Kyrgyzstan (Кыргызстан in Kyrgz, Киргизия in Russian), officially the Kyrgyz Republic (Кыргыз Республикасы — Kırgız Respublikası in Kyrgyz, Кыргызская Республика — Kyrgyzskaya Respublika in Russian), formerly known as Kirghizia, is a country in Central Asia. Landlocked and mountainous, Kyrgyzstan is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west and southwest, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the east. Kyrgyzstan is farther from the sea than any other individual country, and all its rivers flow into closed drainage systems which do not reach the sea. The mountainous region of the Tian Shan covers over 80% of the country which results in Kyrgyzstan being occasionally referred to as “the Switzerland of Central Asia”, with the remainder made up of valleys and basins. Kyrgyzstan has significant deposits of metals including gold and rare earth metals. Due to the country’s predominantly mountainous terrain, less than 8% of the land is cultivated, and this is concentrated in the northern lowlands and the fringes of the Fergana Valley. Bishkek in the north is the capital and largest city, with 937,400 inhabitants (as of 2015). The second city is the ancient town of Osh, located in the Fergana Valley near the border with Uzbekistan.
Since independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has officially been a unitary parliamentary republic, although it continues to endure ethnic conflicts, revolts, economic troubles, transitional governments and political party conflicts. Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Turkic Council, the TÜRKSOY community and the United Nations.
Ethnic Kyrgyz make up the majority of the country’s 5.7 million people, followed by significant minorities of Uzbeks and Russians. The state, or national language, Kyrgyz, is closely related to the other Turkic languages, although Russian remains widely spoken and is the official language, a legacy of a century-long policy of multiculturalism. The majority of the population (64 percent) are non-denominational Muslims. In addition to its Turkic origins, Kyrgyz culture bears elements of Persian, Mongolian and Russian influence.
“Kyrgyz” is believed to have been derived from the Turkic word for “forty”, in reference to the forty clans of Manas, a legendary hero who united forty regional clans against the Uyghurs. Literally, Kyrgyz means We are forty. The 40-ray sun on the flag of Kyrgyzstan is a reference to those same forty tribes and the graphical element in the sun’s center depicts the wooden crown, called tunduk, of a yurt — a portable dwelling traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.
The history of the Kyrgyz people and the land of Kyrgyzstan goes back more than 2,000 years. Although geographically isolated by its mountainous location, it had an important role as part of the historical Silk Road trade route. Stone implements found in the Tian Shan mountains indicate the presence of human society in what is now Kyrgyzstan as many as 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. The first written records of a civilization in the area occupied by Kyrgyzstan appear in Chinese chronicles beginning about 2000 BC.
The Kyrgyz state reached its greatest expansion after defeating the Uyghur Khaganate in 840 A.D. From the tenth century the Kyrgyz migrated as far as the Tian Shan range and maintained their dominance over this territory for about 200 years. In the twelfth century, the Kyrgyz dominion had shrunk to the Altay Range and Sayan Mountains as a result of the Mongol expansion. With the rise of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century, the Kyrgyz migrated south. The Kyrgyz peacefully became a part of Mongol Empire in 1207.
Chinese and Muslim sources of the seventh–twelfth centuries AD describe the early Kyrgyz as red-haired with white skin and blue eyes, which is indicative of ancient Indo-European tribes like the Slavic peoples. The descent of the Kyrgyz from the autochthonous Siberian population is confirmed on the other hand by the recent genetic studies. Because of the processes of migration, conquest, intermarriage, and assimilation, many of the Kyrgyz peoples that now inhabit Central and Southwest Asia are of mixed origins, often stemming from fragments of many different tribes, though they now speak closely related languages.
Issyk Kul Lake was a stopover on the Silk Road, a land route for traders, merchants and other travelers from the Far East to Europe.
Kyrgyz tribes were overrun in the seventeenth century by the Mongols, in the mid-eighteenth century by the Manchurian Qing Dynasty, and in the early 19th century by the Uzbek Khanate of Kokand.
