Kyrgyzstan’s year has begun in incendiary fashion amid talk of horse penises, offended national pride and the fate of the country’s most valuable economic asset.
At the center of the controversy is chuchuk — a long, thick and greasy Central Asian culinary delicacy obscure enough to send thousands heading to Google for more information.
If Michael Mcfeat, a British employee at Kyrgyzstan’s largest private foreign investor, Centerra Gold, had thought to do the same before updating his Facebook page on New Year’s Eve, he might have avoided trouble.
As midnight approached, Mcfeat observed in a message that Kyrgyz people would soon be “queuing out the door” for chuchuk, which he ribaldly likened to “horse penis.”
That swiftly sparked the rage of his local co-workers at the high-altitude Kumtor gold mine, which accounts for around one-tenth of the country’s economy.
The police have also got in on the action, detaining Mcfeat on January 3 on charges of inciting racial hatred — a crime punishable by up to five years in jail.
Ironically, chuchuk is an equine dish not wholly dissimilar to haggis, a traditional and much-mocked, offal-laden specialty from Mcfeat’s home country, Scotland.
In 2005, for instance, the immensely popular Russian sci-fi writer Sergei Lukyanenko had one of his characters in the best-selling book Last Watch uncharitably liken the taste of haggis to that of a soiled nappy, and managed all the same to avoid any legal reprisals from the British authorities.
An International Crisis Group report on Kyrgyzstan published on September 30, only days ahead of parliamentary elections, paints a grim portrait of the political situation and warns that the entire region could suffer from failure to adopt urgently needed reforms.
ICG identifies persisting ethnic tensions, corruption, unchecked nationalism and the surge of political Islam, fuelled by disaffection at self-interested party clans, as key and pressing problems facing Kyrgyzstan.
Despite those potential looming threats, ICG sees little likelihood of an imminent change in direction.
“Parliament and the presidency seem unwilling and institutionally incapable of addressing these issues,” the report said. “Few expect the 4 October parliamentary elections to deliver a reformist government.”
Kyrgyzstan bucks the overall trend in the region with its often rowdily competitive political system. Billboards up and down the country testify to the abundance of choice being offered to voters as they head to the polling stations to pick the 120 deputies that will represent them in parliament.
For all that political diversity, the picture on the ground appears bleak, ICG said in its report.
The ethnic Uzbek community, which accounts for 14.5 percent of the population, has been thoroughly marginalized on the political scene and remains subject to harassment from an almost homogenously ethnic Kyrgyz police force.
That trend has been coupled with the ascendancy of virulently nationalist and conservative groups.
Kazakhstan has launched festivities to mark over half a millennium of Kazakh statehood in a celebration designed to shore up patriotism at home and make a geopolitical statement abroad.
“We pay tribute to the memory and deeds of our ancestors, remembering that the history of our sacred land dates back several centuries,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in Astana at the kickoff to a month of nationwide celebrations.
There will be festivities in Astana this weekend ahead of the main events in the southern city of Taraz in October as Kazakhstan marks 550 years since the khans Kerey and Zhanibek created the first Kazakh khanate.
The date seems arbitrary to some critics, but Nazarbayev defended it when he announced the plans for the celebrations last fall.
“The statehood of the Kazakhs dates to those times,” he said. “It may not have been a state in the modern understanding of this term, in the current borders. … [But] it is important that the foundation was laid then, and we are the people continuing the great deeds of our ancestors.”
A row has erupted in northern Kazakhstan over the erection of a monument to Russian Tsar Nicholas II, who is reviled by many Kazakhs for his association with the bloody suppression of an uprising in 1916.
The bust to Tsar Nicholas II, who was murdered by the Bolsheviks following the 1917 Russian Revolution, was put up by local businessman Pyotr Vanger outside a church in the village of Arkhangelskoye, just south of the border with Russia.
On August 10, the statue was moved inside the village’s Russian Orthodox church following an outcry on social media about a monument revering somebody perceived as a Russian despot appearing in public.
