Popular Imaginaries of Russia and Attitudes Toward the Invasion of Ukraine among Kyrgyz People

Asel Doolotkeldieva

In this series of essays, I look at geopolitics “from below” in the context of the invasion of Ukraine and changing constellations in Central Asia. Using a non-elite-centric analysis for most of the essays, I write about changes in affective spaces in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in reaction to Russian “power at distance.” In this essay, I want to draw attention to the tenacious Russian influence in Kyrgyzstan, which persists despite important yet limited grassroots processes of distancing from Russia and changing geopolitical entanglements.

I claim that Russian state propaganda and mass media have not primary, but secondary explanatory power and that Russian influence has more complex roots. If we seek to understand how Russia’s power at distance operates in this part of the world, we need to delve into the ways “Russia” has been constructed in local popular imaginaries over the past decades. Such a perspective of “geopolitics from below” matters because if postcolonial entanglements with Russia are to evolve, any distancing will come only from Central Asian populations, not their regimes. The latter are caught in the dynamics of regime survival, which make their distancing from Russia currently an undesirable option for them. To discuss these matters, I will use my ethnographic material, including focus group discussions conducted in 2018 and 2022, in-depth interviews with activists, and observation of societal processes and specific events related to this topic since 2010.

Conventional Political Science and IR analyses push us to view Russian power in the former Soviet republics as a form of control, exerted in a top-down manner. Thus, many foreign observers have perceived the ambivalent response of Central Asian governments to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as nothing else but the result of Russia’s continuing domination of the region. To be certain, Russia’s neocolonial policies toward independent Central Asian states (I will talk about them in the future essays), interference in domestic affairs and the derogative language used by Russian mass media all support such a view.

However, these simplistic Great Game accounts have been challenged by those who identify and stress the agency of domestic elites to show their active part in shaping geopolitical decisions.1 Yet, the elite-centered analyses also adopt a hierarchical and thus limited perspective of how (geo-) politics works. They miss a crucial factor: the ways foreign hegemonies are constructed/supported/rejected by ordinary people and hence the role of societies in shaping geopolitical influences.

In what follows I draw on Stefanie Ortmann’s proposal to widen our conceptualization of geopolitical power to take into account the ways that power is produced by larger social forces, using the example of Kyrgyzstan.2 Already before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she stressed that due to the specific post-colonial historical context, images of “Russia” have been involved in the co-production of Kyrgyz state-ness and legitimation of power by Kyrgyz statesmen. Indeed, since independence the successive Kyrgyz regimes have staged public performances of sovereignty by association with Russia and the Russian leadership. “Russia is given to us by God and history” is a famous saying of Kyrgyzstan’s first president, Askar Akaev. Far from being limited to elite discourses, “Russia” became incorporated into popular perceptions of Kyrgyz state-ness. For Ortmann, popular geopolitical imaginaries, “which may be reinforced by Russian media outlets, but are ultimately beyond the control of the Kremlin,” play the central role.3 Judging by the current interpretations of the invasion of Ukraine that echo partly Russian state propaganda, Russia’s popular representations are still “sticky” in the country.4

Kaktus Media: Former Head of Osh province Police Department, Abdylda Kaparov, on a horse displaying Putin’s portrait with supporting words “We are with you!” on 14th of March 2022 in central Bishkek5

There has been variation in top-down state-building and nation-building projects since independence,6 but some popular imaginaries of Kyrgyz state-ness and elite self-legitimation have involved Russia and the Russian leadership. Popular desires to associate with Russia usually go hand in hand with narratives of fragile statehood. Political power in the region is often perceived as plagued by corruption and nepotism, which is compounded by the fact that the Kyrgyz state often fails to meet the expectations of its citizens. In addition, Kyrgyzstan went through three popular revolts with ensuing economic crises and interethnic conflict, which adds to the feeling of permanent instability. In longing for a strong state, ordinary citizens have borrowed from omnipresent Russian state TV channels hot images of a resolute Putin taming the oligarchs and increasing people’s living standards. In many discussions with Kyrgyz citizens, Russia appears as an economically and militarily robust state, while the Russian leadership symbolizes a type of a sovereign that many in Kyrgyzstan wish for.