In the late nineteenth century, the majority part of what is today Kyrgyzstan was ceded to Russia through two treaties between China (then ruled by the Qing Dynasty) and Russia. The territory, then known in Russian as “Kirghizia”, was formally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1876. The Russian takeover was met with numerous revolts against Tsarist authority, and many of the Kyrgyz opted to move to the Pamir Mountains and Afghanistan.
In addition, the suppression of the 1916 rebellion against Russian rule in Central Asia caused many Kyrgyz later to migrate to China. Since many ethnic groups in the region were (and still are) split between neighboring states at a time when borders were more porous and less regulated, it was common to move back and forth over the mountains, depending on where life was perceived as better; this might mean better rains for pasture or better government during oppression.
Soviet power was initially established in the region in 1919, and the Kara-Kyrgyz Autonomous Oblast (Кара-Киргизская автономная область) was created within the Russian SFSR. The phrase Kara-Kirghiz was used until the mid-1920s by the Russians to distinguish them from the Kazakhs, who were also referred to as Kirghiz. On December 5, 1936, the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic (Киргизская Советская Социалистическая Республика) was established as a full republic of the Soviet Union.
During the 1920s, Kyrgyzstan developed considerably in cultural, educational and social life. Literacy was greatly improved, and a standard literary language was introduced by imposing Russian on the populace. Economic and social development also was notable. Many aspects of Kyrgyz national culture were retained despite the suppression of nationalist activity under Joseph Stalin, who controlled the Soviet Union from the late 1920s until 1953.
On March 11, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was chosen by the Politburo as the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev immediately launched his new liberalizing policies of glasnost and perestroika, although they had little immediate impact on the political climate in Kyrgyzstan. On November 2, 1985, Gorbachev replaced Turdakun Usubaliyev the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kirghizia, who had been in power for 24 years, with Absamat Masaliyev. The republic’s press was permitted to adopt a more liberal stance and to establish a new publication, Literaturny Kyrgyzstan, by the Union of Writers. Unofficial political groups were forbidden, but several groups that emerged in 1989 to deal with an acute housing crisis were permitted to function.
According to the last Soviet census in 1989, ethnic Kyrgyz made up only 22% of the residents of the northern city of Frunze (now Bishkek), while more than 60% were Russians, Ukrainians, and people from other Slavic nations. Nearly 10% of the capital’s population were Jewish (a rather unique fact, for almost any place in the Soviet Union, except the Jewish Autonomous Republic).
Gorbachev’s policy of separating Party and State began to impact at the Soviet Republic level in early 1990 when each SSR held competitive elections to their respective legislative Supreme Soviets, shortly after the CPSU had given up its ‘leading role’. This meant that real local power moved from the position of Communist Party Leader to that of Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, the official Head of State of the SSR. Between January and April 1990, each of the Communist Party leaders of the five states of Soviet Central Asia assumed the position of Chairman of the Supreme Soviet in their respective SSRs, without any difficulty from the still weak opposition forces in the region.
In Kirghizia the 1990 elections were held on February 23, with a second round on April 7. As the Communists were the only political party contesting the elections it is not surprising that they received 90% of the vote. Absamat Masaliyev the Communist leader was voted by the new Parliament as Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Kirghizia on April 10, 1990.
However events quickly began to slip from the Communists control. On May 1, 1990, the opposition groups held their first big demonstration in Frunze in competition with the officially sanctioned May Day celebrations, and on May 25-26, 1990 the opposition groups formed the Kyrgyzstan Democratic Movement as a bloc of several anti-Communist political parties, movements and nongovernment organizations.
On June 4, 1990, ethnic tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz surfaced in an area of the Osh Oblast (southern Kyrgyzstan) where Uzbeks form a majority of the population. Attempts to appropriate Uzbek collective farms for housing development triggered the Osh Riots. Violent confrontations ensued, and a state of emergency and curfew were introduced. Order was not restored until August 1990.
