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Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan
Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan
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Kyrgyzstan: After the Revolution

The March 2005 popular revolt ended President Askar Akaev's increasingly authoritarian fourteen-year rule and gave political and economic progress a chance.

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Executive Summary

The March 2005 popular revolt ended President Askar Akaev's increasingly authoritarian fourteen-year rule and gave political and economic progress a chance. However, the new leaders face significant obstacles. If the situation is mishandled, and people conclude nothing has changed except the names at the top, Kyrgyzstan could become seriously unstable.

When Akaev came to power at independence in 1991, he seemed an ideal president: young, energetic, and apparently committed to political change and an open economy. He encouraged economic reform and a certain political openness, at least relative to his Central Asian neighbours. However, following his controversial 2000 reelection, he moved in a more authoritarian direction, and his popularity faded.

Above all he failed to stem corruption or develop the rule of law. Instead the political system was increasingly dominated by his family and a small group of supporters. The corruption which developed around Akaev's family was a main cause of his fall.

Akaev overcame challenges through co-option of elites and occasional repression of opponents. His main rival, former Vice President Feliks Kulov, was imprisoned on trumped-up corruption charges in 2001 and remained there until March 2005. Key media outlets, except for a few opposition newspapers, were almost completely under government control.

The president survived politically in 2002 when six people were shot dead by police in the southern Aksy district, leading to several months of protests. But the government did not learn its lesson, and Akaev increasingly seemed out of touch with reality, promoting unrealistic programs and not understanding the socio-economic crisis besetting the population. He had always been much weaker in the south but was losing popularity even in the north. This regional divide, though sometimes exaggerated and manipulated, remains important in political life.

The ouster of Akaev should not have been entirely unexpected. He had not only lost popular support, but also was increasingly losing the backing of key national and regional elites, who were irritated at family control of the economy and rising corruption. There had been many warnings[fn]For example, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°81, Political Transition in Kyrgyzstan: Problems and Prospects, 11 August 2004.Hide Footnote  that unfair elections could create a climactic crisis, but Akaev and his aides had become complacent about their ability to manipulate and suppress opposition.

Akaev failed to develop key state institutions. When protests started in the wake of parliamentary elections in February, it was quickly clear the state was weak, and few elites were willing to defend the president. At the end, the regime collapsed in a few hours.

As they prepare for presidential elections in July 2005, Kyrgyzstan's new leaders face critical challenges that risk undermining the country's important step toward real democracy:

  • the need for political reform, particularly to redress imbalances created by Akaev's centralisation of power in the presidency and the weakness of state institutions;
  • a looming economic crisis that could be worsened by tax collection problems and weak administration;
  • a crisis over land seizures, squatters and enduring problems with land tenure; and
  • the growing security risk from criminal groups with economic and political power.

Bishkek/Brussels, 4 May 2005

Bazaar in Jalalabad, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan

Crisis Group’s Publications Officer Julie David de Lossy, formerly a freelance photographer of Central Asia, travels to Kyrgyzstan to take a look through her camera lens at the context of our conflict-prevention work.

Returning to Kyrgyzstan after five years away, I found a country that still mixes open-eyed charm, bureaucratic frustrations and decaying Soviet-era infrastructures – all part of a slow, uncertain transition that its population wishes could go faster even if the ultimate destination remains obscure.

Taking pictures that tell a real story in post-Soviet states is always a challenge. Especially in Central Asia. I have to overcome the country’s big empty spaces, the absence of public information and a decades-old culture of suspicion. Then a door opens, I turn a corner, or a new friend helps. Suddenly I get my chance.

View of Osh from the Suleyman-Too, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

I want to give a feeling for the context of Islamic radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan. But photography means winning people’s trust, and that’s hard. The people of Kyrgyzstan are used to keeping silent to please their parents, keep their jobs, or avoid harassment. Public spaces are one place I can begin to make contact with ordinary folk.

Osh park, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Tamerlane, a great Central Asian conqueror of the fourteenth century, was the first of his clan to convert to Islam. His people followed him. Violently repressed in 20th century Soviet times, Islam has now returned to public life in the region. Regular folk long for outsiders to see their religion as they do: a mainstay of a moral life.

Man holds a Quran in a mosque in an Uzbek mahalla (neighbourhood) of Osh, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Visiting a mosque, as a Western female, is not particularly complicated. However, pulling a camera out usually means that people just quietly move away. Most Central Asians share a deep instinct to avoid getting into any kind of trouble. Just in case.

Mosque in an Uzbek mahalla, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Youth in Kyrgyzstan has little faith in the future due to rampant corruption, decaying infrastructure, and the country’s lack of bankable natural resources.

Osh park, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

I attend a madrasa lesson to mingle in a class attended by serene young women in matching purple headscarves. But they did not let me take a camera in. Each day as I set out to portray a new facet of Islam in Central Asia – for instance, the small minority that might be tempted by transnational jihadism – I know I will face many obstacles along my way.

Pass to the north between the Hindu Kush and the Tian Shan mountain ranges, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Unlike other parts of the former Soviet Union, statues of Lenin still stand in Kyrgyzstan. It’s not that anybody particularly wants communism back, or that they took it seriously in the first place. But most Kyrgyz cities didn’t exist as such before the Soviets came. And some in the secular Kyrgyz elite hanker for a bulwark against any back-sliding to fundamentalist religious doctrines.

Lenin statue in Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Drinking over-sweet Nescafé in a lost chaikhana (teahouse), I worry that the whole idea of photographing religious change is a terrible mistake. Then somebody comes to practice his English. Perhaps this is someone with a fresh lead, someone who will take me where I want to go.

Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Weddings in Kyrgyzstan are major social events. No problem with photos here: this is how most Central Asian photographers earn their living. Loving bridal images are taken in front of war memorials, municipal monuments, romantic park benches, or all of the above. Even water reservoirs. For small, mountainous Kyrgyzstan, abundant water is one of its only levers against big, powerful neighbours.

Tortgul reservoir, near Tajik border, Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, new national symbols were needed in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan chose Manas, hero of the national epic poem, which tells the story of the Kyrgyz Turkic peoples’ struggles to establish their country against Mongols and other neighbours. Islamist puritans, of course, would have things otherwise.

Manas monument, Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Long-distance travel in Kyrgyzstan means driving for hours on roads filled with potholes, dust, rivers of water and apparently indestructible Lada cars. The country may be small compared to its neighbours, but journeys between cities are physical challenges that can seem to stretch toward infinity.

Jalalabad, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Thanks to the many rivers running through the country, especially in the Ferghana valley, agriculture is a significant part of the economy and fills Kyrgyz markets with fresh produce. As any traveller in Central Asia quickly finds, street markets are also fertile hunting grounds for photographers.

Bazaar in Jalalabad, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy
Mutakallim School in Bishkek, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

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SLIDESHOW | Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy