The continued expansion of internet use in Kyrgyzstan has created new opportunities for young people to meaningfully participate in politics. Looking to take advantage of this new avenue for political participation, NDI partnered with Radio Azattyk (the Kyrgyzstani affiliate of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) to produce a weekly livestreamed political discussion show, “Azattyk Club.” The platform is currently the only livestreamed political show in Kyrgyzstan. Since the show’s debut in April 2017, more than 100,000 people (an average of 10,000 viewers per episode) have watched across Facebook, YouTube and the Azattyk website.
Whereas more standard television programming in Kyrgyzstan consists of pre-recorded or strictly managed interview segments, often edited to remove controversial topics, Azattyk Club emphasizes live, unedited interactions between citizens and their elected representatives. This requires politicians to present stronger arguments in favor of their positions, while giving their constituents a rare platform to hold their elected officials accountable.
Each episode features one major political figure, such as a parliamentary faction leader, a member of parliament (MP), or a prominent government official. Two moderators ask these politicians a series of questions about their work and views of the current political environment. Each episode has a general theme, based on the area of expertise of the guest. Audience members, who are recruited by the station based on their interest in the theme of the show, then have an opportunity to ask their own questions. Pre-recorded videos of interviews and relevant stories from around Kyrgyzstan are interspersed with the live interviews to provide additional context on the main topics of each episode. In addition, viewers are invited to ask questions through Facebook, to be read on-air by the moderators. So far, close to 1,000 questions have been submitted.
On June 13, 2017, Radio Azattyk invited Askat Bukarbaev to appear on the show, alongside the leader of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), Isa Omurkolov. Askat is a young man with hemophilia, a genetic disorder that hinders the body’s ability to form blood clots. The high cost of Askat’s treatment forced his parents to sell their original home, and move to a railway carriage house. The poor living conditions there were beginning to exacerbate his illness. During the episode, Azattyk Club aired a segment documenting Askat’s living conditions. Askat spoke about the difficulties he faces in accessing treatment, as well as his dream of meeting with the president to talk about the challenges persons with disabilities confront on a daily basis. Given the chance to address a leading member of parliament, Bukarbaev asked Omurkolov to describe the steps he and his party are taking to improve the lives of persons with disabilities in Kyrgyzstan. More than 20,000 people viewed this exchange online.
Open dialogue between citizens and their leaders is critical to holding government accountable, and Askat’s appearance on Azattyk Club brought issues that are often ignored in Kyrgyzstan to the forefront. Sharing stories like Askat’s, and providing underrepresented citizens the chance to address national leaders on an equal footing, can change citizens’ expectations of those in power. Whether by appearing on the show, or by simply submitting a question on Facebook, the Azattyk Club platform has shown young people that their issues are important and worthy of discussion on the national stage.
As attention turns towards a crucial presidential election in October, Azattyk Club will look for ways to further involve youth in the national political dialogue. In particular, the show will feature the work of youth activists, supported under a separate NDI program, who over the last month have traveled throughout the country, organizing youth forums and collecting feedback on the priority issues facing young citizens. Highlights from these trips will be shown on a coming episode of Azattyk Club, during which the young activists will also present a “youth platform” detailing the priority issues young people most want the next president to address.