Ortmann notes that the presence of “Russia” in popular understandings of Kyrgyz state-ness and the legitimation of Kyrgyz elites is so pervasive that it led to a striking blurring of spatial imaginaries of domestic/foreign. For example, it was “normal” for electoral campaigns of Kyrgyz political parties and independent candidates to have Putin in their visibility materials and electoral agendas. Electoral banners displayed local candidates shaking hands with Russian politicians as the most effective campaign message. An electoral law had to be introduced in 2011 banning the display of foreign leaders in Kyrgyz presidential campaigns.7 Yet Kyrgyz candidates – both regime and oppositional – publicly sought Russian support, paying the Kremlin visits shortly before the elections. A political party called SSSR (standing for USSR) made union with Russia a central piece of their program. Kyrgyz elites have made statements about ceding independence and becoming part of Russia, including such high-level politicians as Felix Kulov, one of the two main candidates for president in 2005.

On the societal level, people used to envisage joining Russia as one of its republics, if not just a province, at the time of internal conflicts or tensions with bigger neighbors.8 Further blurring of spatial imaginaries is reflected in the mobile livelihoods developed by labor migrants. In 2015, during my fieldwork ahead of parliamentary elections, people in the southern provinces were saying, “I don’t vote. What for, if Russia feeds me?” Migrants would say that the space between Russia and Kyrgyzstan is one continuum in the ways people can earn a living in between the two countries, in the ways people enjoy double pensions and state allowances, etc. One female migrant told me in a focus group discussion conducted in 2018, speaking on the topic of great power influences: “going to Russia for us is like going to a grocery store to buy bread. It is that easy. Whereas China has been forever closed off for ordinary people like us. We don’t know China, whereas we know Russia and the Russian people well.”9 This spatial blurring makes migrants pay less attention to the lived experiences of xenophobia and racism in Russia and prioritize other existential concerns and pragmatic possibilities.

But Russian influence is not static and has been questioned and subverted or endorsed by ordinary citizens on numerous occasions. The invasion of Ukraine is one such big occasion. In spring 2022, I conducted qualitative focus group discussions in all provinces of Kyrgyzstan, where I included questions on the invasion. While the sample of these focus groups is not representative, their results can be useful in outlining the main lines of thinking among the population. On the issue 175 participants of focus groups were polarized, partly along a generational divide. The majority of respondents deplored the war as an unnecessary tragic development, while roughly one third of respondents between 18 and 35 condemned Putin outright, another third of respondents between 40 and 60 supported the Russian leader, and the rest had difficulty formulating an opinion. The latter might be related to the distance of Ukraine from people’s daily concerns and news consumption.

Bakyt Ordobaev, head of a public foundation, at a single-person picket against the war on October 12, 2023, in Bishkek during Putin’s official visit to Kyrgyzstan.

Younger participants condemned Putin for meddling in the affairs of a sovereign nation, showing strong support for an independent politics in Ukraine. But only a few made critical reflections about the ways ethnic groups have been instrumentalized for the purposes of Russian and Soviet wars of 1916 (the Steppe revolt),10 the Second World War11 and the Soviet-Afgan war.12 I attribute this failure to see parallels with one’s history to Kyrgyzstan’s unaddressed colonial past and fragmented memory politics. Neither history textbooks nor university curriculum critically assess these major historical events. As we know from other examples, secondary and higher education can remain a product of coloniality long after independence. However, Elmira Nogoybaeva, the head of the Kyrgyz Research Center Esimde, which conducts important public research related to memory of the past, says memories are transmitted orally and by collective practices from one generation to the other, and hence this knowledge persists within society if even fragmentarily.13

What was interesting about those who supported Putin is that they echoed Russian state propaganda word for word. There were typical references to the “evil West” that provoked Putin and that Russia was only defending itself. There were also references to the shared history and culture, however. Many seniors underscored their nostalgia for the “great Soviet Union,” because Soviet identity provided them with a feeling of being part of a bigger, glorious project. The present-day Kyrgyzstan, with its perceived ever-corrupt elites and ineffective state, could not but offend that image of a great past.

