A Vote of No Confidence in Kyrzygstan

by Caroline Tracey

One week ago, Kubanych Abdyrakhmanov, a member of the Kyrgyz civic organization All Possible Perspectives, announced at a press conference, “Citizens of Kyrgyzstan do not trust Prime Minister Omurbek Bobanov.” He was speaking on behalf of a group comprised of former casino workers who have been laid off as a result of a recent law banning gambling. The group’s members say that they have been trying to turn to their government for compensation and job-search assistance for a month and a half without receiving an audience; Abdyrakhmanov says that Babanov should be a forward-looking politician who cares about his constituents and devotedly serves them, but finds that he has none of these qualities.

Kyrgyzstan is a former Soviet state as well as a member of the Turkic Council. Among the region’s earliest settlers were Scythians; Turkic traders introduced Islam to the area as early as the seventh century. The region came under Soviet power in 1919 and seceded from it in 1991 – in spite of a vote just months before in which 88.7% of voters approved of remaining in the Soviet Union. It is notable for its wealth of resources, including water, as well as for two sets of riots in 2010: the first, in April, were protests against government corruption; the second, in June, were in South Kyrgyzstan and were clashes between the country’s two main ethnic groups, the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz.

The breakup of the Soviet Union necessarily prompted a widespread reconsideration of ethnic identity in the newly independent republics of the dissolved superpower. It’s a cliche that those who draw the lines of countries draw them imperfectly, dividing ethnic groups from their kin and uniting them with warring groups. Central Asia is no exception, and – as shown by the 2010 riots – tensions run high in Kyrgyzstan. Along with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan is one of only two former Soviet republics which maintain Russian as an official language along with the local language. Kyrgyz, formerly only spoken in the home, is on the rise as a professional language. There is an insult, мырк (myrk), roughly meaning “bumpkin”, used on those who come to the city and do not speak Russian.  The use of the term incited controversy when Tata Ulan, a Kyrgyz rapper who grew up speaking Russian and had to learn Kyrgyz later in life, inverted the insult, saying, “if you grew up in the city and don’t speak Kyrgyz, you’re a myrk,” a remark that reflects the omnipresent ethnic tensions in Kyrgyz life.

Dissatisfaction with the current Prime Minister over his ethnic origins may reflect stronger democratic institutions. (Creative Commons)

Prime Minister Babanov himself has been burdened by the consequences of Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic tensions: ten days ago, MP Kamchybek Tashiev published a statement positing that Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister should be a “pure blooded Kyrgyz,” a jab specifically directed at Babanov, whose mother is of Kurdish origin. “I should say openly, and let people not be offended,” the statement reads, “that the head of government should be a pure-blooded Kyrgyz, who will actually be rooting for the interests of the country. We have been ruled by Tatars, Jews, Russians and others. With the coming to power of Babanov we are now ruled by Kurds. The man who guides the nation should be a full-blooded Kyrgyz.” It will likely be some time before the countries of the former Soviet Union, where cultures have been trading, mixing, and fighting for centuries, can govern without ethnic motivations guiding allegiance.  Still, their voicing of grievances is an exhilarating utilization of new democratic avenues.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy describes the feeling and sight of war coming to Moscow. “And above all they were merry because there was war near Moscow…something extraordinary was happening, which is always joyful for a person, especially a young one.” It is not looked favorably upon to crave or be excited by war. But there is an excitement brought about by upheaval, and it is not mere schadenfreude. More than submitting one’s vote to the ballot box, more than debating and dropping literature, the instant when citizens can create chaos – that is the democratic moment.

Caroline Tracey ’13 is in Silliman College. She is a Yale Globalist Beat Blogger on Russia and Eastern Europe.  Contact her at caroline.tracey@yale.edu