The Kyrgyzstan Democratic Movement swiftly developed into a significant political force with growing support in parliament. On October 27, 1990, in an upset victory, Askar Akayev, the president of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences and reformist Communist Party member — the youngest of five sons born into a family of collective farm workers (in northern Kyrgyzstan), was elected to the newly created Presidency defeating Communist Party leader Absamat Masaliyev. Kirghizia was the only one of the five states of Soviet Central Asia that voted their established Communist leadership out of power in 1990.
On December 15, 1990, the Supreme Soviet voted to change the republic’s name to the Republic of Kyrgyzstan. In January 1991, Akayev introduced new government structures and appointed a government consisting mainly of younger, reform-oriented politicians. On February 5, 1991, the name of the capital, Frunze, was changed to Bishkek.
Despite these moves toward independence, economic realities seemed to work against secession from the Soviet Union In a referendum on the preservation of the USSR, in March 1991, 88.7% of the voters approved a proposal to remain part of the union as a “renewed federation.”
On August 19, 1991, when the State Emergency Committee assumed power in Moscow, there was an attempt to depose Akayev in Kyrgyzstan. After the coup collapsed the following week, Akayev and Vice President German Kuznetsov announced their resignations from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and the entire politburo and secretariat resigned. This was followed by the Supreme Soviet vote declaring independence from the Soviet Union on August 31, 1991, becoming the first of the five Republics of Soviet Central Asia to break away.
Kyrgyz was announced as the state language in September 1991. In October 1991, Akayev ran unopposed and was elected President of the new independent republic by direct ballot, receiving 95% of the votes cast. Together with the representatives of seven other republics, he signed the Treaty of the New Economic Communists that same month. On December 21, 1991, Kyrgyzstan formally entered the new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
As in many former Soviet republics, after Kyrgyzstan regained independence in August 1991 many individuals, organizations, and political parties sought to reestablish (and, to a certain extent, to create from scratch) a Kyrgyz national cultural identity; often one that included a backlash against Russians.
In 1993, allegations of corruption against Akayev’s closest political associates blossomed into a major scandal. One of those accused of improprieties was Prime Minister Chyngyshev, who was dismissed for ethical reasons in December. Following Chyngyshev’s dismissal, Akayev dismissed the government and called upon the last communist premier, Apas Djumagulov, to form a new one. In January 1994, Akayev initiated a referendum asking for a renewed mandate to complete his term of office. He received 96.2% of the vote.
A new constitution was passed by the parliament in May 1993 and the Republic of Kyrgyzstan was renamed the Kyrgyz Republic. In 1994, however, the parliament failed to produce a quorum for its last scheduled session prior to the expiration of its term in February 1995. President Akayev was widely accused of having manipulated a boycott by a majority of the parliamentarians. Akayev, in turn, asserted that the communists had caused a political crisis by preventing the legislature from fulfilling its role. Akayev scheduled an October 1994 referendum, overwhelmingly approved by voters, which proposed two amendments to the constitution — one that would allow the constitution to be amended by means of a referendum, and the other creating a new bicameral parliament called the Jogorku Kenesh.
Elections for the two legislative chambers — a 35-seat full-time assembly and a 70-seat part-time assembly — were held in February 1995 after campaigns considered remarkably free and open by most international observers, although the election-day proceedings were marred by widespread irregularities. Independent candidates won most of the seats, suggesting that personalities prevailed over ideologies. The new parliament convened its initial session in March 1995. One of its first orders of business was the approval of the precise constitutional language on the role of the legislature.
On December 24, 1995, President Akayev was reelected for another five-year term with wide support (75% of vote) over two opposing candidates. He used government resources and state-owned media to carry out his campaign. Three (out of six) candidates were deregistered shortly before the election.
A February 1996 referendum — in violation of the constitution and the law on referendums — amended the constitution to give President Akayev more power. Although the changes gave the president the power to dissolve parliament, it also more clearly defined the parliament’s powers. Since that time, the parliament has demonstrated real independence from the executive branch.
