Kyrgyzstan: Alarm at Tribal Claim to Separate Status

Acceding to one group’s demands for formal recognition as separate ethnicity could open Pandora’s box, analysts warn.

Kyrgyzstan: Alarm at Tribal Claim to Separate Status

Acceding to one group’s demands for formal recognition as separate ethnicity could open Pandora’s box, analysts warn.

Demands by members of a tribal group to be accorded separate ethnic status have alarmed commentators in Kyrgyzstan, who argue that such claims could sow unnecessary and dangerous divisions.

The campaign for formal recognition of Kypchak identity is being led by Kamchybek Samatov, a retired teacher from the village of Bujum in the southern region of Batken.

From March 24 to April 3, Kyrgyzstan will conduct the second national census since it became independent in 1991, and Samatov plans to name both his ethnicity and his mother tongue as “Kypchak” when he is polled.

He reckons there are 30,000 people around Batken willing to do the same.

“Apart from Batken, I am being approached by Kypchaks from Jalalabad and Osh as well,” he told IWPR, referring to the two other administrative regions of southern Kyrgyzstan.

Once they have recorded their details in the census, Samatov and his associates plan to appeal to Kyrgyzstan’s president and parliament to allow them to enter “Kypchak” as their ethnic identity in their passports. As in Soviet times, the Kyrgyz passport includes a provision stating one’s “nationality” or ethnicity – for example Russian or Uzbek – as distinct from one’s citizenship of the state.

If that fails, Samatov plans to seek recognition by the United Nations. “The international community will not remain indifferent to the problems facing a small ethnic group threatened with extinction,” he said.

It has been a long haul for Samatov, who first sought legitimacy for Kypchak ethnicity in the last Soviet census, conducted in 1989. That attempt failed, but he tried again with around 350 others when the next census came round in 1999.

“Now that our country had become a democracy, we were hoping we’d be recognised as an ethnic group without running into problems,” he said.

Although the census-takers did write down their ethnicity as requested in 1999, the final published statistics did not record any Kypchaks among the various minorities officially noted as living in Kyrgyzstan.

The head of the census department at Kyrgyzstan’s National Statistics Committee, Gulzeynep Myrzabekova, explained to IWPR that information collated about how people identified themselves did not necessarily show up in the final, general data.

“The Kypchaks are an ethnic subgroup, not a nation,” she said “They need to say which language they speak – if it’s Kyrgyz, then they belong to the Kyrgyz nation, and if it’s the Kazak language, then they are Kazaks.”

Samatov tried another approach in 2006, getting a local court to recognise the Kypchak as an ethnic group. However, this ruling was overturned by a higher regional court and subsequently by Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court.

Tribal identity remains strong in Kyrgyzstan, and many people are able to cite their own family lineage, the clan they belong to, and above that the name of their tribe. At a still higher level, the tribes are traditionally apportioned to larger groupings, one of which, the Ichkilik, includes the Kypchaks.

For the average person, pride in clan or tribal allegiance does not diminish the overarching sense of Kyrgyz identity, and opponents of Samatov’s aspirations ask what there really is to distinguish the Kypchaks from any other group. Culturally and linguistically, they are similar to other Kyrgyz groups in the south, as opposed to groups that speak related but distinct Turkic languages like Uzbek or Kazak.

The justification for nation status appears to stem from earlier historical times, when the term Kypchak was used for a dominant grouping of Turkic peoples living from present-day Kazakstan to Ukraine.

“We’ve got enough cultural and historical evidence,” Samatov said. “I’ve been working on this for 30 years now.”

At one level, Samatov’s claims are reminiscent of the academic debate over whether the Soviet Union’s rulers manufactured nations out of the various groups that inhabited Central Asia when they took over. But for many commentators, the argument is far from abstract, and threatens to undermine the generally-accepted concept of Kyrgyz nationhood.

Shairbek Juraev, head of the international and comparative politics department at the American University of Central Asia, points out that plenty of Kyrgyz tribal groups have names harking back to some other historical identity.

“If you take into account that very many of the tribes have names associated with peoples that used to exist or still do – the Naiman, the Kytay and so on – this could set a precedent that could lead to a situation where the Kyrgyz disintegrate as a unified ethnic group,” he said.

Political and ethnic affairs experts interviewed by IWPR were unanimous in expressing concern at the “Kypchak” project, not because they did not respect people’s sense of identity, but because they felt that calling for legal recognition sent out a divisive and potentially dangerous message.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Iskhak Masaliev, who leads the Communist Party group in parliament. “There are only 3.6 million of us [Kyrgyz] and there’s no sense in dividing us further into Kypchaks and Kyrgyz.

Ethnologist Emil Kanimetov worries that a campaign that would result in ethnic fragmentation is a move in the wrong direction.

“There’s no sense in dividing the nation. The entire world is globalising, and many countries are dropping ethnicity [from passports],” he said. “It would be a step backwards for Kyrgyzstan.”

Legal expert Abdykerim Ashirov says now is not a good time to be stirring up divisions in Kyrgyzstan.

“Kyrgyz society is already showing a tendency to fracture along religious, regional and other lines,” he said. “What we need are actions that unite the nation.”

Osmonakun Ibraimov, a leading figure in Kyrgyzstan who was State Secretary under former president Askar Akaev, says more should be done to create a meaningful “national idea” for Kyrgyzstan.

“Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have any national ideology at the moment, and that’s why we divide into north and south, and into clans and tribes. The Kyrgyz are a synthetic nation formed out of various tribes and peoples… but that doesn’t mean we need to be divided,” he said.

Ibraimov said nationhood should be an inclusive concept, and warned against those who he said spoke of “Kyrgyzstan for the Kyrgyz”. “That would mean that if you aren’t Kyrgyz, you are a temporary tenant here,” he explained.

In Batken, a region where a large percentage of people belong to the Kypchak tribe, people interviewed by IWPR appeared generally uninterested in the idea of forging a new nation, and many were also concerned about the risks inherent in drawing unnecessary dividing lines.

“What difference does it make whether you’re Kypchak, Kytay or Kyrgyz?” asked local man Maksatbek Baymyrzaev. “I don’t believe that the people I know who’re planning to put themselves down as Kypchak will find that their lives change for the better merely because of that.”

Local teacher Ularbek Arapov notes that Batken region, which is flanked on two sides by Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, is vulnerable to disputes based around ethnic difference.

“The densely-populated Fergana valley is full of potential for explosive ethnic conflicts,” he said. “Why make the situation worse?”

Samatov insists his claims of recognition are not cover for a separatist agenda.

“We don’t mean that we want to separate off from Kyrgyzstan. We have always lived in Kyrgyzstan and will continue to do so,” he said.

Some observers appear content to let Samatov’s group pursue its dream.

At national level, Kyrgyzstan’s ombudsman for human rights has in the past rejected the concept of a formal status for the Kypchaks, but local representative Hait Aykynov, says there is nothing unlawful in Samatov pushing his claims.

Meanwhile, the head of the statistical office in Batken, Mirzakmat Ergeshov, says the census agents will write down anything people want. “We don’t look at what it says in their passports. We haven’t had instructions from above not to put people down as Kypchak,” he said.

Just as in the last census, however, recording people’s statements will not automatically generate numbers for Samatov’s would-be nation.

Lawyers say an individual’s formal ethnic identity is inherited and cannot be chosen at will, so a person seeking official identification as Kypchak would need to prove that their mother or father was, too.

Jenish Aydarov is a stringer for the Kyrgyz Service of RFE/RL. Mirgul Akimova is a pseudonym for a reporter in Kyrgyzstan.

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