Social Mobilization in the Absence of Infrastructure and Services on the Urban Margins: Toward “Societal Infrastructures”

Author: Philipp Lottholz

Philipp Lottholz is a postdoctoral fellow at the DFG Collaborative Research Centre/Transregio 138 “Dynamics of Security” and the Institute for Sociology, Justus Liebig University Giessen, Germany.

His main interests are peacebuilding, security and social mobilization practices, and their implications for statebuilding and social ordering in societies across Central Asia, Eastern Europe and beyond. Further working areas include cooperation between academia and practitioners; researcher safety; and the relevance of post- and decolonial theory in the post-Socialist space.

How do communities deal with the decay, failure or complete absence of infrastructure? In the fourth decade after the collapse of the Soviet and other Socialist states, this question is of continued, if not increasing, relevance across Central Eurasia.

My current research project on “Societal Infrastructures, Economization and Securitization in Kyrgyzstan and Bulgaria” seeks to show how community-based, civil society, and informal initiatives help people cope with, compensate for or counteract the failure or absence of infrastructure. It looks at under-developed urban areas, namely the novostroiki (“new settlements”) around Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, and marginal neighborhoods in Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria. The two contexts appear disparate and remote from another, with the former in the sphere of influence of the Eurasian Economic Union and the latter in that of the European Union. Yet this comparative perspective illuminates how phenomena in Central Asia are globally embedded and how studying the region is important for understanding more global trajectories.

Theoretically, the research aims to develop and illustrate the idea that community-level mobilization and self-organization has a constant, and in fact infrastructural, character. In other words, while physical infrastructure may deteriorate, break apart or never even be built in the first place, forms of societal infrastructures can be activated to compensate for or at least adapt to such insufficiencies. This line of thinking goes back to, among others, AbdouMaliq Simone’s proposal to see “people as infrastructure,” as their activities across a “range of spatial, residential, economic, and transactional positions” establish both regular and shifting patterns that shape their city. Regarding the issue of a lack of infrastructure, Antina von Schnitzler has argued that infrastructure cannot be seen as a mere tool of state power, but needs to be appreciated as “political terrain” where people’s claims to dignity and provision—and state-society relations more broadly—are expressed and (re-)negotiated.

Similar arguments have been made in the Central Eurasian context. For instance, Chelcea and Pulay have analyzed the “incomplete citizenship” of people who are cut off from utility networks and the “maintenance and repair citizenship” of those who try to ensure the operability of infrastructure while seeking its improvement and extension. Tuvikene and colleagues conclude that infrastructure and services can thus be seen as “critical locations through which sociality, governance and politics, accumulation and dispossession, and institutions and aspirations are formed, reformed, and performed.” My present study draws together these perspectives to ask about the systemic nature of societal infrastructures and its historico-cultural embeddedness, as well as the implications thereof for political order.

First Insights into Societal Infrastructure in Bishkek and Plovdiv

While at first sight disparate cases, Bishkek and Plovdiv in fact feature strikingly similar constellations of factors. Both are formerly Socialist cities with experience of Soviet rule or geopolitical influence that have since been subjected to large-scale neoliberal reform and restructuring. Both have undergone relatively dynamic development of international trade (especially in Bishkek) and foreign investment into manufacturing and outsourcing industries (especially in Plovdiv), transforming them into economic centers with sizable in-migration of rural populations. In-migration, combined with urban real estate booms, has increased inequality and poverty among the cities’ populations. The novostroiki (“new settlements”) around Bishkek concentrate almost a fourth of the city’s total population, housing around 250,000 mostly urban poor and rural-urban migrants on the margins of the city. Meanwhile, the spatial concentration of Roma and Turkish-origin minorities in Plovdiv, particularly in the neighborhood of Stolipinovo, which officially has 40,000 inhabitants, is the result of a re-segregation effected by ethnic Bulgarians’ relocation to other districts, not least because of the infrastructural issues discussed below.

The communities in these two contexts face relatively similar issues, such as the decay or complete lack of basic infrastructure and services and equally urgent insufficiencies in the areas of social services, health care, and education and public security and crime prevention, all of which are examined below.

i) Basic Infrastructure and Services

The most basic infrastructure—paved roads, utility networks, and attendant services—are largely non-existent in Bishkek’s “new settlements.” Many of them were literally built on “green fields” and have been negotiating—often for years—with the municipality and service-providers to be included in servicing. Here, my analysis focused on a capacity-building project, “Promoting Social and Gender Equality for Strengthening Peace and Stability.” Led by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), it aimed to help communities raise key issues with the authorities while prioritizing small-scale interventions that promise achievable progress. These included refurbishing or building playgrounds, sports pitches, street lighting, and gravel road surfaces. These improvements were received positively and served to demonstrate that residents’ efforts in initiative groups or neighborhood committees can make a difference, even if support was often conditional on raising initial capital. Overall, the project communities continue to face very limited and unequal access to basic urban infrastructure, suggesting that their “Infrastructural integration” still has a long way to go. Resident Initiatives like the Public Association “Arysh” have fought for such integration since the 1990s and, through the creation and support of so-called self-help groups (Gruppy samopomoshi), have achieved significant improvements in the new settlements of Ak-Orogo, Archa-Beshik, and Ak-Ordo.

Figure 1. LED lights installed in Rukhii-Muras (left) and the opening of a “communal space for communication” in Ene-Say (right)

Source: Left photo taken by the author; right photo – UNFPA Kyrgyzstan Facebook page

In the Stolipinovo neighborhood of Plovdiv, the key issues are the functioning and maintenance of roads and utility networks. The municipality and service providers reportedly do too little to ensure the functionality of these; they also allegedly deny requests for the extension of services to new properties. A core problem is negligence and the decay of communal spaces and infrastructure in multi-story blocks, which homeowners’ associations are unable to mend due to a lack of financial resources. The municipality is also criticized for not maintaining the remaining public buildings. House administrators (domupraviteli) are often left to their own devices in dealing with such emergencies as flooding or pipe leakages. Garbage collection is a contentious issue: residents claim that the service is insufficient, while the authorities allege that Roma and Turkish-origin minority dwellers intentionally pile up garbage next to containers. The problems are not being systematically tackled by existing interventions, although a corporate platform and mobile app—“Citizens,” or Grajdanite—allows individuals to report cases of disorderliness and lack of services, which are then taken up with the relevant authorities. In addition to this, a newly founded resident network—“Residents of Stolipinovo” (Zhiteli na Stolipinovo)—has created its own news website, which found in an investigation that too few waste containers have been provided for the neighborhood: in the Figure 2 below, there were only three for 600 households.

Figure 2. Trash cans in front of residential block, Stolipinovo district (left), and waste dump between blocks and garage buildings (right)

Source:, “Residents of Stolipinovo” Group

ii) Social Services, Health Care, and Education

Social services, health care, and education proved to be an urgent topic in both contexts, as many residents are refused access to services due to a lack of residential registrations and insurance plans. Limited legal knowledge and (in the Bulgarian case) language barriers complicate this situation. While Plovdiv’s marginal communities are mostly concerned about the quality of education, Bishkek’s “new settlements” are facing a complete lack of capacity, as the few existing schools have to accommodate numbers of pupils up to five times higher than capacity, resulting in them working in multiple shifts.

The construction of new schools is progressing slowly. For example, in Muras-Ordo north of Bishkek, the construction of a new school building has been halted due to legal proceedings against the company in charge. Although a new tender has just been opened, the completion of the project is still uncertain owing to a lack of financing. Kindergartens and nurseries only exist in the more central areas of the city and are largely inaccessible or unaffordable.

The analyzed UN project supplied lacking equipment to health care providers, as well as training about legal service obligations and case work; mobilized Public Health Committees to carry out preventative care (e.g., blood pressure monitoring); provided free legal assistance to facilitate access to services; and helped develop an Attendance Tracking System to support schools in maintaining an overview of pupils’ attendance and identifying special needs. Meanwhile, the fight to increase educational and nursing capacity continues; the project agencies (UNFPA, UNICEF, UNODC) only managed to address the most urgent needs.

In Plovdiv, a municipality-run program, “Health Care and Education for All,” supported the expansion of the network of “health mediators” and “education mediators,” who help residents access services and improve their communication and legal knowledge. This and other programs have tried to foster minority youths’ “integration” into society more broadly through language training and cultural activities, although interviewees indicated that such integration was still lacking, leading to an “encapsulated” existence. Various community-based centers and organizations work to provide youth education and care for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, but their focus on acute and (self-)reported cases, coupled with their reliance on EU funding, call into doubt their long-term potential and overall effectiveness.

Figure 3. Unfinished school building in Muras-Ordo (left) and entrance to the CSRI—“We are different, but equal”—in the center of Plovdiv (right)

Source: Photos taken by the author.

iii) Public Order and Crime Prevention

High rates of unemployment, poverty, and socio-cultural heterogeneity are associated with petty crime, occasional larger conflicts along group and ethnic lines, and domestic and gender-based violence in both contexts. In Plovdiv, only formal institutions and structures deal with crime and deviance; these include the police, municipal public security bodies, and various Centers for Social Rehabilitation and Integration (CSRIs—see Figure 3) run by municipal-NGO partnerships to prevent deviance among disadvantaged or “at-risk” (riskovi) social groups. The authorities, NGOs, and foundations tend to focus on domestic violence, creating or increasing the capacity of shelters and Centers for Victims of Domestic Violence as well as enhancing CSRIs’ support for affected children and youth. Petty and youth crime is almost exclusively dealt with by the police and municipal security services, with few preventative efforts made by NGOs in schools. Local authorities take a heavy-handed approach to petty crime, regularly demolishing illegal buildings like garages and small shops, which prompts widespread indignation among community residents, who condemn the authorities as out of touch and uncooperative.

