Today’s Kyrgyz Republic was known as ‘Kirgizia’ when it was part of the Russian Empire. The Russians made it a part of their country in 1876. Then came World War I, and with it a revolution in the country. In March 1917, Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown and forced to abdicate. In the early morning hours of July 17, 1918, the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five children – daughters Tatiana, Anastasia, Olga, Maria and the crown prince Tsarevich Alexei (who was suffering from the disease haemophilia) – along with their servants were executed by the Bolsheviks at the Ipatiev house in the city. When Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (he added ‘Lenin’ to his name in 1901 at the age of 31), leader of the Bolshevik revolution and founder of the Russian Communist Party, took over as the Head of State, the country was renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Communist rule lasted in Russia from 1922 to 1991. Throughout this time, the Kirghiz SSR was a part of the Soviet Union and its people were made to learn the Russian language. After the dissolution of USSR on December 25th 1991, its constituent republics emerged as independent post-soviet states. Kyrgyzstan, one of these new states, gained full independence on 25th December 1991. In 1992, Kyrgyzstan joined the United Nations. On 5th May 1993, the official name of the country was changed from the ‘Republic of Kyrgyzstan’ to ‘the Kyrgyz Republic’.
Having lived under foreign rule for over eleven decades, including seventy years of communism, the Kyrgyz were obliged to inculcate the ways of their rulers. Some of these ways persist to this day. Lenin, for example, is no longer relevant to Kyrgyzstan, nor had he any link to the Kyrgyz soil or people. Yet his life-size statue adorns the main square in Bishkek. The Kyrgyz were a subject nation when the Russians fought the World War against Germany; but the independent Kyrgyzstan continues to call it the ‘Great Patriotic War’ and observes the day of victory every year.
It was on one such occasion that Mr. Bazarbaev, the Minister for Culture, a renowned former ballet dancer of the Bolshoi theatre, a gentleman, a good Muslim and a patriot, invited me to an official function to celebrate his country’s victory. Thanking him, I asked why the Kyrgyz were still celebrating the Great War Victory Day when it was blatantly not their war. This led him to think. He remained silent for a few seconds and then, thinking aloud, said, “Why are we celebrating this day?”
Since attaining independence, the Kyrgyz, like other central Asians, have made conscious efforts to rid themselves of foreign influences. They are succeeding admirably. But it takes time to erase the imprints and habits acquired over many generations.
I arrived as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan less than four years after the country achieved independence. The time I served in Bishkek was a period of transition for Kyrgyzstan. I witnessed interesting and perceptible transformations in the way of thinking of the Kyrgyz people. Once, during a chance meeting with the Deputy Minister for Water and Power, I asked him about the royalty Kyrgyzstan was receiving from neighboring Kazakhstan for the water they used from the Kyrgyz dams. (It may be mentioned here that the intertwined boundaries of the central Asian republics drawn during Stalin’s time look like a jigsaw puzzle. There are Kyrgyz enclaves in Tajikistan and Tajik enclaves in Kyrgyzstan. The way to travel from Almaty to another part of Kazakhstan is through Kyrgyzstan and so on. It just so happens that some big water dams of Kyrgyzstan, which is a mountainous country with abundant water resources, are situated near the border and most of the water is in the use of its neighboring countries.)
The Minister, in response to my question, said, “No, they pay us nothing. If ever we ask them they retort, ‘Are you in your right mind? Water is free, it is from nature. Who pays for water?’ And then we keep quiet.”
I explained to him that such a response may have been justified when they were all part of one country. But now, as a separate independent country, Kyrgyzstan had to safeguard its own assets.
Ruminating, the Minister said, “For very long we never had to think for ourselves. Orders came from Moscow. We obeyed without question. They told us to give 70% water to Kazakhstan, 25% water to Uzbekistan, another 20% water to Tajikistan—we simply said ‘yes sir’ – we never thought or said that it could not be done because it added up to 115%. The problem now is that we have to think for ourselves and that is new and hard for us.” When I informed him about the World Bank’s role in the signing of the Indus Water basin Treaty between Pakistan and India, he asked me for help. I subsequently got him copies of the Treaty and arranged for a Secretary of the Government of Sindh to visit Bishkek and advise him on the subject.
Similarly, the market economy was new to the Kyrgyz. It happened with me more than once: when I would ask an artist for the price of his or her painting, in reply I would not be quoted a fixed price. The response might be, “Between 80 and 100 dollars.”
We were looking for a premises to hire for our Chancery and the Ambassador’s residence. After much search we found a newly constructed set of three buildings with a good open space, designed for a social club. This could serve our purpose with some small alterations and the addition of a boundary wall. I met the owners. They said they wanted to sell it but may consider renting it out if they did not find a buyer. I asked to know the rate. For outright sale they demanded US$ 200,000, but for rent they wanted US$ 10,000. I could not believe it. I asked them how they expected such a high rent which, in less than two years, would be equal to the purchase price. They said they were demanding this high rent because they had taken a big loan that they had to return. An extraordinary justification!
