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Rough Police Raids Rattle Kyrgyz Capital's Creative Subculture

Clubgoers lie on the ground with their hands behind their backs as police stormed a series of Bishkek bars over the weekend, ostensibly searching for narcotics.
Clubgoers lie on the ground with their hands behind their backs as police stormed a series of Bishkek bars over the weekend, ostensibly searching for narcotics.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- It was around 1 a.m. when a Bishkek bargoer "peacefully smoking a cigarette outside" understood that his favorite subculture venue in Kyrgyzstan's capital was being raided by armed police.

"Suddenly we heard a terrible stomping sound and a group of about 10 men wearing combat fatigues quickly burst into the space. One of them gave an order to detain us and raise our hands above our heads," said the man who, like the other witnesses to the raid, requested anonymity.

Ailan Bar, an art and music space open for more than two years that has not had police trouble in the past, was one of a "series" of bars raided by Bishkek police over the weekend who were ostensibly searching for narcotics.

In an April 16 press release about one of the raids -- accompanied by footage from Ailan -- the Bishkek City Police Department claimed the operation a success, noting three people who had been detained on suspicion of using drugs had subsequently tested positive for banned substances.

"It should be noted that these activities will be carried out on an ongoing basis," city police said.

That part of the statement sounds particularly ominous for a subculture in Bishkek that has been notable for growing in diversity and creativity in recent years.

But it would be par for the course for today's Kyrgyzstan -- where zero tolerance seemingly applies to a lot of things.

Homemade Bong Boast

As drug busts go, the results being hailed by Bishkek's city police department in regard to weekend raids seem rather modest.

Police said that they found "a ready-made cigarette with narcotics, a device for grinding drugs…a homemade bong, and potent medicines."

Some objects relating to that haul were shown in the footage from the Ailan raid, where young men were seen lying face down as officers searched the premises.

At one point, the camera homed in suspiciously on medication in Lyrica-branded packaging. The Pfizer-produced anti-epileptic medication has been a source of controversy in Kyrgyzstan as in other countries over potential misuse and addiction, but it is not illegal, and it can be obtained at Kyrgyz pharmacies with a doctor's prescription.

Another police press release from April 15 -- and apparently referring to a raid on a different Bishkek venue -- stated that police had been successful in finding "two zip bags containing a white powdery substance with a specific chemical odor, presumably mephedrone."

But the release said that only one member of that club's management and one clubgoer had tested positive for narcotics, without naming the venue or the drugs they had allegedly shown positive results for.

Accounts from Ailan Bar suggest the raids were heavy-handed.

One bar employee described roughhouse tactics, intimidation, and other inappropriate behavior on the part of the officers in an interview with RFE/RL.

"Most of them were OK, but probably three of the men were very aggressive. They yelled at us and even allowed themselves to be violent. They struck one of our friends on the leg and he is still limping. Another customer was struck in the stomach. They were shouting at a foreigner who did not understand Russian. I explained to them that he did not understand but they continued shouting," the employee said.

"The police separated the men from the women for the searches, which were more thorough for the men," the employee added. "They tried to be calmer and more jovial with the women. They asked them, 'Why do you come here to such a dangerous place?' They responded that they came because it is a safe place for them. One policemen even started flirting with a woman."

RFE/RL has contacted Bishkek police in relation to those claims but had not received a response at time of publication.

In total, according to both sources, 10 people from Ailan were taken to a Bishkek police station for testing. The bar itself was sealed off by police.

"In the days [since April 14], we haven't been told anything by the police," said the bar employee.

Police State Versus Safe Spaces?

Bishkek is not even close to being Central Asia's richest city, but it has for some time been the host of a surprisingly diverse entertainment scene.

The Kyrgyz capital was the first place in the region to boast a craft-beer pub that sold bonafide craft beer brewed onsite, for instance.

Founded by female brewers, it became a hangout for locals and foreigners alike.

Of late, Bishkek has been captivated by the cosplay trend, which has seen young people throng to Japanese-style anime festivals in fancy costumes.

Since its founding, Ailan Bar has built itself a reputation as a "safe space" for creative people and culture aficionados, according to the staff member, who says the bar's security conducts its own checks and refuses entry to anyone who might be perceived as a troublemaker.

This month was anime film month, while Ailan regularly holds board-game nights and free art sessions. An electronic dance night was being held on the night of the police raid.

"After the raid, some of the organizers said they are afraid to hold events with us," said the staffer.

A sign marks the premises of Ailan Bar as sealed by the police.
A sign marks the premises of Ailan Bar as sealed by the police.

That prospect might not trouble the increasingly hard-line regime of President Sadyr Japarov and his de facto co-ruler, Kamchibek Tashiev, whose brand of populism is rooted in traditional Kyrgyz values rather than any love of anime.

This month, a new Russian-style law restricting the work of foreign-funded nonprofits entered into force, a development that critics see as bringing the country further in line with the deeper authoritarianism of the neighborhood.

Tashiev's own very negative views on drugs are well known, meanwhile.

Early notice of this came more than two years ago, after the famous anti-corruption journalist Bolot Temirov was arrested in a raid by armed police at his Temirov Live media outlet's office in Bishkek.

At the time, Temirov Live had just released an investigation uncovering the Tashiev family's apparent influence over the operations of a state-controlled fuel refinery.

Temirov was initially charged with possession of narcotics, a charge that even one of Bishkek's local courts -- not famed for their independence in regards to government critics -- later dismissed.

The journalist, later convicted on a separate charge, had been adamant that the drugs were planted to discredit him. A drug test showed him to be clean.

The charges did, however, stick to one of his colleagues, Bolot Nazarov, who according to police tested positive for drug use.

During the initial outcry over the arrests, the powerful Tashiev insisted on Nazarov's guilt, citing leaked footage that purportedly showed Nazarov smoking a homemade bong.

At a press appearance, Tashiev showed himself to be fixated with this object -- an easily assembled contraption well known to teenage marijuana smokers around the world and known in Russian as a "bulbulator" -- insisting it was only used for "heavy narcotics."

"This is not any pure drug, it [becomes] a chemical drug. The ‘bulbulator' increases the effectiveness," Tashiev claimed, briefly earning himself the mocking moniker "Bulbulator" on social media.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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