the formerly Soviet-subsidized public infrastructure (education, health care, social institutions, public transport, roads, communal services etc.) continues to deteriorate, while incomes and resources show increasing disparity. Tax incomes are largely privatized through a high level of corruption and are unevenly and sometimes irrationally distributed along tribal and political lines.

Unemployment in the largely de-industrialized country is high, creating a large amount of labor migration, internally to the growing shanty towns of Bishkek, externally to Kazakhstan and Russia and – in the case of the educated youth – to the West.

Poverty and corruption aggravate a widely lamented loss of traditional – both pre-Soviet and Soviet – values, which appear to be replaced by crude and cynical “capitalist” attitudes of competition and personal enrichment without ethical restraint.

This contributes to the persisting, if not rising crisis of trust and credibility within the society, where only family relations seem to remain a certain guarantee of trustworthiness. Alcoholism, drug addiction and crime are on the rise.

As the state and political institutions do not provide clear prospects, credible alternatives, and guidance, religious groups such as the Islamist Hizb-ut Tahrir and criminal authorities respond to the public discomfort by providing easy and seemingly attractive solutions, especially for the disadvantaged youth.

There is a realistic danger of the rise of criminalization, religious extremism and failing of the state, when large parts of the population, especially the young generation turns away from legal and democratic mechanisms and reverts to violent solutions for their problems.

Economic and social developments since independence also bring about a roll-back  of gender equality and a degradation of the role and status of women, which had profited from emancipatory and socio-economic policies in the Soviet period.

Deficiant or decreasing participation of youth and women present a particularly serious threat to the development perspectives of the country. This should make them main target groups for any emancipatory and empowerment effort.


The cultural environment of the project

Besides the cultural environment in the broader sense as depicted above, the project also faces an environment of cultural institutions and cultural life in the narrower sense.

Cultural life in this sense has inherited the high degree of Soviet time professionalization, institutionalization and bureaucratization, without being able to preserve the guidance, control, and funding as it was subject to and provided for by the state and the party under Soviet rule.

As in Soviet times, every sector and expression of cultural life (except for the new media) still preseves its own organizational and largely bureaucratic structure, the so called unions (soyuz) of artists, composers, cinematographers, architects, writers, composers, actors, etc. These organizations still retain and administer the assets allocated to them in Soviet times, such as buildings, studios, recreational facilities, galleries etc., while doing very little to improve working and living conditions of their members or to promote artistic development, creativity, and innovation.

In Soviet times, membership in these unions was the precondition for access to the a.m. “means of production” and reproduction, to income, public appearance and recognition. At the same time the unions implemented the state's and communist party's control over system conformity and politically correct content and style of cultural production.

Although the unions have lost their power to control and restrict cultural production and life, the preservation of this structure creates and perpetuates a mindset among cultural actors (at least the older generation), who still expect the state and the unions to provide them with facilities, audience, funding, and income.

Only very few of those, who were educated in Soviet artistic academies and colleges, have managed to market themselves, find their audience on their own, and adapt to the new conditions of the cultural market and the nearly absence of state funding. The majority continues to “produce” culture for themselves or a very small circle of insiders (mainly colleagues and their relatives and friends) and remains in a passive and complacent attitude of complaining and resignation.

Furthermore the organizational division into the traditionally labeled and generally conservative unions also poses a strong obstacle to multimedia and crossover approaches in cultural production.

Artists of the post-Soviet generation, generally with a technically less advanced educational background, often avoid the unions, but rarely organize themselves for mutual support. Many of them exercise their arts on an occasional basis (when foreign funding is available) or quit arts alltogether to devote themselves to purely commercial productions in advertising, television etc.

Existing educational institutions in the cultural sphere are generally very conservative (in a Europeanized Soviet sense) and rather shun than promote experimentation and innovation. As a result, creative, innovative, and, in particular, contemporary cultural production has an extremely small basis and audience, almost entirely depending on funding by foreign donors and an emerging small number of  rather conservative corporative sponsors.

Culture has thus become a luxury object for a small intellectual elite with little involvement of political and economic elites. Suffering from the lack of funding, promotion and means of communication it is increasingly detached from the society at large, in particular the population outside of the capital. Devoid of public attendance and awareness, culture in genral and in particular its contemporary expression has little chances to receive recognition by the society and a better financial basis.

