EURASIA INSIGHT January 11, 2008

Chinggis Aitmatov And The

Geopolitics Of Kyrgyzstan


Nick Megoran: 2/18/00


Chinggis Aitmatov is probably the best known living Kyrgyz citizen, and is widely respected in his native land for his work as a writer during the Soviet era. An interview given by the ageing author in late November last year sparked a furious dispute touching on the geopolitical future of Kyrgyzstan.
Whilst the theme elaborated by Aitmatov seemed fairly innocuous – his hopes for greater cooperation among Central Asian states in the 21st century – the interview touched on some very sensitive issues that dominated Kyrgyz politics in 1999. The dispute has intensified with the approach of Kyrgyzstan parliamentary elections on February 20.
The dispute reflects concerns about the paradoxes of inter-governmental discourse, in which expressions of friendship among Central Asian states are belied by actions indicative of diverging political, economic and ideological interests. It also is indicative of the deep concern harbored by many Kyrgyz about statehood.
The article that sparked the dispute was published by the government newspaper Kyrgyz Tuusu on December 3, under the title, ‘We need to unify Turkestani society in the 21st century.' It takes the form of a dialogue between Aitmatov -- the Kyrgyzstani ambassador to Benelux nations, as well as to the European Union and Nato -- and fellow ambassador Osmonakyn Ibraimov.
Aitmatov, who is also a candidate in the parliamentary election, argued that violent incidents in 1999 -- including the February bombings in Tashkent and Batken hostage crisis -- showed that only unity between the states of Central Asia could ensure long-term security. He cited Turkestan as an historical paradigm upon which Central Asian states could base a potential new union. Ibraimov expressed general agreement with Aitmatov.
Aitmatov's comments broadly supported the government's desire that, over the long term, borders along the ancient 'Silk Route' would become more open, and Central Asia as a region would take steps to integrate politically and economically, following in the footsteps of the EU's single market. He expounded on his theme in a BBC interview on December 30, in which he also said that the current geopolitical reality is that Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov is playing the leading role in the region.
Aitmatov’s comments were widely condemned by nationalist opposition leaders, as people misunderstood Aitmatov to be suggesting that Kyrgyzstan should submit itself to a Central Asian union under Karimov’s leadership. Relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan deteriorated throughout 1999, with tension arising out of disputes over energy resources, transport route blockages and the allegation that Uzbekistan was annexing significant chunks of Kyrgyzstan as it fortified its border. [For background consult the Eurasia Insight archives ]. Confrontation in 1999 fanned Kyrgyz concerns about sovereignty.
The debate took a strange turn with an interview given by popular ex-mayor of Bishkek Felix Kulov to an opposition newspaper, Asaba, on January 12. Kulov was not only a candidate in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, but is also considered a potential challenger to President Askar Akaev in the presidential contest scheduled for later this year.
When asked about Aitmatov's views, rather than use it as an opportunity to attack the government, Kulov supported the esteemed writer’s position: "If the issue of a confederation was raised, I think our people would chose Karimov," Kulov said, adding that he himself respects Karimov highly. Kulov also supported Karimov’s stance on combating 'religious extremism'.
An article in Kyrgyz Tuusu on January 18 seized on Kulov's remarks, accusing him of a desire to surrender Kyrgyzstan's sovereignty. Thus, although he had actually supported the government politician Aitmatov and merely answered a theoretical question posed to him about who would lead the 'confederation' if it were to appear in the very short term, his comments were used to depict him as being unpatriotic.
Of course, this move led to the embarrassing question as to whether Aitmatov was himself unpatriotic, but Kyrgyz Tuusu found a way around this -- by casting doubt on Kulov's own Kyrgyzness. The newspaper criticized Kulov’s lack of proficiency in the Kyrgyz language, and questioned his ethnic background.
Asaba responded cautiously. In a January 21 commentary, the newspaper stressed its scepticism over a Central Asian confederation. Asaba asserted that neither America nor Russia were options for long term security partners, and doubted that a Central Asian Union could in practice be achieved: after all, "Half feudal states have never in history unified voluntarily."
Kyrgyz Tuusu was not to be silenced, however. Leaping to the defence of 'our Chiky,' as it affectionately calls Aitmatov, a January 28 article cast doubt on Asaba by emphasising that Aitmatov envisioned the emergence of a Central Asian confederation only 'in a hundred years or so.'- a period of time when, of course, President Karimov would no longer be around. Casting aside its earlier restraint, Asaba riposted on February 1 by publishing a satirical cartoon-montage of an Aitmatov in Uzbek national dress sowing 'Uzbek' seeds on 'Kyrgyz' land and thus welcoming the occupation of Kyrgyz territory by Uzbek farmers. In an amusing pun, Aitmatov was dubbed, 'Herald of the Melon-Federation'. An accompanying article castigated state-controlled media for distorting Kulov’s comments.
The debate clearly illustrates two points. Firstly, the very discussion about which larger power Kyrgyzstan should merge with or look to for protection reveals the intense insecurity that many feel about Kyrgyzstan's future as an independent state. On a more optimistic note, the Aitmatov-Kulov dispute is a positive indication that press freedom is gaining a foothold in a region that is generally proving so inhospitable towards it. This election-period debate has involved deliberate misrepresentation of opponents' views, the partisan positions of newspapers, mud-slinging, sarcasm, racist slurs and nationalistic jingoism. These are the hallmarks of any free and fair election in the developed world, and this short exchange on geopolitics might thus be taken as an encouraging sign for those who hope to see Western democracy blossom in Kyrgyzstan.

Editor’s Note: Nick Megoran is a PhD candidate at the Department of Geography, Cambridge University

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