“The monument has been taken inside, into the church,” Tengri News quoted local authorities as saying. “The decision to take it inside was made by the entrepreneur himself, to avoid questions.”
The statue has so far avoided the fate of a monument to Soviet leader Josef Stalin in southern Kazakhstan which was torn down earlier this year after generating a similar controversy.
That statue was removed from its pedestal in May, after villagers had re-erected it following its toppling in a hurricane last summer.
Village authorities ruled that they had acted without planning permission. But the case had wider political connotations as many were enraged at the reverential treatment of a Soviet leader whose policies caused the death of millions of people in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
Statues to Russian and Soviet despots are sensitive for Astana, which is eager to promote its own sovereignty without antagonizing its powerful neighbor and close ally Russia.
A group of nationalist activists has announced it is forming a paramilitary militia to defend Kyrgyzstan from foreign threats – and foreign flags.
Known as “El Namysy” (The People’s Dignity), the group “will be a nationwide association, a paramilitary, whose members will be ready to mobilize and be sent to any part of the republic,” prominent anti-gay activist Jenishbek Moldokmatov said while introducing the founders at a March 18 press conference in Bishkek.
El Namysy leader Adilet Daiyrov told journalists at the press conference that members are all “sportsmen” – a loaded term in a country where groups of physically fit men in tracksuits always seem to appear at times of trouble.
El Namysy co-chair Ruslan Niyazakunov, a champion in ultimate fighting, told Kloop.kg the group would begin with community outreach, though his methods sound vaguely threatening.
“We will conduct preventive work, promote our ideology and explain what is good and what is bad. I want to stress that if there are people who do not support or understand us, we will work with them,” Niyazakunov said. He said he was particularly bothered seeing “flags of Russia, Europe, the United States or other countries.”
Niyazakunov added that he considers NGOs a “foreign threat.” He said members of his group would not carry firearms, but repeatedly used the term “paramilitary” (полувоенный in Russian) to describe how they would organize.
Moldokmatov, who heads a nationalist youth group called Kalys, added that El Namysy would react to events and rallies that he determines are being held on behalf of a foreign power.
Foreign flags are a recurring irritation, members say.
Led by a flag bearer hoisting an image of Jesus, and six drummer girls in purple satin, about a thousand supporters of various nationalist causes marched for what they called “Russian May Day” in northwestern Moscow on May 1.
Young and old, men and women shouted, “Russia is for Russians,” “Glory to the Russians,” and angrier slogans, such as “get out, black dirt” – a reference to migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Indeed, it was migration that seemed to unite this broad swath of rightwing Russia.
“Russian citizenship for Russians. No to handing out citizenship,” some chanted. “Who are we? Russians! We are the power here!”
Several of the groups also yelled, “Cancel 282” – that is, Article 282 of the criminal code, which prohibits inciting ethnic hatred. Each of about 10 groups had its own flag, including a black-yellow-and-white-striped banner used briefly by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. Other banners incorporated white power symbols. (The kolovrat, seen in several images above on a red flag, is sometimes called the Slavic swastika. Adopted by some rightwing groups, others defend it as an ancient pagan symbol for the sun.)
In Kyrgyzstan, calculated outrage over sexual-health education is a political pastime: In the late 1990's, a reactionary group organized a public burning of books printed by the government for youth on healthy lifestyles, claiming the section on sexual education was immoral. Now rhetoric is heating up over a series of sex-ed pamphlets printed by the Alliance for Reproductive Health (ARZ), funded by the German development agency, GIZ, and the UN.
In this Q&A, Gulnara Ibraeva, a prominent sociologist and expert on gender and sexuality, formerly of the American University in Central Asia, explains to EurasiaNet.org what Kyrgyzstan’s growing “generation of blank minds” means for the country. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
EurasiaNet.org: The Alliance for Reproductive Health brochures have suddenly caused a stir. Why? And are they necessary?
