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Kyrgyzstan: Nationalist Politician's Statements Spark Protests

Recent pronouncements by MPs of a provocative and nationalist character have brought debates about language, identity and self to the top of the KyrNet’s ‘to blog’ list, and not for the first time, either. Since bloodshed between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in June 2010, nationalist rhetoric has made nests for itself both online and inside the Kyrgyz parliament.

Nevertheless, having come into sharp relief in the aftermath of those tragic events, “ultra patriotic” voices seemed finally to be taking a well-deserved rest in the country, as a government of more moderate political sentiments coalesced around new President Almas Atambaev. Enter language warrior Urulkan Amanbaeva and inter-ethnic peace-pooper Kamchybek Tashiev.

Adapted from the blog thekulas.blogspot.com

Adapted from the blog thekulas.blogspot.com

When looking at how important a given issue is to Kyrgyz netizens, citizen media portal Kloop.kg’s Facebook plugin is usually a fairly reliable indicator. In still-young 2012, the most discussed articles have been Kyrgyz MPs and their cars, MP Urulkan Amanbaeva’s belief that ethnic Kyrgyz government officials should speak in Kyrgyz, and, most recently, MP Kamchybek Tashiev’s statement that Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister should be a “pure blooded Kyrgyz”.

The details of the Amanbaeva case, which involved the deputy from the Respublika faction squawking at an official from the treasury for answering a question posed in Kyrgyz in Russian can be read here. But it is the statement of Tashiev, a polarizing politician from the south of the country, which has attracted the most attention from netizens.

“Oh Tashiev, so very Tashiev”

It was Tashiev’s party, Ata-Jurt, that edged victory in Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections in October 2010. Judged by international observers as the country’s most free and fair in 20 years of independence, the result reflected a growing nationalist fervour – especially in the country’s ethnically divided south. But since then, “Kamchike” as he is affectionately known by the country’s red top media, has comprehensively failed to get along with any of the other parties in parliament, and even had a fight with one MP while the legislature was in session.

If Tashiev has an ultimate nemesis, it is Omurbek Bobanov, leader of the Respublika faction and current Prime Minister, who he has accused of a range of misdemeanours in the past. On February 8, in an interview with the Kyrgyz tabloid De Facto, he said the following:

 Society is full of people who are opposed to Babanov leading the government. Everyone knows who Babanov is. I should say openly, and let people not be offended, that the head of government should be a pure-blooded Kyrgyz, who will actually be rooting for the interests of the country. We have been ruled by Tatars, Jews, Russians and others. With the coming to power of Babanov we are now ruled by Kurds. The man who guides the nation should be a full-blooded Kyrgyz. So they say in Russia, and in Kazakhstan. And why should we be ashamed to talk about it?

Russians? Ok, that was the Soviet Union. Tartars – some loose orientalist reference to the age of Ghengis Khan, perhaps. Jews – when was that?

In referring to the people of Zion, Tashiev may have been speaking of Maxim Bakiyev, the son of Tashiev’s former boss, Ex-President Kurmanbek. Maxim’s mother was Russian and his father at various points was accused of being a non-Kyrgyz Dungan (how else could his unpatriotic, corrupt activities be explained?), while Maxim, seemingly by virtue of having Israeli business partners, was labelled “a Jew”. Thus, ethnicity is clearly a complex thing.

Chalkan.kg columnist, Aida Kasymailova, blogged in a piece titled “Tashiev – the true Kyrgyz”:

Yesterday, all Kyrgyz, on hearing the news [of Tashiev’s announcement] via radio and television, glanced at themselves in the mirror and asked themselves whether or not they were “pure-blooded”. They remembered their ancestors up to the seventh generation, enquired with their current and former wives. Some found a reason for pride, but many, doubt.

The allegation that Babanov is a “Kurd” stems from the fact that his mother is Kurdish, according to a comment  re-tweeted [ru] by Kyrgyzstan’s second-most followed twitterer, Edil Baisalov:

If Tashiev is having a go at Babanov's mother, then he should apologize

Bektour Iskender, president of Kloop, let out a despairing cyber-sigh on his citizen media portal's Facebook plugin [ru]:

Oh Tashiev, so very Tashiev

Another user, Bahadir Nazirkhanov, said Tashiev's focus on “pure-bloodedness” put the status of ‘national’ literary hero Chingiz Aitmatov [ru] in doubt:

 To follow Tashiev's logic, should we also put C. Aitmatov in the category of unpure?

Indeed, such a thorough and discerning search for purity could reduce the Kyrgyz nation down to Tashiev and a few of his friends, although even Tashiev's own children might miss the cut.

Nazambai Ishkahametov said:

What fascism? Tashiev's wife is Kazakh. To follow his logic, his children are not pure-blooded

But among the liberal complainants, there were a few ready to rally behind Tashiev's message. Kyalbek Kyrgyz said:

Correct Tashiev! Kyrgyzstan is for the Kyrgyz, and not for any old half-hearted b******s. In order that pro-American ass-analysis isn't written here, continue your patriotic duty. If you don't like the Kyrgyz, go somewhere you do like!

Mind your language  

Tashiev's announcement certainly raised the stakes in terms of the nationalist debate. Prior to now, most of the country's discourses on patriotism have had language, rather than genetics, at their core. The need to develop the state-endorsed Kyrgyz, perhaps at the expense of the country's other official mode of communication, Russian, has been a key concern, not only of the country's politicians but of popular culture figures, too.

In an engaging article on Eurasianet.org, Nate Schenkkan profiles Tata Ulan, a Kyrgyz bard/rapper with revivalist cultural leanings, whose performances have made him a national talking-point:

The music video is all one take. Standing behind a podium bearing the state seal of Kyrgyzstan, wearing a felt kalpak hat and armor like the national epic hero Manas, a masked figure hectors the audience over a bounding beat:

In 20 years what has the state given its children? / Sold out wisdom, turned to business, wisdom’s on the street now! / What do my Kyrgyz need? You're a Muslim, you need religion! / What do my Kyrgyz need? Pure Kyrgyz language is what you need!

Ulan went on to tell Schenkkan in an interview that, like many urban Kyrgyz, he had to go back to the books to ‘learn’ his native tongue:

“In order to learn my language, I started to read Manas,” he said. “I had never spoken Kyrgyz, at least not well. And I couldn't write the language at all. But then I read Manas, and immediately I started to write”.

[Ulan] is now a fierce advocate of the language. “If you grew up in the city and don't speak Kyrgyz, you're a myrk,” he says in ‘Ne Kerek,’ inverting the insult native Bishkek residents use for non-Russian speakers who move to the city. It is statements like this that prompt accusations of nationalism.

An archived Spektator blog has more on the bizarre term “myrk” here.

N.B For readers of Russian, a satirical blog on Akipress.kg that re-imagines public discourses as fairy tales, makes for an interesting introduction to politics in the country. Last week the theme was inevitably ‘pure-bloodedness', discussed in a post “What is on your mother's side?”, with “Kamchi” and “Omurke” as the main characters. In the blog, the author infers that “Kamchi”, who has the Kyrgyz national dish besh barmak in his blood, has long suspected “Omurke” of being ” far too pretty” to be a true member of the “besh barmak nation”.

We will allow Global Voices readers to make up their own mind on that score. Tashiev is on the right, the “impure-blooded” Bobanov on the left:

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