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BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – On Feb. 27, 2014, as Russian euphoria over the successful seizure of Crimea was nearing its peak, the Kyrgyz nationalist group Kalys held a protest outside the U.S. embassy, saying they opposed what they called the Western gay agenda and a recent Human Rights Watch report criticizing the treatment of gays by Kyrgyz police.
They burned the portrait of a local ethnic Ukrainian activist who had been vocal in his support of Ukraine's anti-Russia “Maidan” movement, called him a “gay activist,” and called on Kyrgyzstan's parliament to take up a law banning “gay propaganda.”
That protest, with its interweaving of the cultural and geopolitical, opened the most recent front in the new Cold War between Russia and the West. A month later, Kyrgyzstan's parliament introduced a law to ban “gay propaganda.” Six months earlier MPs had already taken up another law on “foreign agents.” Both laws were copied nearly verbatim from Russian legislation adopted in 2012 and 2013. “This is really Russia's influence,” said Amir, an LGBT rights activist in Bishkek who asked to be identified only by his first name, echoing the opinion of most liberals here. “I'm sure they're connected.”
Neither law has passed. Both are still very slowly winding their way through the legislative process. And both could be subject to a veto by President Almazbek Atambayev, who so far has refused to say how he'll act if the laws make it through parliament. But questions remain: Has all this been orchestrated by Russia behind the scenes? Or has Russia merely been a reactionary inspiration?
Two and a half decades after gaining independence, many post-Soviet states are grappling with issues of identity as they navigate their way through an intimidating complex of strong currents: the disappointing fruits of democratic and capitalist reforms, a resurgent Russia, the emergence of an Internet-borne global culture and the reemergence of pre-Soviet forms of religion and traditional values. All of these have come together with particular strength in the battle over Kyrgyzstan's values.
A former beacon
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, tiny impoverished Kyrgyzstan became, somewhat improbably, a beacon of democratic progress in Central Asia. In the early days of independence it was often referred to as the “Switzerland of Central Asia,” both for its gorgeous alpine scenery and its somewhat European-style governance.
At the same time, it became one of the U.S.'s closest partners in Central Asia. American humanitarian and democracy-promotion groups found Bishkek a relatively welcome home in a region where autocrats regularly cracked down on civil society. And after the Sept. 11 attacks, Kyrgyzstan agreed to host a U.S. air base staffed by around 1,400 American service members, which served as a transit center for American and allied troops entering or leaving Afghanistan, as well as a base for refueling aircraft serving planes in Afghan airspace.
After prolonged periods of political instability including two violent government overthrows, these days Kyrgyzstan is only called “Switzerland of Central Asia” ironically or ruefully. Nevertheless, it remains the only country in Central Asia with any claim to have a democratic government, with by far the freest elections and liveliest press in the region.
At the same time, Kyrgyzstan has been growing closer to Russia. Kyrgyzstan agreed in 2013 to evict the U.S. from its air base, at least in part due to years of Russian pressure, and this year Kyrgyzstan joined Russia's Eurasian Economic Union.
U.S. officials have suggested that growing Russian influence in Kyrgyzstan threatens the country's democratic achievements. “Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership would welcome a partnership with the United States, but places a priority on its relationship with Russia, which often comes at our expense,” wrote then-U.S. ambassador to Bishkek Pamela Spratlen last fall. “It remains an unanswered question how Kyrgyzstan can maintain its democratic trajectory while pursuing this partnership.”
Russia has, indeed, gone on the offensive against U.S. influence in Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. is constructing a new embassy here, and the local press has been full of unsubstantiated reports that the Americans are constructing a sophisticated electronic surveillance center meant to cover the entire region in the new building's basement. The rumors are likely planted by Russia, said a Bishkek-based Russian analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as to be able to criticize the Russian government. “It's an organized campaign by the opponents of the U.S., just like the U.S. organizes information campaigns against Russia,” he said. (He noted that he did believe that the U.S. is in fact constructing a surveillance station, adding with a smile: “But it's possible the basement of the Russian embassy isn't empty, either.”)
And Russia-backed groups have organized protests and media campaigns against the new U.S. ambassador, Richard Miles, highlighting the fact that Miles had been ambassador in Georgia and Serbia around the times of the so-called “color revolutions” in those countries, warning that his appointment to Bishkek means the same thing is afoot in Kyrgyzstan. But the protests were so ham-handedly organized — with signs featuring grammatical errors and other amateurish touches — that they backfired, the Russian analyst said. “Russian structures organized such stupid, pointless, clumsy protests that for me and a lot of my friends it was really embarrassing … the people who organized these protests really don't show the best side of Russia. One of my colleagues wrote on Facebook that ‘The U.S. Embassy should give them an award,’ and I totally agree,” he said.
A culture war?
But if Russia's hand in fomenting anti-American sentiment here is obvious, it's less clear whether that has had any effect on Kyrgyzstan's democratic development. The movement against gay rights and Western NGOs has been led by a small group of nationalist organizations, and while persistent rumors among Bishkek's liberals tie them to Russian influence, though the evidence is only circumstantial. “Now they call everyone who opposed the Customs Union ‘gay activists, gay propagandists,’” said Aliya Moldaliyeva, the media coordinator for a group of NGOs, the Coalition for Justice and Non-Discrimination. “It's become a way to discredit any dissidence.”