Another implication of this detachment is the lack of political and societal relevance and impact of cultural production. Social and political issues are avoided by most cultural actors and are rarely being reflected in the arts. To a large extent, artists appear to fear exposure to a – potentially critical and non understanding - public and to avoid any confrontation or conflict with the political and economic establishment of the country.

In the field of theatre, the situation is particularly difficult, as it requires higher financial resources and state involvement than other areas of cultural production. Conservative state-run but poorly financed stages like the State Kyrgyz and State Russian Theatre and the Bishkek Opera House survive with very limited audience and resources. Others had to close down like the former Youth Theatre. Innovative initiatives like the Sakhna theatre are better known abroad than in the country itself, as they do not have a permanent stage or possibility to perform on a regular basis.

Like in other cultural areas, such as visual arts and design, young actors have created some kind of self help groups, acting with no or only occasional (mainly foreign) support, however on a much lower scale than in other parts of the world. As a result, there is very little space and substance for experimental and socially engaged theatre.


The big challenges ahead: credibility, creativity and participation

One of the big challenges for Kyrgyzstan as for other post-Soviet societies is to overcome the Soviet heritage of overly obedience and reliance to a state, which used to provide its citizens with a basic standard of living, education, labour, and basic welfare, but is not in a position to do this any more.

During the Soviet period, the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic was heavily subsidized from the central state budget. It was turned into a supplier of food (mainly meat), textiles and weaponry, without having to compete on the world market. Now the state has to survive on its own, without subsidies, guaranteed supplies, and purchases.

Unlike its neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan is short of energy resources and minerals. Industries created in Soviet times are to a large extent not operational any longer, some because of the lack of customers as in the case of the former defense industries, but mostly because of destructive privatization policies after independence.

In a global economic market environment Kyrgyzstan's only assets and chances lie in its natural beauties, untouched pieces of mountainous countryside and its people. The former needs preservation, sensitive, and sustainable development with the chance to create a high quality tourist destination. The latter requires a creative and participatory effort for the development of human resources. In order to survive and succeed as a state, nation, and economy, Kyrgyzstan has to adopt creative approaches, as well as to identify and develop distinct niches.

The mobilization of the country's human resources requires a high level of participation, motivation, education and creativity by as many of its citizens as it is possible, in particular the young, post-soviet generation.

Unfortunately, the signs are not very positive: the Soviet time level of the educational system cannot be upheld with the country's present resources and is therefore declining. Educated young people seek opportunities to leave the country to work abroad, young rural men work on plantations and construction sites in Kazakhstan and Russia. Those who stay in the country struggle to survive, the older generation often resigned and nostalgic for the good old Soviet times, still expecting the state to take the initiative and fix their lives, the younger de-motivated, suspicious of the people in power, and not prepared to commit themselves to longer lasting and sustainable efforts.

This makes participation and solidarity another two key issues for social development in the country. Young people are in urgent need of a perspective to define and build their lives without risking of being robbed of the results of their work by corrupt politicians or mafia structures. In order to overcome the general passivity, frustration and discontent and free constructive energy for change and development the traditional top-down paternalistic approach has to be replaced by the mobilization of the creative resources on the grass roots level.

The suppression of individualism and creativity, or at least the lack of support for their development in the educational system, is another problematic aspect of the country's Soviet heritage. The Soviet style educational system is still largely preserved and focuses on conformism, repetition and perpetuation of the existing. Analytical and creative skills are not yet part of the education, neither on primary nor on university level  with the exception of the American University of Central Asia and a few other institutions.

This general lack of creativity and innovation in the context of problem solution appears to be one of the main obstacles for development in all sectors of social, economic and political life.


Chances and impact of the Theatre of the Oppressed project
as a method to enhance grassroots participation and empowerment – a personal assessment

Based on project documents, extensive discussions of the concept of the Theatre of the Oppressed with one of its facilitators, Matthias Thonhauser, as well as on the observation of its work in progress with both young and adult participants in Kyrgyzstan and its performance at a Bishkek school, the following conclusions may be drawn:

The commitment of participants, the level of active participation, and the transparency of the process have been impressive. The Theatre of the Oppressed method proved to be a very promising way of identifying, reflecting, discussing, and possibly changing mindsets and patterns of behaviour through acting out alternative versions and role models in social settings and situations. It provides a unique opportunity to express directly and physically one’s own emotions, impulses and actions, as well as the reactions of co-actors and a wider audience. It also exposes the possible consequences of such actions in all kinds of alternative settings.

