Kyrgyzstan is correctly regarded as among the most democratic leaning of the post-Soviet states. It is the only country in Central Asia that consistently earns a “partly free” rating in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World rankings whereas all the other Central Asian countries are rated as “not free.” Kyrgyz citizens, moreover, are themselves inclined toward democratic governance. Seventy-one percent of Kyrgyz surveyed in Gallup’s 2016 World Poll agreed with the statement: ‘democracy is important for the development of the country’. How is it, then, that a polity that with both a democratically-oriented population as well as the region’s most competitive political institutions is concomitantly a polity home to elements of illiberal civil society?
In recent years Kyrgyzstan has seen growing ethno-nationalism, deadly ethnic riots, and an up-swell in anti-LGBT rhetoric. Kyrgyz citizens, moreover, are more comfortable expressing support for ‘suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets’ in defense of Islam than are people elsewhere in Central Asia. These illiberal movements and sentiments have different wellsprings. Decades of tension between the titular population and the ethnic Uzbek minority in southern Kyrgyzstan has sparked periodic waves of economic ethno-nationalism in the country. Anti-LGBT alarmism, pervasive in the Russian media, offers ready-narratives for political and social entrepreneurs championing ‘traditional’ Kyrgyz values. And frequent images in the press of civilians dying as a result of US and coalition air strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria may be driving public support for violence in defense of Islam.
In addition to these drivers it is necessary, albeit admittedly uncomfortable, to acknowledge one additional reason for why Kyrgyzstan may be witnessing an uptick in illiberal civil society: democracy. Kyrgyz politics, in contrast to more autocratic states elsewhere in Central Asia, is competitive. Illiberalism sells in Kyrgyzstan, just as illiberalism is now popular in Europe and the United States. Illiberal ideas, moreover, find space to circulate in a free press – something Kyrgyzstan has and other Central Asian states do not. This is not to say Kyrgyzstan would do well to abandon competitive politics. Central Asian leaders, most notably Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, have used the specter of militant Islam as well as other potential societal ills as justification for autocratic rule and mass repression. Confronting uncivil society in a competitive political environment is far preferable to autocracy and repression. Indeed, illiberalism in Kyrgyzstan, most notably Kyrgyzstan’s flirtations with ethno-nationalism, have proven episodic. As such, there is evidence to suggest deliberative democracy, just as it may facilitate the rise of illiberalism, may also hasten the demise of uncivil social movements.
Kyrgyzstan has endured two episodes of deadly ethnic conflict. Riots between the titular majority and ethnic Uzbeks in 1990 resulted in over 300 deaths. Ethnic riots in 2010 left nearly 400 people dead. While all sides suffered unspeakable tragedies, the casualties and property loss in both the 1990 and 2010 conflicts were most heavily concentrated among the minority Uzbek population in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Although both the 1990 and 2010 riots were preceded by specific ‘sparks’—a land dispute arising out of Gorbachev’s economic reforms in 1990 and a fight between an ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbek at a casino in 2010— the enduring economic and political disparities produced an environment that have been conducive to episodic conflict. In southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, Osh, for example, the 1989 census placed the ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbek populations at near parity—32.2 percent Kyrgyz and 32.6 percent Uzbek. The Kyrgyz, however, held the lion-share of the city’s political offices whereas Uzbeks controlled a disproportionate share of the city’s lucrative industries – retail, restaurants, and taxis. Further straining relations was the reality that ethnic Kyrgyz were relative newcomers to Osh and other major southern cities such as Jalal-Abad and Uzgen. Housing stock in these cities was predominantly in Uzbek hands, a reality that the 1990 land dispute and the 2010 destruction of Uzbek property demonstrates the anger at this amongst ethnic Kyrgyz.
Kyrgyz politicians have repeatedly sought to capitalize on this ethnic-based political and economic disconnect. Osh’s Mayor in the early 1980s, Mukhit Dzhambekov, promised to bulldoze single family homes and, in their place, build high-rise apartments. And Osh’s Mayor in 2010, Melis Myrzakmatov, suggested that a third of Osh’s population had to be removed from ‘seismically active zones’ and resettled in high-rise apartments. Veiled in the language of modernity and safety, both the Soviet and post-Soviet mayors’ proposals were designed to appeal to a titular (Kyrgyz) population that feels economically dispossessed in their home country.
