You can find donkeys at Bishkek’s theme parks painted to look like zebras. A Kyrgyz proverb has it that travelling on one to the jailoo, or mountain pasture, is a sign of social lowliness.
In a country that reveres – and eats – the horse, the humble donkey is a poor substitute, destined to spend its days poked and prodded by rural boys dreaming of stallions.
For this reason, allegations that a farm outside Bishkek is doing a spritely trade flogging donkey meat to eateries in Kyrgyzstan’s capital have caused mass consternation and soul searching. The parliament’s committee on agrarian policy threatened on March 2 that the government had until March 15 to deliver justice for Kyrgyz meat lovers, or face a vote of no confidence.
Investigators promptly opened a criminal case against the farm, which denies wrongdoing, on March 3.
The scandal began brewing on February 24 when journalists from state television followed up on the complaints of locals and visited a farm in Sololuk District, not far from Bishkek. Gruesome photos soon emerged online of piles of severed donkey heads and other donkey parts at the farm’s less-than-sterile-appearing slaughterhouse.
Selling donkey meat is not a crime in Kyrgyzstan, but the journalists claimed – without offering proof – that the animals were bound for Bishkek’s restaurants, where their cuts would masquerade as beef and lamb.
Subsequent raids by government inspectors on local cafes have failed to uncover evidence of those claims. One chef at a popular restaurant was quoted by local media doubting that donkey meat would be profitable, since it takes hours to cook to tenderness, wasting energy and manpower at the capital’s busy kitchens.
On February 25, the donkeys began dominating debate in the raucous national parliament, which has already ousted one prime minister for getting too close to a horse, among other things.
“People are being lied to and fed meat that they would never have eaten if they had known what animal it came from,” raged MP Saidullah Nyshanov, head of the agrarian policy committee. “This is a matter of history. Kyrgyz have never eaten donkey meat. It is a disgrace!”
MP Esengul Isakov, another member of the committee, added: “Now the country's citizens will be called ‘Kyrgyz who eat the meat of donkeys.’ Let [the donkey farm] answer for the shame they have brought upon us."
The owners of the donkey farm have hit back, threatening the state television journalists with court while maintaining that “every gram” of their donkey meat is exported to a zoo in Hong Kong.
“We suspect that there is somebody standing behind these [allegations], ruining the investment attractiveness of the Kyrgyz Republic,” said Almaz Takyrbashev, head of the firm, Capital, that runs the farm. “We will not name names yet, hoping that these people come to their senses. It is not too late to extinguish this conflict and settle it peacefully.”
But parliament, packed with agribusiness chiefs and always keen to vote out a government to appear like it is doing something, is unlikely to let this one slide.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyz donkeys listening to the fracas might look with a mixture of envy and relief at their counterparts in Italy, who are viewed as a delicacy.