Kyrgyzstan’s new-look flag, approved by parliament in December, was raised on the capital’s main square on January 1.
And then all hell broke loose.
Within the same day, eagle-eyed internet sleuths reported noticing that the number of yellow rays shining out of the central motif was not 40, as it should be, but 39. Others picked up on discrepancies in the design of the central feature depicting a tunduk, the circular lattice structure placed at the summit of traditional yurts.
If figures within President Sadyr Japarov’s team get their way, this whole episode may end up landing somebody in jail.
The story begins in September, when a pair of deputies put forward legislation proposing a change to the red-and-yellow flag. As they argued in a note attached to the draft bill, the sun-like image at the middle of the flag presented a “conundrum of visual perception,” since people looking at it could mistake it for a sunflower. And this is bad, because, as they argued, sunflowers are weak followers that bend to the will of others.
A few days later, Japarov weighed in to express agreement with a proposal that he would later confess had actually come from him in the first place.
“There are lot of people who hold the view that the current flag looks like a sunflower. And because of that, our state has been unable to rise up since it could do nothing but gaze upon the sun,” Japarov told a journalist from the state news agency. “If the [new] option is adopted, God willing, we will no longer be dependent on anybody. From now on it will be as if the sun is shining and smiling on us.”
Where the rays in the older design were soft and wavy, they are now straight and spiky. Other changes are more subtle.
Recognizing that the change was being demanded by the president, the Jogorku Kenesh, the country’s single-chamber parliament, quickly approved the new flag in three readings in December.
It now appears there has been altogether too much haste.
As the word began spreading that somebody might have composed a flag with the wrong number of rays — and the detail is important as the number of rays is meant to represent the 40 Kyrgyz tribes — officials scrambled to limit the damage.
Dayyrbek Orunbekov, the president’s spokesman, dismissed the quibbling, insisting that the flag that was hoisted on the central Ala-Too Square in Bishkek was correct.
“There is no need for you to sit around at home and spread rumors. Just go and count for yourself,” he wrote on Facebook.
Sure enough, on the night of January 3, Bishkek municipal workers were filmed lowering the flag and counting the rays up to the requisite number.
That has not convinced the doubters, who suspect the wrong flag was simply substituted for a corrected version under the cover of night to enable this piece of choreography.
Some lawmakers are annoyed too, as the definitive amended version of the flag is slightly different to the one that they approved. It appears that subsequent to lawmakers giving their blessing to a new flag, the government tinkered further, thereby defying parliament’s prerogative to make final decisions on such matters.
“The government does not have the authority to adjust adopted laws — this is exclusively the authority of the parliament, as outlined under the constitution,” opposition deputy Dastan Bekeshev wrote on his Telegram channel.
This all means at least four — not to say almost certainly more — types of Kyrgyz flags in total exist out in the world: the original, parliament’s version, the government’s version, and, it appears, a defective 39-rayed variant of the government’s version.
That is not where the irritation of MPs ends. Another lawmaker, Tazabek Ikramov, has complained that the new flag was raised on January 1 without even a modicum of ceremony.
“The new flag should have been raised in the presence of a guard of honor. At least in the presence of the secretary of state. And the national anthem should have been played. (Only an enemy force sneaks in and swaps the flag),” he wrote on Facebook.
Japarov’s team has grown weary of all this. The head of the presidential administration, Kanybek Tumanbayev, has called for punishments for anybody spreading what he termed “fake information” about the number of rays on the flag. Among the offenders he alluded to were privately run news outlet 24.kg, a member of the Butun Kyrgyzstan opposition party, the journalist Yrys Imetaliyeva, and numerous unnamed representatives of nongovernmental organizations.
Tumanbayev is concerned, among other things, that continued discussions on this topic are going to embarrass Kyrgyzstan.
“Not only does such false information create discontent among many people, but now our Kazakh neighbors are discussing it too,“ he moaned. “Those who use manipulation to whip up public anger must be held accountable within the law.”
Some are already feeling the heat.
Human rights activist Gulshayir Abdirasulova wrote on January 4 that the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, the successor agency to the KGB, has been summoning people grumbling about the 39 rays matter for questioning. In an interview to Kloop news website, she said that she had information of at least three activists and journalists to have received this treatment.
Temirlan Sultanbekov, a prominent figure in the opposition Social Democratic Party, or SDPK, wrote on Facebook that one of his colleagues was pressured into deleting a social media post about the flag on pain of imprisonment and subsequent physical harm.
“There is nothing unconstitutional in what he wrote, but despite that, he was forced to delete his post,” Sultanbekov said.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.