Although the 1990 and 2010 ethnic riots shared the same enduring structural cause, the political aftermaths of the two events were noticeably different. Kyrgyzstan’s new leader (more precisely, the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic’s new leader) in 1990, Askar Aakaev, appealed for ethnic unity and the slogan, ‘Kyrgyzstan, our Shared Home’, could be found on billboards in all major towns and cities. In 2010 the message was not unity, but rather, ethno-nationalist one-upmanship. The Kyrgyz parliament rejected the OSCE’s report on the June 2010 riots, arguing that the investigation wrongly concluded that “only one ethnic group has committed crimes, ignoring the victims and deaths of this group…. and unfairly portrayed ethnic Uzbeks as ‘defenseless victims.’” President Otunbaeva’s spokesman, Azimbek Beknazarov, declared the Osh Mayor, Myrzakmatov, not an instigator but, rather, a “hero of the events.” And, as a final punctuation to the deadly episode, in May 2011 the Kyrgyz parliament declared the author of the OSCE report, Kimmo Kiljunen, persona non grata.
The critical difference between 1990 and 2010 and the reason why ethno-nationalism saw a marked upswing following the second episode of deadly riots and not the first is that Kyrgyz politics in the 2010s had become mass-based and competitive. Stressing one’s nationalist bona fides, even for someone like President Otunbaeva—perceived both in Kyrgyzstan and abroad as a strong supporter of democracy—was essential for any politician who wanted to win or remain in office. Not to appear sufficiently pro-Kyrgyz would have resulted in reformers like Otunbaeva being outflanked by virulent nationalists in Kyrgyzstan’s newly popular Ata-Jurt party.
Kyrgyz ethno-nationalism has waned in recent years. Ata-Jurt, the leading vote winner in the October 2010 Kyrgyz parliamentary elections, fell to second place behind the Social Democratic Party in the 2015 vote. The decline in Ata-Jurt’s influence and the attraction of ethno-nationalism more broadly can be attributed to several factors. Although difficult to affix firm numbers, the razing of Uzbek neighborhoods and destruction of Uzbek commercial property in Osh and Jalal-Abad shifted the economic balance toward ethnic Kyrgyz in these southern cities. Relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, moreover, have improved under the new Uzbek presidency of Shavkat Mirziyoyev since 2016. As a result, rumors of ethnic Uzbek secession, widespread in 2010, are not credible today. Ethnic Uzbek political leaders, moreover, are far less visible than they were in 2010. Businessman and former MP, Kadyrjan Batyrov, perhaps the most prominent ethnic Uzbek in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, was tried in absentia and found guilty of instigating the 2010 riots. Batyrov now lives in exile in Sweden. A final factor driving the decline in Kyrgyz ethno-nationalism is the identification of new threats, for example the perceived threat the LGBT community poses to traditional values, around which Kyrgyz social and political entrepreneurs can mobilize.
An LGBT community under attack
As with ethno-nationalism, so too do anti-LGBT movements in Kyrgyzstan draw on deep-rooted societal sentiments. Asked in Gallup’s 2013 World if ‘openly demonstrating a homosexual relationship’ was morally acceptable or morally wrong, only 1.7 percent of Kyrgyz respondents agreed that open homosexuality was morally acceptable. Similarly, in a 2012 survey Pew conducted, only three percent of Kyrgyz agreed homosexuality is morally acceptable. The 2012 Pew survey, moreover, revealed that attitudes toward homosexuality were invariant across demographics. In contrast to public opinion in the United States and Europe, where younger people are more accepting of homosexuality than are older cohorts, in Kyrgyzstan 2.8 percent of respondents under the age of 30 viewed homosexuality as morally acceptable whereas 3.2 percent of respondents 30 and over approved of homosexuality.
