Road Trip Kyrgyzstan: The “Switzerland of Central Asia”, its People, and Soviet Ghosts

By Ryan Kuhns

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Photo: Ryan Kuhns

My landing in Bishkek was a disorienting one. I had just finished up a 28-hour journey and now entered an airplane terminal where lines didn’t seem to matter. I picked a river of people that looked to be flowing at a promising speed and in the general direction of my first, rare encounter with the Kyrgyz State. A quick look, a stamped passport, and I was on my way.

My first experience at Manas Airport would be a microcosm of the trip to come and the social/economic/political realities of this tiny country at the center of many a great game, old and new. Kyrgyzstan lies on a continuum, with freedom encroaching on the margins of chaos at one end and the various demarcations of cultural and political order that dot the country’s landscape and society at the other. Past and present mix up into a lava lamp of cultures, memories and expectations that, as it seemed to me at the end of my trip, could all equally serve as the causes of Kyrgyzstan’s future volatility if extreme heat was applied from without or within. But, at the same time, this combination of freedom and order, chaos and tradition, contribute to the driving engine of this democratic Central Asian state where people still believe in the possibilities of the greater market and the promise of business. Kyrgyzstan is a complex place.

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Map of Kyrgyzstan with the routes of the author’s two trips in green (driven) and blue (by taxi). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The remainder of my travels included two road trips (one I drove and another by taxi).These provided unique opportunities to see the north-east and south-west of the country which look like a combination of Colorado-Southern Italy and the Mid-west – Middle East respectively. Besides its beauty, the Kyrgyz people are its most valuable natural resource. I was fortunate to meet a variety of interesting people (Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Russians and Uzbeks) and enjoy time with them, often in their homes or establishments. During my stay, I formed a few general impressions of the places I visited along with a highly subjective perspective on Kyrgyzstan as a whole. Here are a few simple observations from my travels.

The economic dislocation of the USSR’s disintegration still marks the national consciousness and economy as much as Soviet statues and architecture haunt the landscape and urban centers. The agricultural markets seem to be in relative chaos, with food prices fluctuating quite a bit between cities and most agriculture being carried out without the aid of advanced machinery or techniques. Industry is almost non-existent. Many of the factories have slowly shut their doors one by one since the collapse of the USSR, unable to compete with their regional neighbors.

Engineers, doctors, and many other highly educated people have turned to small and medium-sized business as a more profitable way of making a living (which are typically outside of the fields of their formal education). Small business seems to thrive most in KG’s political and economic environment, with most looking to capture markets within the country, knowing that it would be quite difficult to compete outside of it.

Most of the international business people I met there were in the import business. Since KG is a net importer, many people throughout the country heavily rely on remittances to make ends meet. Since most KG migrant workers make their money in Russia, the drop in the ruble is making short work of KG’s economy, halting construction and squeezing business. One of the people I stayed with in Osh, a former engineer, was quick to point out that summertime often saw quite a bit of construction in his city. This summer has been a noticeable exception. There is also a concern that (in the absence of trade agreements with China) the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) will exacerbate some of these issues if Chinese goods are hit with tariffs, driving up the cost of living. Still, there seems to be just as many people that believe the EEU will bring positive economic outcomes to Kyrgyzstan.

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Osh, city in southern Kyrgyzstan, from Sulayman Mountain. Photo: Ryan Kuhns

Every table I sat at had at least one conversation about petty corruption in the education, health, housing, or transportation sectors, although I never heard much talk about networked corruption within the central government.  Still, economic hardship, coupled with corruption and what appears to be an increasing ambivalence among some about democracy in Kyrgyzstan could be complicated by cultural identity issues that have potential to be shaped by questions surrounding Islam’s role in the country, the place of non-Kyrgyz ethnic groups (especially Uzbeks and Uighurs), and the strength of Kyrgyzstan’s ties to it powerful neighbors, China and Russia.

In all three cases, these are very complicated issues. The vast majority of Muslims appear to be moderate to liberal (and actually practice a combination of Islam and Animism). In the case of ethnic conflicts, there seems to be plenty of work to be done, with some residual distrust hanging in the air between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the south of Kyrgyzstan and border issues with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan remain frequent in their occurrence. At the same time, the efforts of local workers and international organizations to resolve these conflicts and allay tensions have borne some noticeable fruit. In the case of Russian hegemony or direct rule, nostalgia about the Soviet Union is often tempered by what seems to be a firm nationalist narrative, backed by a history of storied exploitation and suffering at the hands of the Russian state (whatever its manifestation).

Indeed, the issues described above, and stability in general, seem to wax and wane with the strength of the economy. Readjustments imposed by geopolitics or the global economy seem like they would have the potential to be strong multipliers in Kyrgyzstan’s political function, nudging these particular futures swiftly in one direction or another. Even though the number of people who identify as Muslim continues to drop in Kyrgyzstan, my feeling is that Islam could become the ideological and institutional sponge that absorbs the frustrations associated with long-term economic stagnation, corruption, and political impotence. At the same, the country could just as easily reintegrate with Russia and lose its nascent democracy in an instant or watch it die a slow death over a series of regional power plays or at the hands of a disinterested or desperate public.

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Graffiti that reads “Peace” in a neighborhood that was affected by the 2010 ethnic violence in Osh. Photo: Ryan Kuhns

Kyrgyzstan is the type of state the US has spent a great deal of human and financial capital attempting to create. It’s an island of free market potential in the middle of a region that sits on the precipice of violent internal upheaval and regional disorder, especially if water begins to run out and a few of the old men strolling the corridors of Central Asian power kick the bucket or trip on the refuse of their autocratic rule. Outside of the obvious aid and assistance which the US continues to contribute and does make an impact, the US may do well to intelligently redirect its regional foreign policy towards a path that takes full heed of its fragile place in the regional order, even if it feels justified in which members of Kyrgyzstan’s political community it decides to honor. A bit of realism could go a long way towards framing the difficult daily tradeoffs a country like Kyrgyzstan must face and the ways the US can use its help to navigate the playing field of the Great Game. The Kyrgyz people will have to decide what kind of future they want too and lay out the requisite physical and social infrastructure in order to achieve their potential, minding the fact that resiliency is a must given its place on a major fault line of international politics.


resize 3Ryan Kuhns is a master’s student at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. He studies International Security and Commerce with his main interests being in international relations, defense economics, strategy, and the social/political organization of war. He can be contacted at ryan.f.kuhns@gmail.com.

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