Kyrgyzstan’s President Brings Home More Scandal than Cash from Moscow
Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev may be returning from Russia with a promise of $15 million in outstanding rent for the Russian base at Kant – “measly,” he’s called it – but at home there’s more shock than celebration. Somehow the new president managed to upset both nationalists and the more liberal minded during his trip.
First, during the unveiling of a statue for Kyrgyz mythic hero Manas in Moscow on February 24, which Atambayev personally helped finance, the president said that Manas, in whatever distant past he inhabited, was “an ethnic Russian” because he and the ancestors of the Kyrgyz both originated in Siberia.
"Manas never divided people by ethnicity and this was his strong point. The monument to Manas is a symbol of the unity of our nations,” the KyrTAG news agency quoted him as saying. “We have common history and, certainly, a common future.” That’s nice, but at home Manas is a rallying point for ethnic Kyrgyz identity, and has been boosted in the post-Soviet period to help coalesce the nation. “Manas mania” has gripped the country since ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in 2010, with a costly new statue of Manas erected in Bishkek’s central square and some calling for the capital itself to be renamed Manas. In this climate, suggesting the hero of the eponymous epic was not an ethnic Kyrgyz sounds heretical.
Firebrand activist Toktayim Umetalieva has demanded an explanation. “Atambayev didn’t have the right to change the history of both peoples in a flash. One should be thoughtful and careful when speaking about historical facts. The [president's] protocol service must explain to the president what ethnicity means and who Russians are,” she told Bishkek’s 24.kg news agency. “Maybe the peoples of the Russian Federation and the Kyrgyz Republic have common roots, but their historical paths are different. Now the people of our republic are at a loss and Almazbek Atambayev must explain himself.”
Epic heroes were not the only source of controversy during the two-day trip. Atambayev also managed to upset liberals and minority Uzbeks by his refusal to meet with Kyrgyzstan’s first cosmonaut, Salizhan Sharipov, an ethnic Uzbek. In the weeks before his trip, Atambayev publicly blamed Sharipov for involvement in the June 2010 ethnic violence in and around Osh.
“The first cosmonaut of Kyrgyzstan could be involved in the organization of the Osh events,” Vechernii Bishkek quoted Atambayev as saying on February 17. Sharipov’s suspected sin: being connected to Kadyrjan Batyrov – the alleged organizer of the riots, who was found guilty in absentia in a trial independent observers called heavily politicized. Thanks to the ongoing scapegoating at home, Batyrov has received asylum in Sweden.
Sharipov – who has spent over 200 days in space and once had a Kyrgyz postage stamp issued in his honor – rejects the charges. An Atambayev spokesman told me that the meeting where Sharipov tried to see Atambayev was for labor migrants and that the delegation did not draw up the list of invitees.
In Moscow, while claiming Kyrgyzstan is no longer a country that needs to beg for money from others, Atambayev made it clear he still seeks the good graces of Russia’s leaders. He laid it on thick for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is seeking to return to the presidency during a ballot this coming weekend. Atambayev told the Voice of Russia “there is a special attitude toward Putin” in Kyrgyzstan, where the people “even love Putin.”
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.