Festivities in Kyrgyzstan designed to mark the 2,200th anniversary of nationhood are to culminate with an Independence Day gala on August 31. Opposition politicians and journalists have criticized the ceremonies, suggesting that they are stoking inter-ethnic tension.
President Askar Akayev's administration has designated 2003 as the Year of Kyrgyz Statehood. Throughout this year, the government has sponsored a variety of events intended to honor the country's cultural heritage. Independence Day festivities will actually commence August 27 with the arrival of representatives of Kyrgyz communities abroad for a national convention, or kurultai, to be held in the resort town of Cholpon-Ata along the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. Cultural exhibitions and performances will be also part of the Independence Day festivities.
While Akayev's administration may have hoped that the prolonged celebration of nationhood would bring citizens together, and perhaps strengthen national identity, the events have so far proven a source of tension. Opposition commentators are particularly critical of Akayev, alleging that the president is manipulating the festivities for his own political purposes. Akayev's critics also say government expenditures on the celebration are exorbitant and unjustified given the country's poor economic condition.
Early on during his presidential tenure, Akayev relied on a slogan "Kyrgyzstan is Our Common Home" -- that emphasized inter-ethnic harmony. Kyrgyz officials during the early and mid 1990s were intent on preventing a recurrence of violence like that, which occurred in 1991, when Kyrgyz and Uzbeks clashed in the Osh Region of southern Kyrgyzstan. Much of the country's large Uzbek minority resides in southern Kyrgyzstan.
In recent years, southern Kyrgyzstan has developed into a center of opposition to Akayev. Presidential critics assert that Akayev has been promoting Kyrgyz nationalism as a means of quashing political opposition. Many point to the commemoration of Osh's 3,000th anniversary, held in October 2002, to support their claim. The city has deep Uzbek cultural roots, yet many local residents felt the festivities contained an inappropriate emphasis on Kyrgyz historical themes. The tone of the commemoration antagonized the inter-ethnic mood in the region, local observers contend.
"This whole fuss about "Kyrgyz statehood" appears to be designed to distract public attention from the most acute problems [facing citizens]. And this is a very dangerous game: it plays on ethnic feelings," political analyst Omurbek Akmatov wrote in a commentary posted on the opposition Respublika web site in June."
Akmatov went on to argue that the festivities are of little relevance to most Kyrgyz under the country's current, stressed economic conditions. When so many are grappling with poverty, the past is too abstract a concept to contemplate, he suggested. "A significant portion of citizens... are quite aloof from the discussions on Kyrgyz statehood," Akmatov said. "Busy with their own daily problems and concerns, they are not able to engage in debate [about Kyrgyzstan's heritage]."
Opposition leaders organized a meeting August 23 in the southern Aksy district scene of a bloody riot in 1990 that was designed as an alternative to government-sponsored events. The "opposition kurultai" adopted a 12-point resolution, including a call for Akayev's resignation and the release of jailed opposition leader Feliks Kulov.
Government actions in connection with the Year of Statehood have rankled not only Uzbeks and other minority groups, but also seem to have angered those harboring a feeling of nostalgia for the bygone Communist era.
On August 16, officials removed the monument to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, intending to replace the Communist hero with a new memorial to Kyrgyz independence. The removal of the Lenin statue provoked outrage among supporters of the restyled Communist Party. "There were no credible reasons for the removal of the statue," Absamat Masaliyev, leader of the Party of Communists, complained to the Moya Stolitsa web site on August 20.
By Ahmedjan Saipjanov,
Eurasianet, August 26, 2003