So, this nostalgia serves as a bridge between past Soviet belonging and current loyalty to Russia as the USSR’s main successor. The catastrophic transition in the 90s, together with the ongoing difficulties in building a new identity, explains the longevity of nostalgia as an identity specific to the older generation in Kyrgyzstan. From their perspective, the net effects of association with Russia are positive for the Kyrgyz people. “What is bad about a closer partnership with Russia? Russia is building schools, providing teachers with salaries and our children with a hot meal. Russia has opened its doors to our migrants, in the absence of jobs at home, and they can feed their families. Russia sells us its cheap gas and fuel. Kyrgyzstan has only benefited from the partnership.”14

Among this older generation there were, however, also those who categorically disapproved of Russia’s war against Ukraine. While having lived in the same Soviet Union, they were aware of the other, dark side of the Soviet modernization experiment. These citizens were able to connect to the pain of Ukrainians through their own experiences of subjugation during the Soviet period.15 They see in present-day Ukraine the possibility of getting rid at last of Russian domination. “Despite the official discourse of Soviet brotherhood and sisterhood, Russians always came first. If at work and there was just one Russian, we all had to speak Russian. Russians were promoted faster than us. Our village boys and girls received the worst treatment due to their bad Russian. How much humiliation we had to swallow due to this daily feeling of inferiority. Today, our boys and girls are still treated as animals in Moscow.”16

Still others were focused on realpolitik: they see Kyrgyzstan as being geographically stuck between two major powers, and Russia’s defeat would mean falling into China’s hands. The considerable Sinophobia in the country, built up over decades, creates a false geopolitical binary in which Russia appears as a lesser evil. Moreover, strong anti-Americanism, spread by Russian state propaganda and the domestic regime, helps rooting Russian power in these places further. For the majority Muslim population of Kyrgyzstan, Western presence in the region only means LGBT rights, feminism and NGOs, which have been vilified in past decades. Thus, Putin’s conservative ideology centered on family values, religion and clearcut hierarchies between man and woman, between state and society serves as a frame that helps to make sense of larger geopolitical developments.

Despite these diverse opinions, when asked how the Kyrgyz government should respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the respondents agreed that due to the heavy historical dependence on Russia, the Kyrgyz government must not openly oppose Putin. These typical narratives of fragile statehood were recently further deepened by the escalating conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. During Tajik aggression in Kyrgyzstan’s border areas in Batken in September 2022, the Russia-led CSTO did little to intervene and deescalate the conflict. Moreover, in Batken and other southern provinces rumors among civilians were spreading about Russia’s backing of Emomali Rahmon, the president of Tajikistan.17

People I spoke to at that time were associating this shifting Russian allegiance toward the Tajik leadership with the invasion of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan’s position on it. For them, the escalation of the conflict was nothing else but a signal from the Kremlin that should Kyrgyzstan dare to support Ukraine, the punishment from Russia would be swift. Local people were angry with fellow activists who had been staging anti-war and pro-Ukraine protests in the capital of Bishkek – a careless act of rocking the boat, according to them.

Whereas in the previous essay I looked at various grassroots initiatives that aimed at countering Russian hegemony, in this memo I drew on large segments of society who still entertain positive representations of Russia. Because of the ways Russia has been intertwined in people’s understandings of Kyrgyz sovereignty, there is currently resistance to believe that Russia, their historical ally, can be wrong. Hence consumption of only certain mass media is a choice that serves to maintain the image of Russia that people got used to from previous times. Until recently, popular representations of Russia in Kyrgyzstan were hegemonic. However, they are neither permanent nor stable. Future entanglements with Russia will depend not only on developments in Ukraine, but also in Russia. If images of declining Russian military and economic strength come in, they may shake up the established representations of Russia in Kyrgyzstan.