I have come to understand the method as a laboratory of social dialogue, action and experience in a guided and protected environment. In the discussions preceding the creation and elaboration of scenes by the participants as well as in the acting itself, it promotes and facilitates analytical, creative and problem solution oriented attitudes, abilities, and processes.

This kind of approach appears to be highly useful and necessary for any society, but in particular for Kyrgyzstan, in its present stage of development, where very traditional ways of thinking in contrast with spontaneous and often unreflected outbursts of action appear to be prevailing on all levels of society and politics. Furthermore, analytical and creative ways of approach to problems and challenges are still not very much encouraged by the largely Soviet style educational system. The same applies to the awareness and analysis of conflicts, structures, and situations of oppression and discrimination, as the notions still do not appear to fit into the prevailing social, political and ideological way of thinking.

At the same time, the perspectives of the method seem to be particularly promissing  in Kyrgyzstan given the country's strong tradition of musical and oral performance, traditional epic and improvised recitation (manaschi, akyn – see insert). As reported by its organizers, the short experience of the project has already exposed a high general readiness and pleasure of participants of all ages and genders to expose themselves in acting and performing in front of an audience.

To the outsider, the Kyrgyz society shows an impressive readiness of people to come together to talk and debate in a very democratic manner, as well as an openness for dialogue even between very controversial positions,  based on a longstanding Turkic tradition of popular gatherings (kurultai – see insert).  Unfortunately, decisions and agreements reached and promises made in this dialogue process are often not implemented. 

During its short period of democratic experience, the Kyrgyz society is still in the process of developing and acquiring nonviolent, democratic and at the same time effective ways of expressing of individual and public dissent and protest, which can make them be heard by the concerned authorities who are outside of the above mentioned gatherings.

In this respect the method of the Theatre of Oppressed – the facilitation of awareness raising and analysis, empowerment,  public expression and active participation - appears to be particularly useful in the present context of social development not only of Kyrgyzstan, but of the whole Central Asian region, as it exposes and enacts both the possibilities and the consequences of change and concrete action.

Given the above mentioned specific position and openness of Kyrgyzstan, this country seems to be the ideal starting point and laboratory for the introduction and adaptation  of the method to other parts of  Central Asia.


Possible effects

The method may thus become a valuable contribution to the development of participatory elements and mechanisms, which are indispensible for a functioning democracy, rule of law, and good governance. It has the potential to contribute to a development that balances the still predominant paternalistic approach by strengthening civic participation in horizontal structures and decision making processes. 

At present many political actors of the region tend to make short term decisions in legislation and policy making according to personal and clientele interests. They also mobilize followers and kinsmen for political pressure and protests along clientele, family and regional loyalty lines. Concrete and long-term interests of the concerned population usually play a subordinate role.

In spite and in part as the result of the proliferation of non-governmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan, of which many follow the same individual and particularist interests and are not operational, the state still treats self-organization of citizens for the defense of their interests and rights with suspicion. They are often subject to attempts of control, intimidation, instrumentalization or misuse for the interests of political leaders.

In contrast to this, poverty alleviation and fight against widespread corruption require strong efforts of empowerment and mobilization, autonomous decisions and bottom-up action of the concerned population groups. This is exactly, where the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology may provide a reasonable contribution.

However, success and sustainability in this enterprise require, and will depend, on a complex approach including the following elements:  

In other words: in order to create a sustainable impact and local ownership and not to become another “straw fire”, participants and local facilitators have to have some continued support and interest both by trainers and international institutions as well as by a locally created (national or regional) network of like-minded actors, who share their motivation, commitment, experience, and know-how.  The latter have to be in a position to support morally and physically each other in difficult phases of the process, which will definitely arise as in most comparable projects.


Possible risks and challenges

The method promotes change and emancipation, which is not popular in any conservative and stability minded setting. Thus, problems for the project may arise from its emancipatory character, which may raise concern on the part of paternalistic or non-democratically installed holders of power and influence, who may see their position endangered by public involvement and empowerment. Conservative and anxious bureaucrats may also object the project and refuse support for fear of being seen as politically biased or partial, i.e. supporting tendencies and movements in opposition to the existing regime.

