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Kyrgyzstan: An Uncertain Trajectory
Kyrgyzstan: An Uncertain Trajectory
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan
Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan
Table of Contents
  1. View as Slideshow
Briefing 76 / Europe & Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan: An Uncertain Trajectory

Kyrgyzstan’s relative stability belies the country’s brittle Central Asian neighbourhood, simmering ethnic tensions, religious extremism and political frustration. Russia, the West and China share interests here, creating a unique opportunity to work together for Kyrgyzstan’s democratic development during and after the upcoming 4 October parliamentary elections.

I. Overview

Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s only even nominal parliamentary democracy, faces growing internal and external security challenges. Deep ethnic tensions, increased radicalisation in the region, uncertainty in Afghanistan and the possibility of a chaotic political succession in Uzbekistan are all likely to have serious repercussions for its stability. The risks are exacerbated by leadership failure to address major economic and political problems, including corruption and excessive Kyrgyz nationalism. Poverty is high, social services are in decline, and the economy depends on remittances from labour migrants. Few expect the 4 October parliamentary elections to deliver a reformist government. If the violent upheavals to which the state is vulnerable come to pass, instability could spread to regional neighbours, each of which has its own serious internal problems. The broader international community – not just the European Union (EU) and the U.S., but also Russia and China, should recognise the danger and proactively press the government to address the country’s domestic issues with a sense of urgency.

Since violent protests forced the 2010 ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, successors, including current President Almazbek Atambayev, have provided little economic direction or strong leadership. Relations with the West have soured. The country is increasingly dependent, politically and economically, on Russia, becoming a full-fledged member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union in August 2015. The government struggles to control the south, where tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the largest minority, have not dissipated since ethnically motivated deadly violence in Osh five years ago. Border skirmishes with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are not uncommon. The Kyrgyz nationalist narrative that emerged after the Osh pogroms is now firmly entrenched and facilitated by a variety of groups across the country. Pockets of religious radicalisation and intolerance, sometimes presented as traditional Kyrgyz values, are also a challenge. Instead of confronting these trends, political parties are incorporating them.

The October elections occur against a backdrop of growing disillusionment with the only semi-functional parliamentary system. Priority tasks for the government should be to temper nationalism, promote political inclusion and genuine reform and manage expectations. It must first develop policies to protect and promote the state’s multi-ethnic, multi-denominational nature, rein in unchecked nationalism and tackle corruption. Failure to do so would deepen fault lines in a state and society fractured by the Bakiyev-era legacy and 2010 events. The international community, bilaterally and multilaterally through organisation such as the EU, UN and Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) of which Russia is a member, should offer high-level, consistent engagement and expertise, while pressing for reform to support Kyrgyzstan’s stated aim of making parliamentary democracy work.

Bishkek/Brussels, 30 September 2015

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

View as Slideshow

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