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A Brief History of Kyrgyzstan: Behind the Upheavals

6 minute read
Ishaan Tharoor

The bloody protests that erupted this week in Kyrgyzstan, leading to scores of deaths and injuring hundreds thus far, have paralyzed the small Central Asian country of 5 million people and likely toppled its ruling government. According to some reports, Kyrgyz President Kermanbek Baikyev fled the capital Bishkek on Wednesday to rally support in his home region of Jalalabad. Bakiyev, who came into office in 2005 as a champion of democracy and reform, has been accused of corruption and rigging elections last year. Foreign observers also see the hand of Russia in recent events — with Moscow eager to reassert its traditional influence over a former Soviet republic that happens to house a key U.S. air base.

(Did Moscow subvert Kyrgyzstan, a U.S. ally?)

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time great powers have sparred over this land of lakes and rugged steppe, nestled in the shadow of the towering Tian Shan and Pamir mountain ranges. For centuries, it was part of the main Silk Road highway that connected China to the west; the ancient bazaar city of Osh to this day bears traces of its commercial past. In 751 A.D., near the modern day town of Talas — where it’s reported anti-Bakiyev unrest first broke out on Apr. 6 — a vast army sent forth by the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad defeated an expeditionary force of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. Historians suggest that this decisive battle solidified Central Asia within the orbit of the Muslim cultural world rather than that of China. It also marked an epochal moment in human history: as the story goes, war prisoners taken to the city of Samarkand were compelled to set up a mill to produce a key Chinese invention: paper. That product would later spread through Muslim lands and eventually to Europe.

(See pictures of the ouster of the Kyrgyz government.)

The Kyrgyz themselves are of Turkic stock, one of the many confederations of Central Asian nomadic tribes that coalesced into an ethnic group over generations of war and migration. Their founding national myth is the Epic of Manas, a 500,000-line poem that is 12 times the size of The Odyssey and claimed by some to be one of the few examples of oral literature preserved in its original form for nearly a thousand years. It tells of a heroic warrior, Manas, as he united the Kyrgyz and smote enemy invaders upon the steppe. It’s a tale that has been actively propagated within the republic of Kyrgyzstan since its 1991 independence from a crumbling Soviet Union — in 1995, the fledgling state marked Manas’ supposed 1,000th birthday with widespread celebrations. (Manas has also lent his name to the air base that Bishkek licensed to the U.S. to serve as a strategic transit hub for military operations in nearby Afghanistan.)

Elements of the Kyrgyz nomadic heritage still shape much of this largely pastoral and agrarian society. The brand of Sufi Islam practiced by the majority of the population has blended easily with sky- and nature-worshipping traditions of an earlier era. Though now illegal, the distasteful custom of wife-kidnapping — where a woman is unsuspectingly and often forcibly seized and taken to her husband-to-be’s home — perseveres in parts of the country.

(See a TIME piece on whether Moscow subverted the upheaval in Kyrgyzstan.)

Aleksei Levshin, a 19th-century Russian traveler, wrote sneeringly that the “Kirghiz manner of life is a living picture of the age of the Patriarchs… they live almost solely for their herds.” Heavy-handed Tsarist and eventually Soviet rule saw the migration of a significant population of Russians as well as the dilution of Kyrgyz culture. New tree-lined urban centers like Bishkek as well as spas along the land’s salt lakes became popular destinations for Russians escaping the industrial grimness further north. As in elsewhere in Central Asia, Cyrillic is the adopted script and vodka shops abound.

The Soviet policy of gerrymandering borders to better control populations of ethnic minorities has left the independent states of Central Asia a mess of territorial disputes. The populous and staunchly Muslim Ferghana Valley, where Osh lies, had been fragmented over the decades by Moscow and, after 1991, fell within the borders of independent Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This has led to all sorts of confusion and conflict. Bloody riots in Osh in 1990 between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz marred the run-up to independence; political spats over everything from border troop movements to the sensitive issue of water access blow hot and cold between the region’s capitals.

Initially, Kyrgyzstan stood out among the newly independent Central Asian republics for its sound, multi-party democratic system. While its neighbors returned to authoritarian rule, built on networks of patronage run by Soviet apparatchiks of old, Kyrgyzstan became relatively open, buoyed in particular by an outspoken civil society. However, by the mid-1990s, Askar Akayev, president since the republic’s inception, took an autocratic turn. He shielded business monopolies owned by friends and family and cracked down on journalists who pried into allegations of corruption — all the while, Kyrgyzstan’s economy floundered, its Soviet-era industry and agriculture withering away while tens of thousands quit the country for low-paying jobs in resource-rich Kazakhstan or Russia. In February 2005, after a round of allegedly rigged elections, popular sentiment boiled over and precipitated mass protests the following month dubbed the “Tulip Revolution” that saw Akayev step down and leave for exile in Moscow.

Bakiyev replaced Akayev with a stated agenda of reforming the country and ending corruption, but did little to act on those promises. His regime continued an earlier practice of playing foreign powers against each other — accepting lavish handouts from both Washington and Moscow to accommodate their military installations on its soil, while also tying up lucrative infrastructure projects with Chinese state companies. Yet, by some estimates, half of Kyrgyzstan’s economy is tied to the black market; there are signs also of deepening links with organized crime and drug running from Afghanistan and Tajikistan. International monitors questioned the fairness of elections held last July, while dissidents and journalists were often arrested or disappeared. Discontent over recent allegations of corruption came to a head this April and led to the current wave of violence that has sent Bakiyev fleeing from the capital. Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister who led the opposition and now claims to be in charge of the country, says the revolt is the “answer to the repression and tyranny of the Bakiyev regime.” But it may well prove just another false dawn for this turbulent corner of the world.

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