Kyrgyzstan’s government is distributing biometric ID cards with embedded microchips to its population, amid a rowdy polemic about whether the document should include information about the holder’s ethnicity. The issue is particularly sensitive, given the country’s Soviet legacy and its more recent history of inter-ethnic conflict.
The government began handing out the new-look IDs in December. Proponents of the modernized document say it will cut down on fraud. Officials have been particularly stung by claims that Kyrgyz identification documents — ID cards and passports — are so easily forged that they circulate freely among would-be Islamic terrorists.
But one aspect of the new IDs has self-styled national patriots — an assorted collection of often aggressively chauvinistic patriotic movements in Kyrgyzstan — up in arms. The space on the card once reserved for stating ethnic identity has been scrapped and now simply designates the holder’s citizenship.
Activists like Zhyrgalbek Kasbolotov, a member of the Union of National Patriotic Forces and Uluttun Unutpa (“Don’t Forget Your Ethnicity”) movement, have been holding regularly public assemblies to demand that the government make it a requirement for ID cards and passports to include information about the holder’s ethnicity.
Early in July, they went a step further and filed a request with the Constitutional Chamber, seeking to force the restoration of what has since Soviet times been termed the “fifth line” — the detail on the ID documents that followed name, date of birth, place of birth and finally social status or gender, depending on the moment in history.
In Kasbolotov’s view, the look of the new documents violates Article 20 of the Constitution, one section of which grants citizens the “freedom to determine and state one’s ethnicity.”
“Many people have turned to us because it is important for them to demonstrate their ethnic belonging. It is important for us to know ourselves and for others to know that we are from a certain ethnic group. This is as much a right as professing a certain religion,” Kasbolotov said.
ID card holders are entitled to include, if they wish, their ethnic self-identification in the data stored on the embedded microchip, although this detail is not printed on the card.
Kasbolotov contends that the absence of visible information about ethnicity on ID cards does little to foster unity among the country’s 80 or so ethnic groups.
That is a contentious claim.
Russia scrapped the ethnicity line from its IDs in 1997. The change was welcomed by the country’s numerous minorities, who felt that making such details so readily available could leave them open to discrimination.
The same debate only really came to a head in Kyrgyzstan following the inter-communal clashes of June 2010 between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad. The rioting left hundreds dead.
Journalist Bektour Iskender has been an especially vocal supporter of the move to scrap the ethnic identifier. Accentuating ethnic origin only serves to undermine people’s sense of belonging to a cohesive and unified nation, he has argued.
“Let the national chauvinists not be surprised if anybody, for example, begins to identify as Russian or Uzbek instead of as Kyrgyzstani. That is what the government allows by imbuing ethnicity with such importance that it was even shown on the main page of the passport,” he said.
Kasbolotov paints a grim scenario. “We are getting a gradual dilution of ethnic identity. First they’ll take away the ethnicity field, and then other things will follow. If this field isn’t there, we will simply cease to exist as an entity,” he said.
Kasbolotov claimed that other minorities in Kyrgyzstan are similarly inclined to have their ethnicity specified on ID cards, but that they are simply too afraid to say so out loud.
But Alexander Stepanyuk, the coordinator of the Garmoniya (Harmony) Russian culture center, said that only around one-tenth of the ethnic Russians with whom he speaks are concerned that the ethnic line has been removed. Cultivating Russian culture in Kyrgyzstan would best be done as a “citizen of Kyrgyzstan” rather than by simply restoring the ethnic identifier in documents, Stepanyuk said.
“To assert your ethnic identity, you don’t need an entry in your passport. Nobody is getting in the way of developing oneself personally and in society. You can develop your language and preserve your self-awareness even without this detail,” he said.
The nationalist-led debate about ethnicity is a significant departure from the reason cited by officials for introducing the new IDs. “In recent years, our passport has been discredited because of how easy it is to get hold of one or forge it. What we want to make sure the stereotype about the fact that Kyrgyz passports circulate freely among terrorists disappears once and for all,” said Melis Erzhigitov, the press secretary for the state registration service.
Although nationalist groups stand little chance of achieving their ends through legal channels, experience has shown they are prepared to resort to other means. And that has some people worried.
Erzhigitov said that on one occasion a group of protesters even attempted to storm and occupy his department’s offices. “A very aggressive group of people got together and made threats. But this is simply a technological advancement, there is no issue here. Nothing can give you a sense of ethnic belonging. Their reasoning is simply outdated,” he said.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a reporter based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.