An October 1998 referendum approved constitutional changes, including increasing the number of deputies in the lower house, reducing the number of deputies in the upper house, providing for 25% of lower house deputies to be elected by party lists, rolling back parliamentary immunity, introducing private property, prohibiting adoption of laws restricting freedom of speech and mass media, and reforming the state budget.
Two rounds of parliamentary elections were held on February 20 and March 12, 2000. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that the elections failed to comply with commitments to free and fair elections and hence were invalid. Questionable judicial proceedings against opposition candidates and parties limited the choice of candidates available to Kyrgyz voters, while state-controlled media only reported favorably on official candidates. Government officials put pressure on independent media outlets that favored the opposition. The presidential election that followed later in 2000 also was marred by irregularities and was not declared free and fair by international observers.In December 2001, through a constitutional amendment, the Russian language was given official status.
Sporadic protests against perceived manipulation and fraud during the elections of February 27, 2005, erupted into widespread calls for the government to resign, which started in the southern provinces. On March 24, 15,000 pro-opposition demonstrators in Bishkek called for the resignation of the President and his regime. Protesters seized the main government building, and Akayev hurriedly fled the country, first to neighboring Kazakhstan and then to Moscow. Initially refusing to resign and denouncing the events as a coup, he subsequently resigned his office on April 4.
Kurmanbek Bakiyev won the July 10, 2005, ballot for the Presidential election with 89% of the vote with a 53% turnout. Bakiyev’s term in office was marred by the murder of several prominent politicians, prison riots, economic ills and battles for control of lucrative businesses. In 2006, Bakiyev faced a political crisis as thousands of people participated in a series of protests in Bishkek. He was accused of not following through with his promises to limit presidential power, give more authority to parliament and the prime minister, and eradicate corruption and crime. Bakiyev claimed that the opposition was plotting a coup against him.
In April 2007, the opposition held protests demanding Bakiyev’s resignation, with a large protest beginning on April 11 in Bishkek. Bakiyev signed constitutional amendments to reduce his own power on April 10, but the protest went ahead, with protesters saying that they would remain until he resigned. Clashes broke out between protesters and police on April 19, after which the protests ended.
Bakiyev was re-elected in the 2009 presidential election. After the re-election in 2009, some people in Kyrgyzstan said that he would now deal with political and economic reform. Others were skeptical. The Eurasian Daily Monitor wrote on September 10 that his style resembled other leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev. However, he lacked resources and Kyrgyz people were anxious about the risk of renewed power shortages and blackouts like in the winter 2008–2009.
During the winter of 2010, Kyrgyzstan suffered from rolling blackouts and cutoffs occurring regularly while energy prices rose.
The arrest of an opposition figure on April 6, 2010, in the town of Talas led opposition supporters to protest. The protestors took control of a governmental building, demanding a new government. Riot police were sent from Bishkek, and managed to temporarily regain control of the building. Later the same day several more opposition figures were arrested, while the government claimed to have regained control of the situation. The following day, however, hundreds of opposition supporters gathered in Bishkek and marched on the government headquarters. Security personnel attempted to disperse the protesters with the use of stun grenades and live rounds, at the cost of dozens of lives. The protests continued, however, resulting in the flight of President Bakiyev to his southern stronghold of Jalalabad, and the freeing later the same day of the arrested opposition figures.
A new government was formed under opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva, while Bakiyev remained for several days in southern Kyrgyzstan, before fleeing to Belarus, where he was given asylum by President Lukashenko. The new interim government held consultations on a new constitution, intended to increase the powers of the parliament and reduce those of the president. A referendum was held on the resulting document on June 27, 2010, and was approved by over 90% of voters, with a turnout of 72%. Elections were subsequently held on October 10, 2010. These elections resulted in five parties reaching the 5% threshold necessary to enter parliament.
Almazbek Atambayev ran in 2011 to succeed Roza Otunbayeva as President of Kyrgyzstan. On election day, October 30, 2011, he won in a landslide, defeating Adakhan Madumarov from the Butun Kyrgyzstan party and Kamchybek Tashiev from the Ata-Zhurt party with 63% of the vote, and with about 60% of the eligible Kyrgyz population voting.
