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Kyrgyz Find Kin in Khakassia

Khakass people urge Kyrgyz traders to stay and help preserve their gene pool.
By Cholpon Orozobekova

Kyrgyz itinerant traders who've ventured to the Russian republic of Khakassia in recent years have got more than they've bargained for. The Khakass people don't just want to sell their wares - they want them to settle down and boost their population.


The two peoples share a physical resemblance and a similar Turkic language. Before the Kyrgyz trekked to Central Asia during the 14th century, they too lived in Siberia, on the Yenisey River. Now, the Khakass want them to return and help preserve the gene pool.


"I'm very happy when I see Kyrgyz in our capital of Abakan. I would like to see more people who look like us in the city," said Anatoly Ugdyjekov, editor of Khakass Chiry, the only newspaper published in the republic.


Professor Viktor Butanaev of the Khakass Historical Institute is seeking official assistance to encourage Kyrgyz immigration, which he hopes will foster a stronger sense of national identity.


"I visited Kyrgyzstan last year, and asked President Askar Akaev to help us attract 20,000 to 30,000 of his people. We will arrange everything so they can live and work here. I also asked Akaev to assist in re-opening the Bishkek-Abakan railway," he told IWPR.


So far, around 500 Kyrgyz traders have settled in Abakan and thousands more regularly move goods between the two capitals. All readily acknowledge the warm welcome they have received.


Nurlan, a resident of the Kyrgyz village Kochkor, has now been trading in the Abakan bazaars for two years. "We do not face the discrimination we experience in other Russian cities," he said. "I settled in very quickly here. We feel at home, which is not surprising as Kyrgyz and Khakass are kindred peoples. We have the same roots."


The Khakass community of this south-east Siberian republic is on the wane. They now make up just over ten per cent of the population - Russians and other minorities form the majority.


The decline has been underway for decades and affects all walks of life. The republic has not had a Khakass leadership since 1930. "Out of 75 deputies in the supreme council (the highest legislative body) of Khakassia, only six are Khakass," said Butanaev.


The early Soviet period brought a huge influx of Russian and other nationalities into the area to serve three industrial complexes - the Sayan-Shushen hydroelectric station, the Sayanogorsk aluminium factory and the Abakan carriage factory - which required large workforces.


An open policy of Russification has diluted Khakass culture ever since, according to Ugdyjekov. "Our language is only taught in the first four years at school. After that, our children are forced to study in Russian whether they like it or not," he said.


Many Kyrgyz receive Russian citizenship within a year of settling in Khakassia. "Unlike other Russian cities, it is quite simple to get citizenship in here," said Sapar from the western Kyrgyzstan city of Talas, who has settled in Abakan with his wife Jazgul.


Intermarriage is also on the increase. Ishen, from Jumgal in Kyrgyzstan, has been married to Khakass woman Svetlana for two years. "Svetlana's parents are very kind and they have given us an apartment in Abakan," he said. "She is their only daughter and they love me like their own son. They don't want us to leave Abakan and if we were ever to return, they would want to come with us."


However, some marriages don't work out because many Khakass do not speak their own language and are barely aware of their own customs. "Some women do not make suitable wives for Kyrgyz, as they have been heavily Russified," one trader told IWPR.


Popular Kyrgyz singer Mukhtar Atanaliev said he felt the differences strongly during a recent visit to the Khakassian capital. "When I was at school, I learned that our people originated from the Yenisey, so I was intrigued to visit these parts and to give a concert in Abakan," he said. "The Khakass are very similar to us, but they are very Russified. One well-known singer, whose real name is Mairambek, calls himself Ivan."


But whatever the reservations of some Kyrgyz, they cannot doubt the warmth of the Khakass welcome. "Let more Kyrgyz come here," said Ugdyjenov. "And tell them to bring their friends and relatives."


Cholpon Orozobekova is an independent journalist in Bishkek


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