Pakistan’s relations with Kyrgyzstan started on a high. Within days of the opening of our mission Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto arrived in Bishkek on her first official visit to Kyrgyzstan. In the historical city of Osh seven little girls, (including a daughter of the First Vice Prime Minister), all named Benazir , greeted her amidst much fanfare. Benazir met the girls and their parents individually and announced that she would send them gifts from Pakistan. When the news spread I received several calls from people in different cities and towns claiming that they too had named their daughters after our Prime Minister. I sent a message to the Prime Minister’s office to ask for seventeen gift packets but by the time these arrived from Islamabad the number of Kyrgyz ‘Benazirs’ had increased to twenty four. So I arranged the additional seven packets locally. All the recipients were invited to the Chancery, including the Vice Prime Minister and his family and the gifts were handed over in a simple ceremony. These were token gifts from Benazir but gave much joy to the recipient children and parents. More substantial gifts – vehicles including a Suzuki car manufactured in Pakistan – were sent from Pakistan after the visit, and presented to the President of Kyrgyzstan.
[quote]I received several calls from people claiming that they too had named their daughters after our Prime Minister[/quote]
A few agreements of bilateral cooperation between Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan were signed during the visit. These included an agreement on ‘Cooperation in the field of the Electric Power sector.’ Kyrgyzstan was, and still is, very keen to sell electricity to Pakistan. It has not been possible to implement the agreement because of the long and costly transmission line needed all along the Karakorum highway. Security factors have also proved to be a hindrance.
[quote]Pakistan extended a loan of ten million dollars to Kyrgyzstan for the establishment of a pharmaceutical factory[/quote]
Earlier, Pakistan had extended a loan of ten million dollars to Kyrgyzstan for the establishment of a pharmaceutical factory. A Pakistani company won the contract, built it and put it in operation in good time. On its completion the Kyrgyz wished our then (and now) Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif to inaugurate the operation of the factory. Since it was not possible for our Prime minister to visit Bishkek at that time, President Askar Akayev invited me to join him and his Prime Minister Apas Jumagulov for the inauguration and the cutting of the ribbon. The factory started producing over fifty medicines of common use which were earlier being imported. Pakistan’s assistance was much appreciated.
The Kyrgyz had another expectation from the high profile visit of our Prime Minister. They wanted to take the Prime Minister up the difficult mountain trail to Babur’s mosque on top of Sulaiman Too to get Pakistani funding for a chair lift that would boost the tourism industry in the country. After all, Babur was relevant to Pakistan’s heritage and history. The Kyrgyz Prime Minister Apas Jumagulov who had accompanied Benazir Bhutto on the walk up the same mountain had broached the subject with her. She listened but no formal request having been made earlier, she did not make any promise or commitment. However still on the walk and within the hearing of the accompanying Kyrgyz officials, she said to me, “Ambassador, get the estimate of the cost and inform me.” The Kyrgyz media – and authorities—took it as a commitment by the Prime Minister to finance the chairlift project. Subsequently I had to spend some time and effort to explain to the Kyrgyz authorities that our Prime Minister had made no promise and it was not possible for Pakistan to fund such an expensive project.
Relations between Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan have gained further strength over the years. We now have more than 1200 Pakistani students pursuing studies in different universities of that country. Pakistanis find it easier and cheaper to get admission in engineering and medical universities there as compared to countries in the west. Cost of travel is affordable because flying time from Islamabad to Bishkek is less than even that between Islamabad and Karachi. According to the Kyrgyz Charge d’ affaires in Pakistan, some 330 Pakistani companies are registered and doing business in his country. Quite a few of the Pakistani consumer goods find a good market there and there is potential to increase the volume of bilateral trade even more significantly.
Apart from geographic proximity there are other commonalities between Pakistani and Kyrgyz people. The looks and dresses of our countrymen in northern areas, particularly Hunza, are very similar to those of the Kyrgyz. There was once a sizeable number of Kyrgyz residents in the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan who fled to Pakistan in the aftermath of the Afghan Saur revolution. During the 1980s over a thousand of these Kyrgyz refugees were allowed to leave Pakistan and seek asylum and resettlement in eastern Turkey.
The Russian language is still the official language of the Kyrgyz Republic while Kyrgyz, of Turkic origin, is the national language. Since our national language Urdu also has Turkish connection—Urdu or Ordu is itself a Turkish word—there are many words common between the two national languages.
During Benazir’s visit we were having our lunch hosted by President Akayev in honour of our Prime Minister; the Kyrgyz Minister of agriculture was talking about the agricultural produce of his country and mentioned that some things, including onions, were grown in abundance and could be exported. Benazir got interested and addressing me said, ‘Ambassador get the details; we have shortage of onions in Pakistan these days, we could import from here.” One Deputy Minister sitting next to me, who knew little English, asked me what the conversation was all about. I explained a bit to him. In the meanwhile the word ‘piyaaz’ somehow made its way into this explanation. He exclaimed , “O, why do you all say onion, onion, —why don’t you say piyaaz—we also call it piyaaz.”