Despite widespread anti-LGBT sentiments in Kyrgyzstan, the LGBT community only recently became a target of political entrepreneurs. In January 2011 the Kyrgyz Ministry of Justice refused to register the LGBT Rights NGO called Pathfinder because the NGO’s full name, the ‘Alliance and Social Services of Gays and Lesbians—Pathfinder’, references homosexuality. Such language, the Ministry of Justice concluded, can lead to the ‘disintegration of moral and ethical norms and national traditions of the people of Kyrgyzstan’. In May 2012 a Bishkek city court ruled a film entitled I Am Gay and Muslim, could not be shown at a human rights festival. In March 2014 150 protesters from the Kalys nationalist youth movement took to Bishkek’s streets to demand parliament pass a law ‘banning gay propaganda in Kyrgyzstan’. A few weeks after the Kalys march, a group of Kyrgyz MPs introduced a bill that would punish ‘calls to unconventional sexual relations’. The bill would make punishable by imprisonment the dissemination of information about ‘non-traditional sexual orientations in the media’ and severely restrict ‘gatherings’ that promote LGBT rights. While Kyrgyzstan’s anti-LGBT law remains under consideration, the question of same sex-marriage has been resolved. In 2016 Kyrgyz voters passed an amendment to the constitution defining marriage as a “union between a man and a woman.”
This 2011-2016 uptick in anti-LGBT activism can be attributed to two developments: (1) the European Union and the US. government’s emphasis on LGBT rights in foreign policy and (2) Russia’s effective politicization of LGBT rights as a political wedge to mobilize not only Russian society, but also post-communist societies more broadly against the EU and the US. In order to become an EU member or, moreover, in order to receive visa free travel to the EU and other closer agreements with it, countries must accept EU Directive 2000/78, a directive which prohibits ‘discrimination based on religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation’. While the prospect of US aid may be considerably less enticing than EU membership, the Obama administration also hinted at conditionality in a December 2011 Presidential Memorandum directing ‘all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.’
Moscow has gone to extensive lengths to distinguish traditional values from what it portrays as deviant EU and US western values. Dmitri Kiselyov, a Russian television personality widely followed by Russians as well as Russian-speakers across the post-Soviet expanse, opined on Rossiya 1 in 2012 that not only is it appropriate to “fine gays for propagandizing homosexuality”, but also, “they should be prohibited from donating blood or sperm… and their hearts, in the case of a car accident, should be buried, or burned, as unfit for extending anyone’s life.” Notably, a few months after making this statement, Putin elevated Kiselyov to director of the Russian State News Agency. The Russian parliament, for its part, passed a law in June 2013 making the promotion of ‘non-traditional relations’ punishable by a fine of 100,000 Rubles.
The Russian law is an inspiration for Kyrgyzstan’s ‘traditionalists.’ Kyrgyz MP Kurmanbek Dykanbaev, for example, explains that just like the Russian law, so too with the Kyrgyz law “it’s about promoting these forms of orientation in the media… especially among children.” The Kyrgyz anti-LGBT law, again it is worth noting, has yet to be passed. Dykanbaev explained in 2014 that the Kyrgyz law was necessary because the “European mentality” on sexual orientation is at odds with the Kyrgyz mentality: “What is allowed in Holland contradicts Christianity and Islam. … Both the Russian-speaking population and the Kyrgyz-speaking population do not support such Western standards. We must defend our children.” The rise of the political right both in Europe and in the US may ease Kyrgyz MP concerns. If nothing else, the rise of the right in the US and the EU makes sloganeering against purportedly immoral and non-traditional western acceptance of diverse sexual orientations less politically effective. Paradoxically then, growing illiberalism in the west may prompt a decline of anti-LGBT activism in Kyrgyzstan.
