By Chris Rickleton
A boy walks away from an exhausting game of cops and robbers in central Bishkek. But some children aren’t just playing. Racketeering in schools increasingly mirrors lawlessness in Kyrgyzstan, education experts warn. (Photo: David Trilling)
Kyrgyzstan’s schools are rife with bullying and racketeering, with baby-faced toughs enforcing a practice known as dedovshchina, a term borrowed from the Soviet military, in which older children haze younger students into submission. The practice is providing fertile ground for organized criminal activity.
The stigma and shame associated with hazing has helped muzzle public discussion about school-age racketeering. But the issue is growing in urgency as the country’s fragile governing coalition contemplates opening a campaign to contain nationwide criminal networks.
“Organized rackets have led to murders and suicides among school-age children,” Nazgul Turdubekova, director of the Child Rights Defenders’ League, a non-governmental organization, tells EurasiaNet.org. “It is past time to begin treating this issue for what it is: one of the most serious threats to the integrity of our country.”
In some schools, such as School No. 61 in Bishkek, young racketeers operate in a brazen fashion. On weekday afternoons, says Aselya, whose teenage son attends the secondary school, a grey BMW would pull up outside the gates. Its driver would speak briefly with a quartet of teenagers, roll up his window, and drive away.
“We [parents] knew he wasn’t the father of any of these pupils and didn’t have any business at the school, so we informed the police,” Aselya explains, asking her last name not be printed for fear of reprisals. But the man did have business at the school. The four boys that visited him were his “trains,” she says—recognized underlings that extorted money from other students before passing the money up to contacts in the city’s underworld.
Since the local police were informed, the “man has disappeared, but the problem remains. The same group is still taking money from children,” Aselya says, often employing violence. “Gangsters aren’t afraid of law enforcement authorities anymore. They just find ways around them.”
While parents bemoan the government’s inability to stem the boom in racketeering, officials in the Ministry of Education are considering a package of reforms that would require parents to take greater responsibility for the upbringing of their children. The bill is still in the drafting stage, but discussions have centered on the need to impose penalties on parents whose children are consistently involved in juvenile crime.
Tayanych Rakhmatov, the senior officer in charge at the Batken Province state youth rehabilitation center supports such amendments to the laws on education. Labor migration, he adds, is a significant factor in juvenile delinquency.
Authorities elsewhere and civil society groups tend to agree with Rakhmatov, saying that the absence of parents for extended periods leaves many children without proper guidance.
“It would be about time,” Rakhmatov said, referring to the pending legislation. “In Batken, about 80 percent of parents leave for work in Russia and Kazakhstan, and leave their children to grandparents. As the grandparents are too old to care for them, the responsibility for these children falls on inspectors or schoolteachers,” he tells EurasiaNet.org.
In February, President Roza Otunbayeva acknowledged that school rackets represented a flourishing subsection of criminal activity. “Crime is suppressing us,” the AKIpress news agency quoted Otunbayeva as saying, referring to the general situation. The president went on to claim that some schoolyard racketeers were the “children of prosecutors and judges,” whose status tacitly encouraged them to engage in illegal activities with a sense of impunity. She provided no evidence to support her assertion.
In Bishkek, municipal authorities are currently showing schoolchildren an educational film about school-based racketeering, the 24.kg news agency reported on March 16. The screenings are part of a three-month crime prevention effort in schools, launched by the city on March 1.
The problem is deeply entrenched, however. Observers blame beleaguered schoolteachers for allowing the problem to fester. Overworked and often earning salaries of less than $50 per month, many teachers create “social funds” to legitimize collection of informal monthly gratuity payments from students.
This is itself a type of racket, argues Turdubekova of the Child Rights Defenders’ League, since the payments violate “standard regulations about public education institutions, which detail students’ rights to paid and free educational services. When children see this, they understand that extortion is a part of everyday life in school.”
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.