Gulnara Ibraeva: In the school curriculum this kind of practical education is absent. More than one generation of sexually illiterate people, people who don't understand basic aspects of sex, have been raised. There are many examples of how the absence of this sort of education negatively impacts schoolchildren. People know nothing about their bodies. They don't even understand how they function! They have medieval perceptions about the body, even now in schools – a totally medieval understanding of real adult sexual life.
EN: Is this why there are perceptions about sexual education being shameful? Or somehow antagonistic to the idea of a Kyrgyz identity or Kyrgyzchylyk [sometimes loosely defined as “Kyrgyzness”]?
A group of more than 20 people, some shouting nationalist slogans, are reported to have attacked a Tajik train crossing Russia.
The attack took place at midnight on October 26, Asia-Plus news agency reported on October 29, quoting a Tajik diplomat in Moscow.
Around 20 young men of Slavic appearance attacked the train at the Ternovka railway station in southern Russia, the report quoted Mohammad Egamzod, a spokesman for the Tajik embassy in Moscow, as saying. He said the assault was “accompanied by offensive words and racist threats against the passengers,” several of whom had been “slightly injured” while train windows had also been broken. Egamzod added that Russian transport police and railway staff “did not take any measures to prevent the attack.”
The Tajik embassy in Moscow has asked Russia “to impartially investigate the xenophobic attack that occurred with the connivance of local law enforcement authorities and representatives of the Yugo-Vostochnaya Railway and to cover all expenses related to the attack,” the Asia-Plus report added.
Yet Tajik Railways disputed this version of events, saying that the incident amounted to no more than a few children throwing stones at the train, breaking six windows. “I would like to note that this happens everywhere, and even in our country children throw stones at trains,” Mamadyusuf Abdurakhmonov, the head of the Tajik Railways passenger service, told the Tajik Telegraph Agency (TajikTA) on October 29.
Turkey may be involved in a peace process with its Kurds, but there's no denying things have gotten bogged down. Last month, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) announced it was halting the withdrawal of its fighters from Turkey because Ankara has failed to reciprocate with positive steps of its own. Meanwhile, a new "democratization" package of reforms unveiled last week by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was widely panned as not offering enough in terms of Kurdish reforms, stopping short of making some crucial changes -- such as lowering the 10 percent national election threshold or introducing Kurdish-language education in public schools -- that Kurds have long asked for.
In a new report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group suggests the reason the Turkish government's Kurdish reform effort might be stalling is the fear of a nationalist backlash and its impact on the ruling Justice and Development Party's domestic fortunes. The report, though, argues those fears may be overblown. From its executive summary:
A legal amendment that would restrict the rights of Kyrgyzstan’s minorities sailed through parliament last week with a vote of 84 to 12. Legislators must endorse the amendment to the law “On the State Language” in two more readings before it can come into force.
The draft amendment proposes to fine government officials (clerks and above) for speaking anything other than Kyrgyz in the process of performing their official duties. Moreover, all official documents, including tax returns, would need to be submitted to authorities in Kyrgyz and only Kyrgyz, Kloop.kg explains. Currently the law allows documents to be submitted either in Kyrgyz, the “state language,” or Russian, Kyrgyzstan’s “official language.”
Under the amendment, government bodies would no longer be required to provide Russian translation at official functions, parliament would no longer consider draft laws in anything but Kyrgyz, and civil servants would need to pass a rigorous Kyrgyz language test.
The amendment would thus bar from public service and civic life anyone who does not speak fluent Kyrgyz – that is, minorities and some of the best-educated Kyrgyz, who often speak Russian as a first language. According to the 2009 census, Kyrgyzstan is approximately 71 percent ethnic Kyrgyz; Russians and Uzbeks constitute another 22.3 percent of the population.
Russian’s status as Kyrgyzstan’s “official language” would become virtually meaningless, while the amendment could further isolate Kyrgyzstan internationally.