KYRGYZ GOVERNMENT UNABLE TO PRODUCE NEW NATIONAL IDEOLOGY
BACKGROUND: To stand the double pressure of increased nationalist feelings among the traditional public and alleviate the nervousness of the Russian population in the early 1990s, Akayev designed three broad national concepts based both on ethnic and civic ideals. The ideology based on the Kyrgyz epic “Manas” targeted the revival of Kyrgyz traditions. The epic’s seven maxims promoted the core values of peaceful coexistence, respect for the elder, and help to the poor. But despite the state’s wide promotion of Manas ideals, the ideology was rejected by ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking population. Only a minor part of the urban population is familiar with the heroic character of Manas, let alone the epic’s plot.
The parallel ideological concept “Kyrgyzstan is Our Common Home” was created by Akayev to foster civic values. The ideology primarily targeted the Russian, Uzbek, German, and Ukrainian ethnic groups that were most likely to emigrate from Kyrgyzstan. The “common home” ideology achieved better results than Manas. While encouraging the strengthening of various diasporas in Kyrgyzstan, it also created a medium for dialogue between them. This political concept was vital for Akayev to retain the support of ethnic minorities. Akayev’s last project was the celebration of 2,200 years of Kyrgyz statehood in 2003. The idea that the origin of the Kyrgyz ethnos dates back for millennia and has a great history of civilizational development seemed inadequate against the background of devastating poverty and corrupt government. The ideology apprised glorious moments of Kyrgyz statehood that embraced the territory from present-day Kyrgyzstan to northern regions of Siberia.
Following the presidential elections of July 2005, a special working group dealing with ideological issues was framed. The group is chaired by the state secretary, Dastan Sarygulov, who is an active promoter of values and traditions of Tengrism – the ancient Turkic religion dating back to the fourth century BC. Sarygulov claims that the working group has engaged thousands of participants from the Kyrgyz population to come up with their ideas about the national ideology. However, the debate among the political and cultural elites is rather passive and Sargulov remains the only self-declared ideologist in Kyrgyzstan. The project on Tengrism, although supporting tolerance towards other ethnicities and religions, incorporates strong features of ethno-centrism and favors pan-Kyrgyz and pan-Turkic views.
To date, Sarygulov’s ideas have not found a large support, but given his private economic and political capabilities, the state secretary has the necessary resources to propagate his views. In his recent interview to Obschestvenyi Reiting, Sarygulov noted that “We must become the genuine, proud, honest, simple, loving freedom and labor – Kyrgyz”. Sarygulov interprets Tengrism as being an optimal way to promote an anti-capitalist lifestyle and a natural response to globalization processes. Sarygulov has authored a book on Tengrism and established the civic group “Tengir Ordo”. However, despite available material resources, it will be difficult to promote ideas based on spirituality. Tengrism will need to compete with the mainstream Islamic and Christian identities in the Kyrgyz society. At the same time it is unlikely that the urban population will be impacted by Tengrism.
IMPLICATIONS: Post-March 24 Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian country where the government does not advocate any national concept. Kazakhstan’s ideology contains identifiable elements of nationalism and patriotism, Uzbekistan has been actively propagating the cult of Amir Timur, Tajikistan promotes the periods Great Somoni and Aryan history, and the Turkmen state is based on the ideals depicted in Rukhnama. These national concepts seek to maintain social cohesion in the Central Asian societies that are divided along multiple ethnic and clan identities. Like in other post-Soviet states, the Kyrgyz public is accustomed to receiving state directives on ideological issues. According to a governmental survey conducted last year, 99 percent of the Kyrgyz population thinks that Kyrgyzstan needs a viable ideology. This implies that almost the entire population expects the state to generate new political concepts which will replace the old ones promulgated by the Akayev regime.
On the governmental level, lack of a coherent state idea complicates the advancement of constitutional reform. Whether the new constitution should elevate the status of the Kyrgyz language is at the center of the debate. The necessity of a national ideology arises when the status of the Kyrgyz and Russian languages are discussed. The fact that the popularity of the Kyrgyz language is often overshadowed by the Russian language worries many Kyrgyz parliamentarians and NGOs. In the last decade, a special state committee was unsuccessful in enriching the Kyrgyz language’s vocabulary. The new constitution needs to meet the worries of ethnic Kyrgyzs and encourage the use of Kyrgyz language, yet continue to protect the rights of ethnic minorities. If the reinforcement of the Kyrgyz language is accentuated in the new constitution, this will give impetus to the revival of the Kyrgyz culture and traditions. For instance, Kyrgyz national holidays will be prioritized over Russian or post-Soviet celebrations of the Orthodox Christmas, international women’s day, Labor Day, and the WWII Victory Day.
Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz government’s passive stance towards civic ideals fostered a new wave of out-migration of ethnic Russians. The Russian Embassy in Bishkek reports that since April 2005, tens of thousands of ethnic Russians have applied to immigrate to Russia. Furthermore, the concept of “Kyrgyzstan is Our Common Home” was challenged by recent tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Dungans, as well as Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Economic deprivation in rural areas threatens to stir small everyday conflicts into violent inter-ethnic clashes. Preventing these tensions will require maintaining a strong emphasis on civic rights and ideals.
CONCLUSIONS: Ideologies play an important role in the functioning of the Central Asian states. They can enforce cohesion in society and provide legitimacy for the ruling regimes. Akayev’s official ideologies that maintained peaceful coexistence in Kyrgyzstan’s multi-ethnic society were undermined after his removal in March 2005. The Bakiyev government would be mistaken to take the existing social cohesion between various ethnic groups for granted. A small-scale inter-ethnic clash between Dungans and Kyrgyz has a potential of mutating into stronger tensions between other ethnicities residing in Kyrgyzstan. Like in the early 1990s, poverty and unequal distribution of capital between various ethnic groups in rural areas can spark further tensions among Kyrgyzs and ethnic minorities. Thus, the Kyrgyz government is facing a triple challenge: preventing the out-migration of ethnic Russians, alleviating existing inter-ethnic tensions, and maintaining the popularity of the Kyrgyz language. These tasks can be achieved only through a deliberate combination of civic-based and ethnic-based principles.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Erica Marat is a Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, specializing in state-building, organized crime and regional security in Central Asia.