Pakistanis feel at home among the Kyrgyz because of many similarities and affinities. We loved the oven baked bread ‘laposhka’. One drink, stored in large earthen pots wrapped in wet muslin cloth, called ‘talkan’ made of ground barley, wheat and maize is available by the roadside in the city center and was my favourite. We do not have its equivalent, in the finished form, available in Pakistani markets although its ingredients, mainly ground barley which we call ‘sattou’ is available easily, particularly in the villages. ‘Zharma’, a drink made from fermented barley is a national drink used mostly in the summer time Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, with high snow-clad mountains have severe winters; the temperature in Bishkek would go as low as minus 20-22 degrees celsius. I remember having offered Eid prayers on carpets spread on ice in the main square of Bishkek, with the temperature at minus 7 degrees. All of us were heavily clad in woolies and some even put their shoes on.
In such weather reluctance to take a bath is understandable. During a social get-together I recall some two dozen guests of different nationalities on the dining table. Jokes were being exchanged. One gentleman told this joke: a Kyrgyz and a Kazak met after a long time. The Kazak asked how many times in a year does a Kyrgyz take a bath. The Kyrgyz said, ‘Once in summer before we go up the mountains, and second time in winter when we come down to the plains. And you?’ The Kazak, expressing his astonishment said, “O, my God, you are like the fish. We get a wash once on birth and second time before burial.” When the laughter on the dinner table subsided one Scotsman in the company said. “Yes, we too have a joke about Queen Elizabeth I. They say she would take a bath once every year, without fail, whether she needed it or not.”
Like any other country Kyrgyz have certain peculiarities and national icons of their own. The Kyrgyz regularly eat horse meat which is considered a delicacy, unlike in Pakistan where we do not consider it ‘halal’. When President Askar Akayev’s mother passed away in his native village, the press reported that the bereaved family slaughtered 29 horses to provide food for the guests coming for condolence. The horse is integral to the Kyrgyz life. Horse riding is common in the country side. Horses are found in the wild also. Mare’s milk is used to make the popular drink kumis which is mildly alcoholic.
An iconic image of life in Kyrgyzstan is of a sturdy man wearing a typical Kyrgyz hat and long leather boots, riding a horse and holding a big falcon on his gloved forearm. Among the many musical instruments of the Kyrgyz the most popular is the ‘komuz’ – a stringed instrument made from a single piece of apricot or juniper wood. My wife Nigar, an artist and cartoonist designed cards depicting popular Kyrgyz symbols along with her own well know Gogi character and donated these to the prominent charity organization ‘Meerim’ run by the First lady. This helped raise donations for a charity. President Akayev liked the card design that highlighted friendship between the Kyrgyz and Pakistani people.
During my stay I found the Kyrgyz, both at official as well as the social level warm-hearted and very friendly towards Pakistan. Whenever I invited Foreign Minister (later President ) Ms Roza Otunbaeva , Advisor (later Foreign Minister and the Secretary General of SCO) Mr Imanaliev and other prominent personalitiesmwould gladly visit our home. President Askar Akayev having been the President of the Academy of Sciences and a Ph.D in Laser Physics was perhaps the highest academically qualified head of state at that time. He was very kind and courteous, suave and soft spoken. Whenever I would get the opportunity to meet him he would express good feelings about Pakistan and Pakistanis. When it was time for my departure from Kyrgyzstan at the end of my assignment I requested an appointment for the traditional farewell call on the President. He gave me a date that was to my convenience and invited me and my wife to dinner while the normal practice was to offer only hi-tea to departing Ambassadors. That day the first lady was out of town but the President did not want me to delay my departure so he hosted the dinner in her absence. In our farewell picture together the President insisted that my wife be in the centre even as we insisted that he stand in the middle. It sounds rather comical now but to me it is a symbol of general Kyrgyz humility.
In 2005, an uprising known as the “Tulip Revolution”, took place after the parliamentary elections in March 2005 after which President Askar Akayev was forced to resign on 4 April, 2005. That was his country’s and peoples’ internal affair but as far as our relations are concerned, Dr. Askar Akayev as President of Kyrgyzstan was warmly and manifestly friendly towards Pakistan and Pakistanis. He is reportedly settled in Moscow now with his family and has gone back to his teaching profession, working as a Professor at Moscow State University.
I hope that Pakistan’s relations with Kyrgyzstan continue to be as close and strong now as they were when the mission was first established.