Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Yeltsin Set in Stone in Kyrgyzstan

Gesture to former Russian leader seen as effort to boost strategic relationship.
By Leila Saralaeva

Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin has been immortalised in stone for the first time – but in Kyrgyzstan rather than in his native country. Analysts see it as much more than a friendly gesture, with strategic considerations at play.


The leader who oversaw the break-up of the Soviet Union had his likeness unveiled amid much pomp in the resort town of Cholpon-Ata on Lake Issyk-Kul, the site of his past two summer holidays. Significantly, President Askar Akaev was at the ceremony.


During Yeltsin’s holiday last year a 5,000-metre mountain peak was named in his honour.


Most analysts agree that these are not merely expressions of warmth towards the man who effectively allowed Kyrgyzstan to become independent, but an attempt to ensure continuing good relations with what remains the regional superpower.


The president’s press secretary, Abdil Segizbaev, has described the statue as both “a symbol of Kyrgyz and Russian friendship” and “a tribute to a person who greatly contributed to the development of these relations”.


The holidays taken by the former Russian leader and his wife Naina have come complete with honours that are, as a rule, reserved for serving heads of states. This year Kyrgyzstan’s first lady, Mairam Akaeva, and prime minister Nikolai Tanaev met the couple at Manas airport while all the local television channels aired detailed reports about their vacation.


Such has been the hospitality that at the last minute the Yeltsins extended their stay by several days.


The climax was the unveiling of the sculpture, a project dreamed up and funded by Tashkul Kereksizov, who headed Kyrgyzstan’s customs agency for a number of years and is believed to be the country’s wealthiest man. The two-metre seated figure carved out of white gypsum will sit in a museum.


Yeltsin himself appeared embarrassed by the gesture – saying he did not think living people had monuments built for them.


“I do feel rather uncomfortable,” he said during the ceremony. “There has not been any such monument in the other former Soviet countries, even Russia.”


Russian journalists from the NTV television channel noted with some surprise that the statue that was unveiled had distinctly Kyrgyz traits, depicting Yeltsin with high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes.


The identity of the artist behind this rather unusual interpretation has not been revealed. Turgunbai Sydykov, rector of the National Academy of Arts of Kyrgyzstan and no mean sculptor himself, said he did not know who made the statue and did not think it was appropriate to comment.


“It is hard to assess the Yeltsin monument in artistic terms. It would be somewhat unethical,” he said.


Those interested more in the political significance of the statue than its artistic merits say that amid increasingly strained relations with its Central Asian neighbours, Kyrgyzstan requires Russian patronage more than ever.


“It is a sort of guarantee for Kyrgyzstan, so that it can lobby its national interests,” said Nikolai Bailo, who chairs parliament’s committee on relations with other former Soviet republics.


A high-ranking Kyrgyz official who attended the unveiling ceremony, but insisted on anonymity, said, “Kyrgyzstan is a small and poor country in need of superpower patronage. We are ready to build 1,000 monuments if it will do our country good.”


Why Yeltsin and not some other senior Russian figure? Political scientist Nur Omarov thinks it reflects a sense of national gratitude, “This devoted love for Yeltsin arises from the fact that it was under his rule that Kyrgyzstan gained its independence.”


Others see more complex political calculations at work. While Yeltsin himself lives quietly in retirement, the “family” – his entourage of relatives and associates – remains a powerful force in Russian politics, occupying many key posts. Human rights activist Yrysbek Omurzakov thinks President Akaev is keen to keep in with this group.


And then there are those who are appalled at what they see as the spectacle of Kyrgyzstan abasing itself to curry favour.


“Our high ranking officials would smile and applaud for Bush in the same way if he decided to come to an Issyk-Kul resort,” said opposition deputy Adahan Madumarov. “It is exactly the way we do policy – being friends with the Chinese until lunchtime, with Russia afterwards, and speaking about our love for the United States the same evening.


“The people of Kyrgyzstan do like Russia, but not the fact that it is represented by Yeltsin who led it into economic decline.”


Leila Saralaeva is a correspondent with Delo No. newspaper in Bishkek.