Also, the name of the method itself will raise questions and objections, perhaps even prejudice and resistance on some parts of the establishment and some partners and participants. This may be the result of the reluctance of the Kyrgyz society to address notions like conflict and oppression. In the Soviet times, these terms had been exclusively attached to pre-Soviet and non-Soviet contexts (i.e. the “class enemy”), and thus regarded as not applicable to the own social reality.

On the other hand, once the organizers can overcome this initial resistance and enter into a dialogue about the name and the underlying method, this will help to start a more thorough discussion and awareness raising process both on the level of participants and decision makers about the social context and situations of conflict and discrimination in the country.

The project may also meet a certain scepticism on the side of some NGO partners, trainers and facilitators in the social and human and civic rights sectors, who may be critical about such explicitly interactive approaches or not understand the specifics of the method as compared to other forms of “social theatre”. As in the case of civil servants, it could trigger fears and suspicions of political – i.e. “oppositional” - orientation, which may be risky for them in terms of potential harassment or refusal of support and financing from the part of the authorities. This may in particular apply to international or foreign sponsored NGOs, which are regularly and increasingly scrutinized for “political bias” and alleged oppositional orientation.

In order to overcome this kind of potential resistance, the organizers of the project should seek the dialogue with all relevant authorities responsible for the addressed target groups, such as the ministries of education, justice, social affairs etc. They should make the aims and methods of the project transparent to them, explain the benefits for the society and its development as a whole, and seek active attendance and participation of these government bodies in the project.

The organizers should also seek to retain at least nominal and moral support by international organizations and donors, who are in a position to support and lobby the project in case of problems. It may also be advisable to  propose seminars and workshops for decision makers and opinion leaders in order to gain their understanding and support or at least benevolent neutrality.

A special target group to be addressed as potential lobbyists may be elder statesmen, such as former ministers, high-ranking officials and decision makers, who can give advice to the organizers and usually are in a position to solve problems with authorities through their inside knowledge and connections.

It should also be considered to embed the method into more complex poverty-alleviation, empowerment and conflict prevention resp.conflict resolution programs, e.g. within the framework of the OSCE Academy or UN programmes.

Possible target groups for the method besides the general public and civil society actors are all handicapped, marginalized or socially deprivated groups of the population, such as:

Benefits from the application of the method and the establsihment of a network would definitely arise in the area of participation of the population in the democratic process, from electoral turnout, active and passive vote, to accountability of politicians and civil servants and proposals for legislation, as well as economic development and poverty alleviation, prevention of and combating corruption, prevention of conflicts, extremism, violence and crime etc.

A functioning network of the Theater of the Oppressed in Kyrgyzstan would also attract attention and interest in neighboring countries. Here the implementation may be more difficult and meet more official resistance. Successful implementation and adaptation of the method in Kyrgyzstan may prepare the ground for its subsequent introduction and development in the whole region of Central Asia, where problems, challenges and development obstacles are similar.

A change of society may be regarded as a danger to the stability and traditional lifestyle or the interests of ruling elites and their clientele, but at the same time it is inevitable and has to be communicated as such due to changed global, regional and local conditions and frameworks.

The question is about the form and direction, in which this change will happen and what kind of authorities will lead and benefit from it. Maximum awareness of the genuine interests and the immediate involvement of all concerned parts of the society as promoted by the Theatre of the Oppressed can help to prevent this change from being violent and misused by internal or external extremist or criminal forces.

Empowered and informed members of the society, who understand their interests and alternatives, who feel involved, autonomous and in charge of their own and political decisions, will regard themselves as citizens. They will participate and take responsibility in their community, society, and state, they will be prepared to defend their rights and the democratic state.  This is the best way to prevent violence - physical as much as structural - extremism and crime. Any project and activity aiming at this kind of empowerment is a valuable contribution on the way to a more peaceful and sustainably prospering world.

VS 1 The multitude of Theatre of the Oppressed techniques: From Theory to Practice

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For quotation purposes:
Peter Felch: Changing Society through Art in Post-Soviet Areas? Historical, social, and Cultural Context of the Theatre of the Oppressed Project in Central Asia - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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