Central Asian state that hasn't quite turned its back on the Soviet past


KYRGYZSTAN LETTER:The mainly Russian population is aging. Young ethnic Russians and Ukrainians are leaving, writes MICHAEL FOLEY

KYRGYZSTAN WEARS its Soviet past lightly. A statue of Lenin, exhorting the people of the capital, Bishkek, to revolution used to stand in the main square, then called Lenin Square, but was moved. Not to an obscure suburban park or even the scrapyard, but to a slightly lesser square, one block away.

He stands, 10 metres tall, still pointing, with his jacket and coat open as he asks “What is to be done?”

Lenin was replaced by a statue of a flame-bearing woman, surrounded by symbols of the newly independent Kyrgyzstan.

A wonderful statue of Marx and Engels faces the American University of Central Asia, where, presumably, little of Marx and Engels is discussed.

However, the compromise here is that their names have disappeared from the plinth, so they look like two anonymous Victorian gentlemen having an intense discussion, which, presumably, they often did in life. The hammer and sickle are still proudly carved into the pediment of the American University, as they are on so many buildings in central Bishkek.

However, the most remarkable relic of the former regime is in the State Historical Museum.

There are the artefacts recalling Kyrgyzstan’s pre-historic past and the history of its nomadic people, but what is remarkable is a collection of huge bronze tableaux recalling the revolution and the life of Lenin and a wonderful painted ceiling telling the history of the Soviet Union.

In most former Soviet countries, such an exhibition would have long been moved, but here in Kyrgyzstan it still stands, whether because of an ambiguity towards the recent past or just indifference is not clear.

In the immediate post-Soviet period Kyrgyzstan was seen as a beacon of democracy in the region. Not necessarily a very strong one, but clearly better than its neighbours.

That is probably still the case – its scores in indicators such as press freedom indexes are far better than those of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, countries with which it shares a border. It also has a border with China. However, its record is flawed with election irregularities, corruption, the harassment of opposition figures and journalists, and the closure of newspapers.

In the south there have been ethnic tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

Two post-Soviet presidents have been swept from power, the second only a year ago.

Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who became president in 2005, was ousted following riots and demonstrations around the country due to high energy prices, corruption and lack of economic progress. The president also ordered the closure of several media outlets. As with previous political crises, the West took little interest, presumably because not enough people tweeted about it.

What interest there was came as a result of the presence of Russian and US military bases. The US base at Manas airport, the main international airport for Bishkek, serves the US military in Afghanistan.

There has been much speculation about the role of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, in the crisis. He was opposed to the renewal of the lease for the US airforce base, and there is no doubt that elements of the Russian media ran a campaign against Bakiyev.

Bishkek is a pleasant city, full of trees, shrubs and parks, which serve to hide or disguise the cracked concrete, the peeling plaster and rusting ironwork so common in most post-Soviet cities.

However, a few hours’ drive from Bishkek is Balykchy, right beside Issy-Kul, the enormous lake 182km long and up to 60km wide that dominates the mountains of northern Kyrgyzstan.

Balykchy shows starkly the real state of Kyrgyzstan, which is one of the poorest countries of the former Soviet Union. Here there are few trees to hide the closed factories, with the broken windows, rusting pipes and cracked pavements and roads.

The mainly Russian population is aging and falling in number. Younger ethic Russians and Ukrainians are leaving.

Old people try to sell visitors dried fish from the lake, waving their produce at passing traffic or surrounding anyone who gets out of a bus or car.

The ethnic makeup of Kyrgyzstan is, to a large extent, a result of Stalin’s policy on nationality.

Ethnic Germans were moved to Central Asia during the Great Patriotic War, Russians and Ukrainians were sent to a sort of frontier to run factories and other enterprises. Cosmonauts and pilots trained at Lake Issy-Kul, which was a closed, secure area. It was also a holiday area for the Soviet elite.

All collapsed upon independence, though it is believed Boris Yeltsin liked to holiday at Issy-Kul and a statue is said to be somewhere in the region.