Support for militant Islam
Whereas the rise of the political right may point to a decline in the emphasis on LGBT rights in western diplomacy, there is little to suggest that the US or EU countries will curtail efforts to limit the spread of Islamist militancy. Kyrgyzstan, for more than a decade, was a partner to this effort. The Manas Transit Center was, until its closure in 2014, a central staging point for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) effort in Afghanistan. Kyrgyz politicians eventually soured on the ISAF’s presence at the country’s main international airport, and demanded western forces depart the Center. This turn in opinion was due in part to Moscow’s pressure, but also to growing suspicion of western tactics in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
The vast majority of Kyrgyz, like the majority of other Central Asian populations, self-identify as Muslim. Kyrgyz, however, are an outlier when it comes to expressed support for forms of militant Islam. In its 2012 poll of predominantly Muslim countries, Pew found only 66 percent of Kyrgyz respondents rejected ‘suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets’ in defense of Islam whereas 93 percent of Kazakh respondents and 76 percent of Tajik respondents rejected violence in defense of Islam. That Kyrgyz appear markedly more tolerant of violence in defense of Islam is likely attributable to two factors: (1) Kyrgyzstan’s comparatively open information space and (2) a considerably less oppressive political environment in which self-censorship is unnecessary. Engaged Central Asians know about the vast civilian casualties first hinted at in the Snowden and Manning leaks. Moreover, western journalists’ documentation of civilian casualties at the hands of coalition airstrikes—the findings of reports such as the New York Times ‘The Uncounted’—have circulated widely in the Central Asian press. While these civilian casualties are widely known, they are not widely discussed across Central Asia. With the exception of Kyrgyzstan, all other Central Asian states are secular autocracies. Voicing Islamist sentiments can land citizens in prison in these countries. In Kyrgyzstan, in contrast, citizens are free on-line and in person to express support of militancy when confronted with reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
Critically, there is little to suggest that outward expressions of militancy have translated into substantive Islamist mobilization within Kyrgyzstan. This makes sense in the environs of a competitive political system like Kyrgyzstan’s. In both the case of Kyrgyz ethno-nationalism and anti-LGBT activism, local targets—ethnic Uzbeks and LGBT NGOs—can readily be identified against which to mobilize political support. Frustration at the mounting Muslim civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, while real, has no local target and, as such, limited political utility. There is some evidence that Kyrgyzstanis—approximately 600 according to the Kyrgyz government—have gone abroad to join militant Islamist groups. Cases of domestic Islamist militancy within Kyrgyzstan, however, are rare and Islamist platforms are all but non-existent in Kyrgyz politics.
Kyrgyzstan in comparative context
Viewed in the global context, Kyrgyzstan’s periodic bouts with uncivil society are neither unusual nor puzzling. Ethno-nationalism and anti-LGBT sentiments wax and wane in western polities just as these sentiments come and go in Kyrgyzstan. Competitive politics, as the Weimar Germany case so poignantly illustrates, is no defense against illiberalism; just the opposite, competitive politics may time-to-time, prove the genesis of uncivil society.
This reality presents a dilemma for civil society advocates: democracy promotion, long the mantra of western government and international organization outreach efforts in Central Asia, offers no guarantee civil society will always flourish. Democracy promotion advances civil society only when paired with sustained local human rights and civil liberties advocacy. This is no small task. Constitutional design is easy; we know how to design institutions that give rise to competitive politics. Less well understood is how to effect cultures of enduring civil society. Increasingly this is not just a challenge for post-Soviet Central Asia, but also for western democracies, those same countries which, in an earlier, optimistic ‘wave of transition’, were much more enthusiastic and self-confident champions of political reform.
About the author: Eric McGlinchey is an Associate Professor of Politics and Government in George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Dr. McGlinchey is the author of Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia (2011). He is the Principal Investigator for the study, Russian, Chinese, Militant, and Ideologically Extremist Messaging Effects on United States Favorability Perceptions in Central Asia (Minerva Research Initiative, January 2017 – December 2019). Grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research, the International Research & Exchanges Board, the Social Science Research Council, and the U.S. Department of State have also funded his research. Dr. McGlinchey has published widely in academic journals and the press. He has contributed to U.S. government studies, including the 2007 USAID-funded Study of Political Party Assistance in Eastern Europe and Eurasia as well as three 2013 USAID-funded risk assessments on Violent Extremism and Insurgency in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Central Asia. Dr. McGlinchey received his Doctorate from Princeton University.
This essay partly draws on research undertaken as part of the project Russian, Chinese, Militant, and Ideologically Extremist Messaging Effects on United States Favorability Perceptions in Central Asia, funded by the US Department of Defense and the US Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory under the Minerva Research Initiative, award W911-NF-17-1-0028. The views expressed here are those of the author and should not be attributed to the US Department of Defense or the US Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory.
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