“Russia is trying to create this culture war to mobilize people against the U.S.,” said Edil Baisalov, a pro-Western liberal who served as a senior adviser to former president Roza Otunbayeva. “They do it to generate Western criticism of us, and then we go closer into the Russian orbit with this anti-Western attitude.”
Others, however, chalk up the anti-gay and anti-NGO laws to Russian inspiration, not pressure. And some place the blame on the Western NGOs, saying emphasis on gay rights may have been a bridge too far for conservative Central Asians. The focus on gay rights “has had the opposite reaction,” said Marat Mamadshoyev, a Bishkek-based Tajikistani journalist. “Now we see a very strong conservative wave; even people who are potential supporters of the West, are pretty liberal — they're still very against this. So the policies of the western NGOs has had exactly the opposite effect.”
We're nomads, our national mentality is like this. We learn quickly and adopt quickly – in Soviet times we were more Soviet than anyone else.
former senior presidential advisor
And for many, American rhetoric about democracy ring false in Kyrgyzstan. The American air base became the source of a series of scandals linking family members of two successive presidents to shady U.S. military contracts for fuel for the base. One Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2009 called the then-president's son “smart, corrupt and a good ally to have.” The scandals around the air base, “in my opinion, damaged the image of America here more than all the Russian propaganda campaigns taken together,” Mamadshoyev said.
And Baisalov acknowledged that populist, illiberal appeals find a ready audience in today's Kyrgyzstan, external influence or not. “We're nomads, our national mentality is like this. We learn quickly and adopt quickly — in Soviet times we were more Soviet than anyone else, and look at our labor migrants in Russia — they're doing very well,” he said. “But sometimes it's bad, like we don't have an inner core, that we don't have an identity to keep our own ways, especially in these turbulent times.”
An archaic state
In one of the great novels of Soviet literature, The Day Lasts Longer than a Hundred Years, Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov introduced the “mankurt,” a slave brainwashed to forget his past and serve only his new owner. The word became popular across the Soviet Union to describe non-Russian ethnic groups who had lost their traditions as a result of Sovietization and modernization.
Many see that phenomenon repeating itself in Kyrgyzstan today, though the sources of brainwashing are more diffused and inchoate than in the Soviet era. Both Baisalov and Grigoriy Mikhailov, a Russian journalist based in Bishkek, used the same term to describe what has happened to Kyrgyzstan's society since gaining independence: “archaizatsiya,” translating roughly to “regression to an archaic state.”
“People are confronting a changing world, they can't understand it and they respond by returning to the values of their grandmothers and grandfathers,” Mikhailov said. “And these events around Russia the last year and half have only increased this sensation of unpredictability, tension. And, conservatism, reliance on patriotism, this wounded sense of pride, is a very convenient basis for political games.”
We should have said at the beginning that we're against pro-Russian and pro-Western organizations.
leader of Kalys, ultranationalist group
Into this environment has stepped Kalys, along with several other ultranationalist groups. Since emerging in early 2014, Kalys has gained notoriety for organizing various anti-gay demonstrations, including violently breaking up a private celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia. Kalys doesn't focus only on homosexuality. It has also vowed to carry out vigilante justice if the government fails to pass a law mandating the death penalty for pedophilia.
But, contrary to the suspicions of Bishkek's liberals, Kalys isn't a Russian puppet, its leader, Jenish Moldokmatov, said in an interview with Al Jazeera America. That misperception, he argues, was the result of how they made their debut, with a protest at the U.S. embassy. “We should have said at the beginning that we're against pro-Russian and pro-Western organizations. Our first public action was to protest the U.S., and then it all started,” he said. “It was our mistake. We're against the pro-Western organizations, the pro-Russian, pro-Arab, pro-Chinese.”
In addition to what he calls Western-promoted homosexuality, Moldokmatov said radical Islam promoted by Arab countries and the Eurasian Union, promoted by Russia, also are threats to Kyrgyzstan's identity. But the focus on sexuality is a political tactic, he said: “It's not just homosexuality. It's very complex, all these NGOs have a great influence on the consciousness, the subconscious of our people. But that's difficult to explain to people. That's why we focus on gays and pedophiles.”
And he said too much has been made of the fact that the anti-gay and anti-NGO laws were taken verbatim from Russian legislation. “India has debated these laws, too, and many states in America,” he said. “And that's not the issue here, the issue is to defend our culture.”
The Russian-Kyrgyz nationalist tactical alliance, such as it is, will soon face a new test. 2016 will be the 100th anniversary of a revolt by Kyrgyz against Russian colonial rule, known as Urkun, in which unknown thousands of Kyrgyz were killed. Some Kyrgyz groups — including Kalys — are pushing for the events to be labeled a “genocide,” which Russia strongly opposes. In May, Atambayev issued a decree on the events that didn't use the word “genocide,” and Russia's ambassador to Bishkek praised it as a “correct step.”
But Mikhailov, the Russian journalist, noted that the decree stated that 40 percent of Kyrgyz died during the events, a number orders of magnitude higher than Russian (and many Kyrgyz) historians generally allow. “The nationalists advocate a rejection of Russian influence, and Russian culture, language, and alphabet, which could lead to a loss of influence in the region as a whole,” he said. “From the Russian position, the growth of nationalism here is only a threat.”