Politics and economics
A Kyrgyz person may consider it to be corruption if a public servant helps a stranger, for example by securing for the person concerned building permission for a house, in return for money. On the other hand he may consider it a matter of course if a public servant helps a relative to get such permission.
Various types of help for family and friends were important in Kyrgyzstan under the Soviet Union and they have become even more important since its fall. There are degrees of help to family and friends in all social strata. Today employees’ earnings are so low that it is looked upon as an absolute necessity to get an income in other ways than through ordinary work. The political authorities are of course aware of this and therefore accept to a certain degree that employees get themselves money from different sources. The boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable financial transactions thus become fuzzy both for ordinary employees and for those who govern the country.
In the Soviet state earnings were roughly the same for all the inhabitants irrespective of what position the individual had. What often separated poor from rich were the privileges the rich had. By virtue of his position an employee of the Party might have for example a free car with a private chauffeur, a bigger house, access to prestigious shops and free holiday trips to the Black Sea.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union one can see that help to family and friends has moved more in the direction of pure corruption. It is no longer a matter of positive help to family and friends, but rather a movement towards a reality in which those who have positions of power exploit those who are less well off and try to gain financial advantages while they have their positions.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan’s experience has been that the country’s economic situation has become more and more difficult. This has led to the fact that in many places there has been a return to a pure barter economy in which goods and services are exchanged between people. The difficulties the population is struggling with provide a breeding ground for inventiveness and innovation, but also for smuggling and other criminal activity. The problems have also led to increasing discontent with the sitting leaders and to increased support for opposition politicians who argue for a completely new political order.
Family-based political organisation
The Kirghiz nation is a small nation, which has actually preserved its tribal structure as well as the sense of genealogical unity of the whole people. There is a local proverb saying that any Kirghiz at a large table will inevitably meet a relative among unknown people. Both will start checking their relations and discover that at least ten generations earlier they had a common ancestor.
– Kostyukova 1994: 428
In the course of history the land of the Kyrgyz has been divided and categorised according to several large tribes. All the Kyrgyz tribes categorise themselves in relation to a special terminology in which the tribal name designates an animal or a natural phenomenon. President Akayev belongs to the “Sarybagsh” (yellow elk) tribe. The tribe referred to in the Legend of Mother Hind is called “Bugu” (deer).
In Kyrgyzstan it is experienced as difficult to gather the population behind just a few political parties. One of the reasons for this is the feeling of belonging to a tribe, which is very much alive. The political parties and their voters are to a large extent connected with special regions of the country. The main features are that the democratic parties are connected with the northern areas, while the more nationalistic parties are popular in the south around the towns of Osh and Jalalabad. Small parties often have a more local affiliation. At elections the Kyrgyz are usually more concerned about the party leader’s tribal/clan affiliation than the party’s programme.
Nation-building and modern politics
In recent years attempts have been made to build up a new and independent Kyrgyz state. In this building process it has been important to create unity within the population and continuity with the past. Objects, rituals, myths and stories connect societies with their past and are symbolically important when a nation is to be formed. In connection with the building of the nation its pre-Revolutionary history has had its renaissance. Historians and ethnographers have been given funding for in-depth research on their own past and the history books are being re-written. Through their research the researchers hope to be able to create a cultural and historical base that can unite the population and on which the Kyrgyz nation can support its further existence.
The nomadic culture has both historical anchorage and is good to reflect on because it represents freedom and independence, at the same time as it creates a distinctiveness in relation to those ethnic groups in the region that do not have such a past. In the area it is only the Kazakhs who can boast of having lived in a genuinely nomadic way. Even though the nomadic lifestyle is not something that the individual Kyrgyz citizen imagines one can return to, traditions and objects linked to this are “good to think with” and have great symbolic strength.
The Kyrgyz place great weight on the fact that their forefathers were nomads. They were therefore not – which they also love to stress – agriculturalists or traders with fixed abodes. Trade and town life are in the same breath associated with their archenemy, the Uzbeks. Trade is consistently looked upon as something beneath the dignity of a Kyrgyz. The difficult economic conditions have nevertheless forced many Kyrgyz people to begin trading activity in the bazaars.
An important cause of the Kyrgyz people’s emphasising the nomadic lifestyle may be connected with the nomads’ time-honoured right to land. By referring to their land rights and by producing proof that their forefathers lived in the land areas concerned, the Kyrgyz can feel themselves to be the rightful “owners” of the land.
In the Soviet state traditional utility objects like the yurt, the felt carpets, Kyrgyz rituals and traditions were already elements in the daily lives of the Kyrgyz, and such things were in the multi-ethnic Soviet state symbols of local or ethnic affiliation.
It may be argued that with the coming of the Soviet state the cultural objects and some ways of behaving were pushed into the private sphere, because the public sphere was reserved for rules and forms of behaviour that could promote the Soviet state’s political project. Further there are things to indicate that distinctive Kyrgyz features, when it comes to material culture, language and specific forms of behaviour, were preserved throughout the Soviet period not in spite of this state’s policy towards its minorities, but rather because of it. The private sphere became the place for security and stability where one could speak one’s own language and practice one’s own culture, as long as this did not represent a threat to the overriding political system. The private sphere was also a place where one preserved all that linked the individual to the family, past and present. To put it somewhat simply, it can be said that the public sphere was the place for modernisation, change and industrial development, while the private sphere was the place for security and cultural stability. Of course a great deal also changed in the private sphere in the course of the 70 years the Kyrgyz were under the Soviet state, but there is reason to believe that we should have seen a completely different transformation if the country had been part of a more open political system with a market economy.