[quote]Giving vodka bottles as gifts was routine[/quote]
In the early years of independence, drinking alcohol and giving vodka bottles as gifts was routine. I witnessed the gradual reduction in, and then restriction on, drinking alcohol. There was a perceptible increase in religious practices after the Kyrgyz became independent. They are predominantly Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi sect. The central mosque in Bishkek, built in 1886, is one of the oldest structures in the city. In recent years, the mosque has been renovated and expanded to meet the needs of the faithful as they return to the fold.
The Kyrgyz speak both Russian (their official language) and Kyrgyz (their national language). But usage of the national Turkic language was becoming more and more frequent after independence. There is a growing trend now to learn English.
[quote]The Kyrgyz leadership had a pro-Indian orientation[/quote]
In foreign relations too Kyrgyzstan had to make a fresh start. During the cold war period, the Kyrgyz leadership and people in general had a pro-Indian orientation. Because of the close relations of the USSR with India, the Kyrgyz were also better informed about India and Indian policies than about Pakistan and its issues. It was my job and duty, as Ambassador of Pakistan, not only to promote and strengthen bilateral relations but also to appropriately inform my hosts about Pakistan’s internal situation and external policies, foremost among them Pakistan’s relations and disputes with India. It was my good luck that just days after my posting I got the opportunity to give an account to the Kyrgyz Prime Minister Apas Jumagulov of Pakistan’s disputes with India, particularly the Kashmir dispute. For some 35-40 minutes the Prime Minister listened to me intently, only asking a few questions. The occasion was when I was seated in front of the Prime Minister in his special plane on our return flight from Osh to Bishkek after bidding farewell to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on her first official visit to Kyrgyzstan.
[quote]Manas is the classic centerpiece of Kyrgyz literature[/quote]
Manas is an icon of the Kyrgyz. The epic Manas, of which Manas is the main character, was first written down by Chokan Valikhanov, a Kazakh. Valikhanov’s account was based on the information that he had received from the manaschis or reciters of the epic who had inherited it from their ancestors in a celebrated chain of oral transmission. Manas is the classic centerpiece of Kyrgyz literature, and parts of it are often recited at Kyrgyz festivities by specialists called Manaschis. Manaschis tell the tale in a melodic chant unaccompanied by musical instruments. Both the life of Manas and the lives of the Manaschis or bards who recite the heroic deeds of Manas are celebrated in the complex in the center of the city. The Manas epic has been translated into several languages of the world. The Urdu translation published by the Academy of Letters of Pakistan was presented to President Akayev during our President’s visit to Kyrgyzstan in the 90s.
The statue of Manas, completed in 1981, is placed against the backdrop of the white marble of the monumental Philharmonic building. It depicts the heroic Manas while riding his magic steed, Ak-Kula, and slaying a dragon. Below, to his right, is his wife and counselor, Kanykei, who is wearing the national Kyrgyz dress. To his left is his advisor, the sage Bakai, also in traditional Kyrgyz clothing. A mausoleum some 40 km east of the town of Talas is believed to house his remains and is a popular destination for Kyrgyz travelers.
Some Kyrgyz social traditions and rituals are centuries old and are practiced even today. In rural areas, upon the death of an adult, the women of the family and close relations get together and wail loudly. The family of the deceased may even ask or hire professional mourning groups. Those who come to condole are served sumptuous meals. The mourning period lasts for days, depending upon the stature and importance of the deceased. I did not get a chance to attend any such occasion in Kyrgyzstan but I recall that when the mother of the then President Askar Akayev died in his native village, the media reported that 29 horses were slaughtered to feed the hundreds of people who came to condole. We, the accredited Ambassadors, decided that we would all go to the village to condole with the President. When the President was informed he stopped us and sent word that he would receive us in the Presidency when he returned to Bishkek. After a few days we were invited to the Presidency where a formal dinner was arranged and all of us spoke, one by one, and offered condolences. It is interesting to note that in my own ancestral village in the Punjab, where the majority of residents trace their lineage to central Asia, the rituals following deaths are very similar. In the village where everyone knows everyone else, the women of the village make a beeline for the house of someone who is known to be seriously ill. If the death occurs it will be announced by the loud wailing of the women gathered round the dead body with their dupattas tied round their waists, bending up and down while beating their heads with both hands. This would be interspersed with baen (improvised dirge) sung by one woman. In any village, such accomplished women who can narrate or sing the baen in a rhythmic way much in demand on sad occasions. They improvise the dirges on the spot, weaving in the name, the incidents and deeds of the deceased.
Nazar Abbas is a former ambassador of Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com