Soon after becoming president in 2011, Atambayev travelled to Turkey and signed an agreement with the Turkish President agreeing to increase trade from $300 million in 2011 to $1 billion by 2015, with Turkey also agreeing to attract Turkish investment to Kyrgyzstan to the amount of $450 million within the next few years.
Atambayev has repeatedly presented himself as a pro-Russian politician. He positively supports Kyrgyzstan’s Membership of the Russian led Eurasian Customs Union and secured the withdrawal of the American military base from the country in 2014. He has spoken of the need for closer economic relations with Russia, which temporarily employs about 500,000 citizens of Kyrgyzstan. However, he also expressed his wish to achieve greater economic and energy independence from it.
Transport in Kyrgyzstan is severely constrained by the country’s alpine topography. Roads have to snake up steep valleys, cross passes of 9,800 feet (3,000 meters) altitude and more, and are subject to frequent mud slides and snow avalanches. Winter travel is close to impossible in many of the more remote and high-altitude regions. Additional problems come from the fact that many roads and railway lines built during the Soviet period are today intersected by international boundaries, requiring time-consuming border formalities to cross where they are not completely closed. Horses are still a much-used transport option, especially in more rural areas; Kyrgyzstan’s road infrastructure is not extensive, so horses are able to reach locations that motor vehicles cannot, and they do not require expensive, imported fuel.
Scott #B8 was issued on June 16, 1995, part of a set comprising a sheet of eight differently-designed semi-postal stamps and two souvenir sheets commemorating the purported 1000th anniversary of the poem Epic of Manas (Манас дастаны). The 50-tyiyn + 15-tyiyn blue and bistre stamp was printed by lithography and was available in perforated 12 and imperforate varieties. It portrays a warrior on horseback carrying a sword.
The Epic of Manas is a traditional epic poem dating to the eighteenth century but claimed by the Kyrgyz people to be much older. This opens the possibility of Manas having spoken a dialect of Turki similar to that of the Kazakhs and Nogay people today. The plot of Manas revolves around a series of events that coincide with the history of the region in the seventeenth century, primarily the interaction of the Turki-speaking people from the mountains to the south of the Dasht-i Qipchaq and the Oirat Mongols from the bordering area of Jungaria.
The government of Kyrgyzstan celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of Manas in 1995. The eponymous hero of Manas and his Oirat enemy Joloy were first found written in a Persian manuscript dated to 1792-3. In one of its dozens of iterations, the epic poem consists of approximately 500,000 lines, and while Kyrgyz historians consider it to be the longest epic poem in history, the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata and the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar are both longer. The distinction is in number of verses. Manas has more verses, though they are much shorter.
In 2009, a parliament member suggested its nomination for the “longest epic story in the world” because “the great heritage of Kyrgyz people should find its place in the world history.” There have likewise been attempts to identify Manas as Mannasseh of the Old Testament.
“The end of oral epics in Central Asia has been prophesied since the nineteenth century… Nevertheless, we can observe a surprising vitality of oral performance and oral traditions among the Kyrgyz.” Manas still plays “an important role in Kyrgyz cultural identity”
The epic tells the story of Manas, his descendants and his followers. Battles against Khitan and Oirat enemies form a central theme in the epic. The epic is divided into three parts, each consisting of a loose collection of episodic heroic events.
The Epic of Manas is divided into three books. The first is entitled “Manas”, the second episode describes the deeds of his son Semetei, and the third of his grandson Seitek. The epic begins with the destruction and difficulties caused by the invasion of the Oirats. Zhakyp reaches maturity in this time as an owner of many herds without a single heir. His prayers are eventually answered, and on the day of his son’s birth, he dedicates a colt, Toruchaar, born the same day to his son’s service. The son is unique among his peers for strength, mischief, and generosity. The Oirat learn of this young warrior and warn their leader. A plan is hatched to capture the young Manas. They fail in this task, and Manas is able to rally his people and is eventually elected and proclaimed as khan.
