Every death of a Kyrgyz national in Russia’s war on Ukraine has caused a flurry of indignation.
Thirty-year-old Ayan Alisherov, a native of Kyrgyzstan’s southern Jalal-Abad region, was fighting in Russia’s ranks when he was killed.
“My family received the news of [his] death on January 12, although as it turned out later, he had been killed on November 24, in the Donetsk People’s Republic,” Alisherov’s brother, Asylbek Abdibaliyev, told Kyrgyz newspaper Super-Info, referring to the Moscow-concocted separatist territory in eastern Ukraine.
The run-up to this turn of events is a now-familiar tale. Alisherov had been serving a prison sentence since 2019 when recruiters from the Russian mercenary company Wagner arrived with a tempting offer.
“Last summer, he said that if he took part in the war against Ukraine, he could be released within six months. And then he would be able to return to his homeland. But he did not say that he was going to fight. It seems he was forced,” Abdibaliyev said.
At least a dozen Kyrgyz nationals are known to have died in fighting in Ukraine to date. Another 20 or so are reported as missing.
For critics of Russia and its aggressive foreign policy, the moral of this tragedy is plain.
“Do not migrate to Russia under any pretext,” one political activist, Burul Usmanali, wrote on her Facebook account in January. “You will be imprisoned on trumped-up charges and then Wagner will take you off to war. If you die there, they will not be held responsible. It is a shame that our citizens should die in a foreign war.”
But while the war may be gradually souring attitudes toward Russia, the harsh reality is that Kyrgyzstan is in no position to turn its back on its most important economic and security partner.
“Our migrants work in that big country. We cannot go against Russia. That is what our lean economy is resting on,” Berdibai Sadykov, director of an adult education center in Batken region, told Eurasianet.
Getting an exact sense of the full scope of evolving public opinions in Kyrgyzstan on Russia, and on its war in Ukraine more specifically, is extremely challenging. One poll from last year provided only very scant insights.
The authorities have made it clear that this is a topic that they do not want pollsters, journalists, and activists to explore too deeply.
In one recent illustration of this, the security services, which are commonly known by the acronym GKNB, earlier this month summoned a local reporter for questioning over an interview she had conducted with two men who had fled Russia in September to avoid being enlisted. Gulmira Makanbai kyzy, a journalist with the 24.kg news agency, later said she was warned to avoid covering the topic of the Ukraine war as it could “have a negative impact on relations between [Kyrgyzstan and Russia] in future.”
Some are willing to stick their heads above the parapet.
“I am deeply outraged by the actions, or rather inaction, of the current government, which cannot resist Russian aggression in Ukraine,” Aidai Omurbekova, a teacher at a private school in Bishkek, told Eurasianet.
But by and large, anybody wishing to express staunch anti-Russian government sentiments is forced to do so within the relatively safer confines of closed messaging groups. As Nurbek Ismailov, a lawyer, told Eurasianet, while the war and the involvement of migrants in it was actively discussed in the early stages of the conflict, this has now changed.
“The authorities of the Kyrgyz Republic are forced to fulfill the will of their so-called big brother and to hunt down those who condemn the military campaign in Ukraine,” he said. “And so many have left to private chat rooms or groups where they can criticize the government and the president. But all this remains just words and discussions. I don’t see any point in this if no one hears them.”
The bitterness does not only go in Russia’s direction, though. Life has got tougher in the past year, and while this is in part a consequence of the war, the blame is not reliably laid at Moscow’s feet.
“Western sanctions against Russia are indirectly affecting our economy,” said businessman Askaraly Aidarbekov. “Prices for essential goods, fuels and lubricants, and medicines are rising. This is a result of the Russian-Ukrainian war, as well as global inflation.”
And while the West is perceived as doing little or nothing to alleviate hardships, there is a steady trickle of Russia doing things like proposing to build mini-hydropower plants, paying for the construction of new schools, and expanding the number of university scholarships for young Kyrgyz people.
What is more, virulently propagandistic Russian state television outlets are readily available in Kyrgyzstan and viewed and trusted by many, particularly among the older generation.
Against that backdrop, the Kyrgyz national leadership has little room for maneuver.
“The country's elite and parliamentary deputies are forced to play along with the government and adopt laws that allow for even wider cooperation with Russia, not only in economic affairs, but also in other areas,” Aidarbekov said.