More importantly, they will evolve alongside the ability of the current populist regime to shift sources of legitimacy and sovereignty on the one hand, and their perception by the population on the other. Current unresolved security threats to the border areas and the unreliable Russia-led regional security mechanisms argue for cautious changes within President Sadyr Japarov’s government. Russia’s decision not to intervene in Batken shook up popular imaginaries of Russia as Kyrgyzstan’s unfailing ally. Further diversification of partners in the direction of Asia and the Middle East and increased leaning on Turkic identity have become new avenues for shaping Kyrgyz sovereignty.
[1] See, for example, Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw, Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2017).

[2] Stefanie Ortmann, “Beyond Spheres of Influence: the Myth of the State and Russia's Seductive Power in Kyrgyzstan,” Geopolitics 23, no. 2 (2018): 404-435.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kyrgyzstan swiftly went from an “island of democracy” (it has received more Western aid for democratization than any other in Central Asia) into what can be described today as a Russian “client state.” The closure of the US military base, the rupture of the agreement with the US in 2015, and the accession of the country to the Eurasian Economic Union the same year marked Kyrgyzstan’s pro-Russian foreign policy.

[5] Abdylda Kaparov is also known as an outspoken critic of the Kyrgyz regime and its cronies. Kyrgyzstan’s former President Soronbay Jeenbekov sued him in court for libel when Kaparov publicly accused the president and his relatives of corruption; “Eks nachalnik UVD Oshskoi oblasti verhom priehal k domu pravitelstva s portretom Putina” Kaktus Media, March 21, 2022: https://kaktus.media/doc/456217_eks_nachalnik_yvd_oshskoy_oblasti_verhom_priehal_k_domy_pravitelstva_s_portretom_pytina.html.

[6] See Erica Marat, “Imagined Past, Uncertain Future: The Creation of National Ideologies in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,” Problems of Post-Communism55, no. 1 (2008): 12-24; Nick Megoran, Nationalism in Central Asia: A Biography of the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan Boundary (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017) to mention the few.

[7] “Vybory: Fotographii s Inostrannimi Liderami Pod zapretom”, Azattyk.kg, July 26, 2011: https://rus.azattyk.org/a/kyrgyzstan_foreign_media_election/24276949.html.

[8] For example, such discussions gained steam during the ethnic pogroms in Kyrgyzstan’s southern regions in summer 2010, as well as during the process of demarcation of borders between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan after the border treaty entered into force in 2008.

[9] Focus group discussions conducted in Kyrgyzstan’s provinces on the topic of great power influences, 2018.

[10] Aminat Chokobaeva, “When the Nomads Went to War: The Uprising of 1916 in Semirech’e,” in Aminat Chokobaeva, Cloé Drieu & Alexander Morrison, The Central Asian Revolt of 1916. A Collapsing Empire in the Age of War and Revolution (Manchester University Press, 2019), 145-169.

[11] Leo J. Daugherty III, “Ethnic Minorities in the Soviet Armed Forces: The Plight of Central Asians in a Russian‐Dominated Military,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 7, no. 2 (1994): 155-197.

[12] Jiayi Zhou, “The Muslim Battalions: Soviet Central Asians in the Soviet-Afghan War,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 25, no. 3 (2012): 302-328.

[13] Discussions with Elmira Nogoybaeva, Bishkek, 2022-2023.

[14] Focus group discussions conducted in Kyrgyzstan’s provinces in spring 2022.

[15] See also Jeff Sahadeo, “Druzhba Narodov or Second-Class Citizenship? Soviet Asian Migrants in a Post-Colonial World,” Central Asian Survey 26, no. 4 (2007): 559-579.

[16] Focus group discussions conducted in Kyrgyzstan’s provinces in spring 2022.

[17] More than 30 interviews conducted in 10 villages in Batken province and Osh city, October 2022.
  • Asel Doolotkeldieva

    Nonresidential Fellow, GW
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