Weimar Republic vibes in Kyrgyzstan
Business and Economics, Kyrgyzstan, Politics and Society4 Comments
Editor’s Note: With elections coming up and a dangerous strain of nationalism increasing in Kyrgyzstan, neweurasia’s Schwartz is getting some ugly Weimar vibes in Bishkek. “Just think a little bit about the meaning in the change of symbolism [in the city's square]: from Freedom to Warrior,” he writes.
Yesterday in the taxi ride to Bishkek’s center, the driver, upon learning that I’m American, asked me in point blank fashion: “When is America going to bomb Kyrgyzstan?” My shock was more than evident, and I tried to explain that, to the best of my knowledge, the United States actually considers Kyrgyzstan a “very good friend” in the region. The driver was unresponsive — that is, until I got out of the car and said, “Рахмат!” His eyes practically bulged, I imagine because he didn’t expect an “imperialist” to be even this little bit culturally attentive.
It was a surreal experience, but a good reminder of what’s been psychologically happening to a lot of the Kyrgyz since 2010. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, is it just me, or is Kyrgyzstan right now feeling unsettingly similar to the Weimar Republic during the dark days of the Great Depression?
Like many Westerners, Kyrgyz and minorities living in Kyrgyzstan, I’m concerned, even distressed, by the increasingly vitriolic — and, as the encounter with the taxi driver evidences, paranoid — variant of Kyrgyz nationalism that seems to be taking over media, political and civic discourse in this society. The decision to dismantle lovely old Ala-Too and replace her with Manas, and even the discussion to rename Bishkek itself “Manas”, is to me symbolic of the radical nationalist virus that’s spreading through the country.
To be sure, Manas isn’t necessarily a bad symbol in-and-of-himself. EurasiaNet’s Chris Rickleton talked with Elmira Kuchumkulova, an anthropologist with the University of Central Asia, who argues that Manas could be utilized as a “source of unity”:
“The value of the epic lies in the idea of the hero that united all the Kyrgyz tribes. That is the idea that state officials who support this [renaming] idea are using — Manas as someone who united a nation.”
However, as Rickleton also points out, in the current political climate, whatever ethnically inclusive aspects there could be in Manas have been ignored in favor of celebrating him as a specifically Kyrgyz hero. Moreover, just think a little bit about the meaning in the change of symbolism: from Freedom to Warrior. Sounds alarmingly aggressive if you ask me.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m instinctively distrustful of nationalism of any sort, much less its radical variants. I guess you could say I’m a radical of the opposite sort — a radical cosmopolitan. However, I’m also not so naive as to believe that societies at the moment, much less one as impoverished and malfunctioning as Kyrgyzstan, are ready to go down the path of thoroughly pluralizing the identity of the state and the society underlying it. If there must be nationalism for the time being, let it be of the mosaic, institutional-centered type of the United States and Great Britain, which, although far from impervious to racism and narcissism, at least conceptually and legally makes a large space for all manners of identity.
Unfortunately, though, the eerie Weimar vibes of Kyrgyzstan right now is itself symptomatic of what’s happening in the rest of the world — and not just in terms of national identities, but also economics (and, of course, the two are interconnected). The discourse of “austerity” in the West has been used as a cover for all manner of self-avoidant and self-destructive policies and media portrayals, from shunning the eurobond to kamikaze’ing American debt, then turning around and denouncing immigrants or fellow Europeans and Americans as the source of societies’ increasing employment woes. If Kyrgyzstan ends up repeating Western history, much of that will be our fault for creating ill global conditions.