Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyz

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The Kyrgyz are a nomadic people of Turkic descent living in the northern Tien Shan mountain range. Originally chronicled as living in the region of what is today eastern Siberia and Mongolia, the Kyrgyz migrated westward more than a thousand years ago and settled in the mountains of Central Asia. At the beginning of the twentyfirst century, ethnic Kyrgyz live in the countries of Kazakhstan, China, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The majority of the Kyrgyz live in the country of the Kyrgyz Republic (known as Kyrgystan), a former republic of the Soviet Union that received its independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. With an area of 76,000 square miles (198,500 square kilometers), the mountainous, landlocked republic is nestled between Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The Kyrgyz Republic's population is 4,822,166, of which 2,526,800 (52.4%) are ethnic Kyrgyz. Significant minority groups include Russians (18%), Uzbeks (12.9 percent), Ukrainians (2.5%), and Germans (2.4%). The capital city of Bishkek has an estimated population of 824,900, although the number may be closer to one million if illegal immigrants are considered.

Sunni Islam of the Hanafi School is the dominant faith among the Kyrgyz. However, when Islam was introduced to the people, many kept their indigenous beliefs and customs. The force of Islam was further weakened during the Soviet period when active religious adherence was discouraged. During the early twenty-first century, the Kyrgyz government espouses strong support for maintaining a secular state and any sympathy for radical Islam has been marginalized.

Linguistically, Kyrgyz is a Turkic language that is mutually intelligible with Kazakh. Throughout the past several centuries, it has been written in the Arabic, Latin, and Cyrillic scripts, with the latter two dominant during the Soviet period. The government is shifting the language back to the Latin script, with an effort to emulate the Turkish model.

The early history of the Kyrgyz is shrouded in mythology, particularly the founding legend of the Manas, an epic poem of more than one million lines that is still presented orally, through song. Kyrgyz have had, in the past, their own forms of government, although more often they have been under the rule of outside forces: Mongol, Chinese, Timurid, and Russian, to name the most significant. During the period of the Russian Empire, the Kyrgyz were often called Kara-Kyrgyz. There is a common history with the Kazakhs, who were confusingly called the Kyrgyz by Russian ethnographers for most of the nineteenth century. Although they were incorporated into the Khanate of Kokand in the eighteenth century, the Kyrgyz were not always content with being controlled by others. Kyrgyz clans rebelled four times between 1845 and 1873. When the Khanate of Kokand was incorporated into the Russian province of Semirech'e in 1876, the same ire was directed against the new overlords.

Through the rest of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, the region of the Kyrgyz was firmly entrenched in the Russian Empire. In 1916, there was a large-scale uprising in the region against the threat of drafting ethnic Kyrgyz and other Central Asians into the Russian Army, to support the effort against Germany and Austria-Hungary. The regional turmoil only deepened with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war, both of which had direct effects on the Kyrgyz people. Significant fighting took place on Kyrgyz soil, and the anti-Bolshevik Basmachi Rebellion was partially based in the regions of southern Kyrgyzstan, around the city of Osh. By the early 1920s the region was pacified, but at a high cost: Perhaps a third of all residents of the region either died in the fighting and in the famine that plagued Central Asia in those years, or fled to China.

In the National Delimitation of 1924, the territory of the Kyrgyz was incorporated in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and was dubbed an Autonomous Republic. The region was elevated to full Union-Republic status in 1936 and was officially called the Kirgiz Soviet Socialist Republic (Kir.S.S.R.). This entity lasted until 1991, when the

Soviet Union was officially dissolved. At the time of independence, the name was changed to the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, and later the Kyrgyz Republic. With independence, the former president of the Kirgiz Soviet Socialist Republic, Askar Akayev, was elected president of the new country. He continued to hold that position in 2003, and has consolidated his authority over the years. The Kyrgyz Republic has the institutions associated with a democracya legislature, a judiciary, a president, and a constitutionbut the conditions for democratic development remain weak.

Economically, the Kyrgyz have traditionally been nomadic herders, and pastoral activity remains important for the Kyrgyz. With more than 80 percent of the territory being mountainous, pastoral habits include bringing the herds to high-elevation fields during the summer and back to the valleys during the winter months. There are also mineral deposits in the country, particularly of gold and some strategic minerals that can be exploited. Overall, the economy remains poor, with a gross national product (GDP) of approximately $13.5 billion dollars. While the purchasing power parity (PPP) of the country is $2,800 per capita, typical incomes often fall to less than $100 per month per person.

Making matters worse is the fact that the country has borrowed heavily from the international community during the first decade of independence. The national budget is actually exceeded by the amount owed to organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, totaling more than $1.6 billion as of 2003. In addition, corruption is rampant and most international companies and observers view the business conditions in the country in a negative light. These problems will continue to plague any effort at economic reform that the current government, or its successor, might try to implement.

While there are ethnic Kyrgyz in neighboring Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and China, the respective populations are relatively modest and do not cause much concern. Regardless, the Kyrgyz feel it necessary to establish positive relations with these neighboring states, in large part because of the difficult borders and the fact that the Kyrgyz Republic is a relatively small neighbor in this region. Thus, it is not surprising to see the Kyrgyz government participate in a number of multilateral security and trade agreements. It is an active member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which includes China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan), the Collective Security Agreement (with six CIS states), as well as a number of regional initiatives. It is also a member of the NATO Partnership for Peace Program and, as a result of the U.S.-led Global War on Terrorism, agreed to have NATO forces establish a military air-base outside of the capital city Bishkek in 2001. During 2002, the Kyrgyz government allowed the Russian Air Force to base jets at a second airbase, and in 2003 the army of Kyrgyzstan conducted military exercises with the People's Liberation Army of China.

Foreign relations ultimately are less of a concern than the day-to-day domestic problems that plague the country. Economic development, employment difficulties, crime, corruption, and social problems continue to exist in the Kyrgyz Republic.

See also: central asia; islam; kazakhstan and kazakhs; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; polovtsy


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Roger Kangas