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Kyrgyzstan: at a glance

Analysis
Kyrgyzstan
Two members of the Taz clan take part in a wrestling match at their annual two-day festival at Song Kol Lake, in Naryn Province, which also includes family storytelling, dancing and horse-riding games.
TIM DIRVEN/PANOS

Kyrgyzstan is a place of contrasts that confounds expectations. Its landscape is one of deep green valleys and high craggy peaks – the Pamir Mountains where Kyrgyz people have fled in times of trouble for centuries. The country’s politics is as dramatic as its scenery. Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, there have been three revolutions in as many decades. Traditional nomadic ways of life persist alongside modern notions of political participation. Kyrgyzstan has the only electoral democracy in Central Asia, precarious though it may be.

Kyrgyzstan lies at the heart of the Silk Road. Searching for trade, conquest and glory, people from many empires passed through these lands – the Turks, Mongols, Uzbeks and most recently the Russians, who annexed the country in 1876. Each colonizing power left influences that the Kyrgyzstanis wove into their own culture as elegantly as local women sew the country’s famed felt carpets.

Modern history began with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan’s first post-independence president, Askar Akayev, was initially hailed for the country’s relatively open and liberal atmosphere. But optimism waned as he changed the constitution multiple times to increase presidential power. By 2005 it was clear that Akayev, mired in corruption, had usurped power for himself and his family. Protests broke out when he tried to rig parliamentary elections. Thousands of protesters occupied administrative buildings, successfully demanding Akayev’s resignation in what became known as the Tulip Revolution.

Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who led opposition to Akayev and replaced him as president, proved no better than his predecessor. Bakiyev’s term was marred by the murder of several prominent politicians, plummeting living standards and other economic ills, while at the same time the president and his family gained control of lucrative businesses. Protests were a common feature of his presidency, which ended with the country’s second revolution – sparked by rising energy prices in April 2010.

A woman milks a mare in the Kyrgyz Alatau range (part of the Tien Shan mountains) – she will make a fermented drink called kunus from the milk.
TIM DIRVEN/PANOS

In the same year, violence erupted in the south between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who have generally lived peacefully together for generations and often repeat the maxim ‘our bazaars are one’. Yet tensions over unequal access to land and political power simmered below the surface. Grievances exploded when the interim government, jockeying to replace Bakiyev, sought Uzbek support, stoking Kyrgyz resentment and violence that claimed over 400 lives.

Relations between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks remain fragile and issues persist around minority rights to education, land and equal treatment by law enforcement. But in other ways, Kyrgyzstan leads on minority rights, in 2019 becoming the first country to eliminate statelessness by offering everyone within its borders official documentation. In 2010, Roza Otunbayeva became the first woman head of state in Central Asia, ordering an independent international inquiry into the interethnic violence that preceded her presidency – though the inquiry was largely ignored by her more nationalist successors.

In October 2020, Kyrgyzstan experienced its third revolution, with protesters storming government offices over vote buying by President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. The president resigned and fresh elections in January 2021 brought to power populist nationalist Sadyr Japarov, who had only in October been sprung from jail, where he had been serving a lengthy term for kidnapping a political rival. Around 80 per cent of voters also supported proposals to direct power away from parliament into the new president’s hands. The fate of his predecessors suggests that, if he disappoints Kyrgyzstan’s activist citizens, Japarov could end up back behind bars.

Beekeeper Victor inspects his 120 hives in Sary-Chelek, in the western province of Jalal-Abad. 
TIM DIRVEN/PANOS

LEADER: President Sadyr Japarov

ECONOMY: GNI per capita $1,240 (Kazakhstan $8,820, Russia $11,260).

Monetary unit: Kyrgyzstani Som (som means ‘pure’ in Kyrgyz, implying ‘pure gold’).

Main exports: Gold and other precious metals and gems account for more than 50 per cent of exports. Mineral fuels, knitted textiles, copper and cotton are also major exports. The UK is the main export destination, followed by Russia. More than 50 per cent of imports come from China.

The economy is vulnerable to external shocks owing to its reliance on one goldmine, Kumtor, which accounts for 8% of GDP, and on worker remittances, equivalent to 28% of GDP in 2019. Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, remittances dropped by around 25% in 2020.

POPULATION: 6.4 million. Population annual growth 0.9%. People per sq km 32 (UK 271).

HEALTH: Infant mortality rate 16 per 1,000 live births (Kazakhstan 9, Russia 5). Kyrgyzstan has one of the highest rates of drug-resistant tuberculosis in the world, posing a serious threat to the country’s health and economic development. Although prevalence of HIV is less than 1%, over the past decade Kyrgyzstan has been one of seven countries with the fastest-growing epidemic globally.

ENVIRONMENT: CO2 emissions per capita 1.6 tonnes (Kazakhstan 13.9, Russia 12.0). Many people get water from contaminated streams and wells so water-borne diseases are prevalent. A rapid increase in traffic is causing a rise in respiratory illnesses. Increasing soil salinity from faulty irrigation practices. Active opposition to environmentally damaging Chinese investment projects.

RELIGION: About 90% of the population are Muslim, with the majority Sunni. Christianity accounts for 7%. The constitution provides for freedom of religion.

LANGUAGES: Kyrgyz (official) 71.4%, Uzbek 14.4%, Russian (official) 9%, other 5.2%.

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX: 0.674, 122nd of 189 countries (Kazakhstan 0.825, Russia 0.824).

Two girls by the roadside near Kazarman.
TIM DIRVEN/PANOS

Star ratings

INCOME DISTRIBUTION ★★✩✩✩

Income inequality improved in the first decade after independence in 1991, but has generally declined since then. 23% live in poverty, well above the regional average. The top 10% of the population hold 38% of income, while the bottom 50% account for 22%.

LITERACY ★★★★★

99.6%. The primary school completion rate is 98.3%.

LIFE EXPECTANCY ★★★✩✩

71 years (Kazakhstan 73, Russia 73).

POSITION OF WOMEN ★★✩✩✩

Women are largely excluded from decision-making. Violence against women is widespread, including domestic violence, bride kidnapping and trafficking. Women’s rights activists face harassment and abuse.

FREEDOM ★★✩✩✩

Following ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in 2010, the Uzbek minority have faced discrimination in accessing public services and political representation. Uzbek activists were tortured and accused of association with Islamists. Kyrgyzstan has a pluralist media, but journalists face harassment when reporting on corruption and interethnic violence.

SEXUAL MINORITIES ★★★✩✩

Same-sex sexual activity is legal for males and females, but couples are denied legal protections available to heterosexual couples. Homophobia is widespread and often violent. Same-sex marriage is explicitly banned by the constitution following a 2016 referendum that received 80% support. Transgender people are allowed to legally change gender, but this requires sex reassignment surgery.

POLITICS ★★★✩✩

After revolutions ousting authoritarians in 2005 and 2010, Kyrgyzstan adopted a parliamentary system designed to curb presidential power. Governing coalitions, however, proved unstable and corruption remained endemic. In January 2021, three months after a popular uprising over disputed parliamentary elections, voters elected populist Sadyr Japarov the new president, simultaneously backing a return to presidential rule in a referendum. Japarov is a conservative nationalist with anti-Uzbek views who was in prison for kidnapping until a few months ago.

New Internationalist issue 531 magazine cover This article is from the May-June 2021 issue of New Internationalist.
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