August 25, 2014
I had come to visit Bishkek Feminist Сollective SQ.
“Are there really feminists in Kirghizia?” my mom had wondered before I left.
On the way from the airport to Bishkek the collective’s leader, Selbi, corrected my speech several times.
“It’s not Kirghizia, but Kyrgyzstan, and Kyrgyz, not Kirghiz.”
In fact, the local Russians speak the way they are used to, and no one pays any mind to their use of “Kirghiz.” But when a Kyrgyz says it, it is insulting and even offensive. It means someone who is Russified and has forgotten the traditions of their people. Besides, the word “kirghiz” means “forbidden to enter.”
“You don’t live in Kirghizia, but in the Soviet Union, one country for everyone,” Russian teachers would explain.
The majority of people in the capital of Kyrgyzstan still speak Russian. While I was in Bishkek, I heard from several Kyrgyz that Russians had symbolic capital, because they were seen as more cultured and educated. The local Russians I met said they were not the titular nation, and a glass ceiling inevitably awaited them in the civil service, for example. But they had not encountered serious harassment in daily life.
The Problem of Migration
I was invited to draw at the Mekendeshter Forum (“Compatriots” Forum), organized by the ex-President of Kyrgyzstan Roza Otunbayeva. The forum dealt with the issue of emigration from the country. It was held in the spacious, beautifully designed Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University, which the Turks opened in Bishkek in 1997. On one side of the stage hung a large portrait of Ataturk; on the other side, an image of Manas, the Kyrgyz epic hero. The forum program included a separate discussion on cooperation between the “fraternal countries” of Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. Many Kyrgyz have in recent years preferred to go to work in Turkey. Several speakers emphasized that in Turkey, compared to Russia, there was much more respect for the Kyrgyz diaspora. The Islamization of Kyrgyzstan has accompanied Turkey’s growing influence.
Almost half the speakers at the forum spoke in Russian. There wasn’t a separate panel on cooperation with Russia, but the subject constantly came up, first of all, in connection with Kyrgyzstan’s possible accession to the Eurasian Customs Union.
Woman on left: “Our government is promoting the interests of a foreign country and is prepared to restrict the freedoms of its own citizens.” Kyrgyz Prime Minister (at lectern): “It’s only an economic union.”
Many speakers criticized the decision.
(in Kyrgyz) “The borders of the Customs Union are the borders of the Iron Curtain. Will we be turning our back on other countries?”
Will accession to the Customs Union impact the country’s domestic policies? Members of the Kyrgyz parliament are already pushing through bad imitations of Russian laws, for example, a law on “foreign agents,” almost identical to the Russian law, or introduction of criminal liability for disseminating information about LGBT. Moreover, the law would cover not only “propaganda among minors,” as in the Russia “18 and over” law.
During my stay in Bishkek, there was a scandal at a contemporary art show. In his Spider-Man series, the artist Chingiz had depicted a spider in Kyrgyz national headdress. He was immediately summoned to the GKNB (the State Committee on National Security, the local version of the FSB) and bombarded with threats on the Internet.
Chingiz: “I’m threatened with violence for insulting the national heritage.”
Joining the Customs Union will make it easier to travel to Russia to work and increase emigration many times over. However, speakers at the forum said that Kyrgyzstan already suffered from a lack of specialists and, in some areas, just plain laborers.
You can find what Russian citizens have to say about Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Customs Union by doing a Google search. Most often, they are predictably outraged by “parasite wogs” or happy about “reunification of the Russian lands.” There are also a few liberal comments to the effect of “but somebody has to do the dirty work for us.”