Manas expands his reach to include that of the Uyghurs of Moghulistan on the southern border of Jungaria. One of the defeated Uighur rulers gives his daughter to Manas in marriage. At this point, the Kyrgyz people chose, with Manas’ help, to return from the Altai mountains to their “ancestral lands” in the mountains of modern-day Kyrgyzstan. Manas begins his successful campaigns against his neighbors accompanied by his forty companions. Manas turns eventually to face the Afghan people to the south in battle, where after defeat the Afghans enter into an alliance with Manas. Manas then comes into a relationship with the people of mā warā’ an-nār through marriage to the daughter of the ruler of Bukhara.
The epic continues in various forms, depending on the publication and whim of the manaschi, or reciter of the epic.
The epic poem’s age is unknowable, as it was transmitted orally without being recorded. However, historians have doubted the age claimed for it since the turn of the twentieth century. The primary reason is that the events portrayed occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Renowned Central Asian historian V. V. Bartol’d referred to Manas as an “absurd gallimaufry of pseudo-history,” and Hatto remarks that Manas was “compiled to glorify the Sufi sheikhs of Shirkent and Kasan … [and] circumstances make it highly probable that… [Manas] is a late eighteenth-century interpolation.”
Changes were made in the delivery and textual representation of Manas in the 1920s and 1930s to represent the creation of the Kyrgyz nationality, particularly the replacement of the tribal background of Manas. In the nineteenth century versions, Manas is the leader of the Nogay people, while in versions dating after 1920, Manas is a Kyrgyz and a leader of the Kyrgyz.
Attempts have been made to connect modern Kyrgyz with the Yenisei Kirghiz, today claimed by Kyrgyzstan to be the ancestors of modern Kyrgyz. Kazakh ethnographer and historian Shokan Shinghisuly Walikhanuli was unable to find evidence of folk-memory during his extended research in nineteenth-century Kyrgyzstan (then part of the expanding Russian empire) nor has any been found since.
Parts of Manas are often recited at Kyrgyz festivities by specialists in the epic, called Manaschi (Манасчы). Manaschis tell the tale in a melodic chant unaccompanied by musical instruments. Kyrgyzstan has many Manaschis. Narrators who know all three episodes of the epic can acquire the status of Great Manaschi. Great Manaschis of the twentieth century are Sagimbai Orozbakov, Sayakbai Karalayev, Shaabai Azizov, Kaba Atabekov, Seidene Moldokova and Yusup Mamai. A revered Manaschi who recently visited the United Kingdom is Rysbek Jumabayev. Urkash Mambetaliev, the Manaschi of the Bishkek Philharmonic, also travels through Europe. Talantaaly Bakchiyev combines recitation with critical study.
There are more than 65 written versions of parts of the epic. An English translation of the version of Sagimbai Orozbakov by Walter May was published in 1995, in commemoration of the presumed 1000th anniversary of Manas’ birth, and re-issued in two volumes in 2004. Arthur Hatto has made English translations of the Manas tales recorded by Shokan Valikhanov and Vasily Radlov in the nineteenth century.
Manas is said to have been buried in the Ala-Too mountains in Talas Province, in northwestern Kyrgyzstan. A mausoleum some 40 kilometers east of the town of Talas is believed to house his remains and is a popular destination for Kyrgyz travelers. Traditional Kyrgyz horsemanship games are held there every summer since 1995. An inscription on the mausoleum states, however, that it is dedicated to “…the most famous of women, Kenizek-Khatun, the daughter of the emir Abuka”. Legend has it that Kanikey, Manas’ widow, ordered this inscription in an effort to confuse her husband’s enemies and prevent a defiling of his grave. The name of the building is “Manastin Khumbuzu” or “The Dome of Manas”, and the date of its erection is unknown. There is a museum dedicated to Manas and his legend nearby the tomb.