Nothing To Spit At: Kyrgyzstan Penalises 'Negative Behaviours'.
ON January 1, a bundle of new penalties for 'negative
behaviours', including smoking in prohibited places, opening up
manholes, and making false emergency calls, went into effect in
Kyrgyzstan. The penalties included a hefty fine for anyone caught
spitting in public, which has renewed a national debate over appropriate
public behaviour. The fine for spitting -- 5,500 som, or about $80 -- is
among the steepest among the new additions to Kyrgyzstan's Criminal
Code. Many are concerned about the scale of the fine, both relative to
other penalties and to average salaries in the country. A 5,500 som fine
for spitting costs an average citizen of Kyrgyzstan more than one-third
of their monthly salary, with the proportion even more staggering for
residents of the regions, where salaries are lower. The severity of the
spitting fine does not match the severity of the crime; for example,
according to the new statute in the Criminal Code, a person who
"neglects their parental duties" faces a fine between
1,000-7,500 soms, meaning they could potentially pay only one-fifth the
fine of someone who gets caught spitting on the sidewalk. The spitting
law is several years in the making, with its start in a
citizen-organised sticker campaign in early 2016. Kushtar Mamytaliev and
his friend were fed up with navigating gobs of spit on the sidewalk in
Bishkek, so they printed a stack of stickers with a simple bilingual
request: "Don't Spit!" Not long after, then-President
Almazbek Atambayev contributed 50,000 som from his social development
fund to Mamytaliev's passion project, and the stickers eventually
went up all over the country. 'Don't Spit!' has gathered
a significant following on social media, with 22,000 users on its
Facebook page. The page has long since moved away from focusing solely
on saliva, and is something more of a digital 'properness'
brigade now, with posts in all-caps lamenting the backwardness of
Bishkek natives and photos of misspelled signs or crumbling
infrastructure. Commenters decry the "backward mentality" of
their neighbours and complain about the inefficacy of the government.
This rhetorical focus on a national mentality and developing a
collective sense of right and wrong is reflected in politicians'
defences of the law. Prime Minister Mukhammadkalyi Abylgaziev affirmed
the efficacy of penalties like the spitting fine on improving
citizens' behaviour in public. Not everyone is so sure that the
Criminal Code is the wellspring from which morality flows, however. An
Instagram post by @chala_kyrgyz features a young man and woman cuddling
with the caption, "Sweetie, are you ready not to spit when
you're around me???" The photo pokes fun at the notion that
the spitting law will spark such conversations between lovers, or that
it could change widespread habits and attitudes overnight. Others have
taken advantage of the spitting fine's severity to comment on the
processes of maintaining law and order more broadly. On January 7,
26-year-old Ramis Zakiriyaev posted a video of himself in front of the
White House in central Bishkek, where lawmakers and government officials
meet. "For these exalted officials, who only talk but never do
anything... who have picked the country clean and continue to raise our
country's debts -- this is in their honour," Zakiriyaev said.
After hawking up phlegm and spitting through the White House gates,
Zakiryaev then proudly pulls out 5,500 som from his wallet and
announces, "Here, come and take your fine." The earnest
annoyance, satirical indifference, and fed-up frustration expressed
through these three digital channels represent a range of methods by
which Kyrgyzstanis can engage with the state. It appears that at least
some government officials are paying attention, as Zakiryaev was picked
up by police and brought to Bishkek for questioning about his loogie.
'Don't Spit!' also shares follow-ups from local
bureaucrats on city beautification projects. On the spitting fine in
particular, word of citizens' frustration with the scale of the
fine has floated up to the highest levels of administration. Abylgaziev
has already proposed scaling back the fine, and Deputy Prime Minister
Jengish Razakov has called for the spitting fine to be lowered to 1,000
som to correspond with the fine for smoking in prohibited places.
Regardless of whether the prime minister actually moves to change the
Criminal Code and reduce the spitting fine, the more promising take-away
from this episode is that a robust civic culture is developing in
Kyrgyzstan through creative use of social media.
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