In Bishkek, a number of community-level bodies work with the police to prevent and deal with domestic and low-level disputes or crimes. These include both newly created initiative groups and longstanding bodies like “courts of elders” (aksakals), alternative dispute resolution bodies that operate according to Kyrgyz “customary law;” “women’s councils”; and Local Crime Prevention Centers (LCPCs). Within the analyzed project, the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) worked to strengthen and re-activate these structures by devising and implementing crime prevention action plans at both community and city district level. A significant factor in preventing and dealing with crime was technology: both project initiative groups and the municipality installed CCTV cameras throughout the city to deter crime and improve the evidence base in the event of offences. In collaboration with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the project partners created a mobile app, “My Neighborhood Inspector,” that has made it easier to report offences, but also increased the number of cases to the point that it exceeds existing processing capacity. Importantly, such measures do not address the drivers and reasons for crime, leaving aside major questions about the fight against poverty, inequality, and gender- and other identity-based conflict among Bishkek residents. New bodies have therefore been created to deal more effectively with domestic and gender-based violence. The new Committees for the Prevention of Gender and Domestic Violence has helped to resolve cases of abuse within families, while “women’s councils” have been trained on how to support such activity. Yet these bodies have also faced backlash from residents, who have accused them of imposing Western “gender ideology,” which is perceived as incompatible with traditional Kyrgyz values.

Figure 4: Technical fixes to combat crime? CCTV in the new Ak-Bata novostroika, Bishkek (left), and the “My Neighborhood Inspector” mobile app (right)

Source: Photo taken by the author;

Resilience, but Also Further Abandonment? The Ambiguous Implications of Societal Infrastructure

Besides pointing to the lack of infrastructure in Bishkek and Plovdiv, these insights indicate the important but also diverging effects of “societal infrastructures” in the two contexts. Bishkek’s new settlements are covered by a web of municipal, civil society, and more informal institutions and initiatives working to compensate for lacking and insufficient infrastructure and services. As they are based on voluntary work and spontaneous initiatives, these networks come closest to the idea of societal infrastructures proposed here. In Plovdiv, the various forms of institutional support and the frameworks in which they are embedded point to a more “corporatized” model, which has obviously been conditioned by the funding frameworks of the EU and other international partners (UN institutions have played a similar role in Kyrgyzstan). The fact that NGOs, various social and educational centers, and more socially grounded actors like health or education “mediators” are employed on an official and salaried basis also has the benefit of ensuring—at least for the time being—resources, professional approaches, and some level of public accountability. On the other hand, the above-mentioned “Residents of Stolipinovo” network was successful in mobilizing donations of food and basic necessities for people who had lost their livelihood during the Covid-19 pandemic. This initiative benefited from transnational solidarity and support by residents with higher incomes due to their labor migration to Western Europe. Yet the dependence on labor migration of most of Stolipinovo’s population, who reside in the neighborhood only for limited periods of time, makes attempts to organize community life and maintain infrastructure challenging. These challenges are further exacerbated by differences between Roma and Turkish-origin communities, who still seem to hold diverging opinions as to how to improve the neighborhood’s situation.

The fact that NGOs, various social and educational centers, and more socially grounded actors like health or education “mediators” are employed on an official and salaried basis also has the benefit of ensuring resources, professional approaches, and some level of public accountability

Despite its crucial and sometimes life-saving work, the wider implications of societal infrastructures are ambiguous. Long-standing research on resilience as a concept capturing the self-sufficiency of individuals, communities, and wider collectives has drawn attention to how this can also imply an increasing de-responsibilization of public authorities and the further distancing of the state from society. This tendency is visible in the case of Bishkek, where the municipality—similarly to state authorities’ reliance on international aid—welcomes external support while simultaneously seeking to minimize its commitment to the new settlements. Given the chronic insufficiency of the city and national budgets, there is of course no easy solution to the situation, but it is clear that more could be done to tackle the corruption, tax evasion, and real estate speculation by richer strata of society that are further entrenching the shortage of affordable housing in Bishkek.

The comparison with Plovdiv once again offers a fruitful, if saddening, contrast, as the lack of services and infrastructure in the Stolipinovo neighborhood are continuously explained or even justified using narratives that advance the cultural and racial othering of the Roma and Turkish-origin minorities inhabiting the affected communities. Many interviewees portrayed the latter as “encapsulated” (kapsulirani) and unable to integrate with the wider society, whether in terms of language, waste disposal practices or compliance with the law. Thus, the separation of minority-dominated neighborhoods in Plovdiv and Bulgaria at large appears deeper and more racialized than in Kyrgyzstan.

The most important take-away is the potential to bring these two contexts into productive dialogue. In Plovdiv, resident initiatives and the authorities can learn how to better engage with each other by looking at the cooperative relationship between the authorities and societal infrastructure in Bishkek’s new settlements. Meanwhile, the health and education mediators and municipality-NGO cooperation in social and youth centers in Plovdiv provide a model of institutionalization to be considered not only in Bishkek but in Central Asia more generally. These insights point to the crucial role of societal infrastructures and the productive potential of this concept for debates on social and political mobilization across post-Socialist Eurasia.

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