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Kyrgyzstan: Leaving Home to Go Home

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Kyrgyzstan's ethnic Russians, isolated and increasingly powerless, are heading to the Motherland in droves.

by Hamid Toursunov

25 March 2010

OSH, Kyrgyzstan | Natasha Antonova was born 37 years ago in Osh and has lived here ever since. "It's my hometown, but I'm planning to leave Kyrgyzstan," she said recently. "Here, my 15-year-old son has no future."

Antonova, a Russian, will be joining a mass exodus of her ethnic kin, who have left the country by the hundreds of thousands since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Many cite the rise of Kyrgyz nationalism, a moribund economy, and a sense of being forgotten by Moscow as reasons for their departure. A recent deterioration of relations between the two countries is not likely to help.

"After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a hostile environment emerged in this country for ethnic Russians, which was made worse by lack of any support from Russia," said Pavel Stolyarenko, a marketing specialist based in Osh. "The Russian Federation cut ties with Kyrgyzstan, particularly southern Kyrgyzstan."

Kyrgyzstan has lost more than half its Russian-speaking population in the past 20 years. In 1989, 916,558 ethnic Russians and 108,027 ethnic Ukrainians made up 24 percent of the total population In 2009, those numbers were 439,860 and 22,905, respectively, according to the Kyrgyz National Statistics office.

In 2008 alone, 14,350 ethnic Russians left for Russia.

Local analysts say that mostly retired people, older workers, schoolchildren, and unskilled laborers remain in the country, as well as a small number of qualified specialists.

Most struggle to get by, particularly in the southern provinces of the country.

"More than a half of my friends and acquaintances are poor. What the Russian authorities do, they deliver humanitarian aid, food, and clothes, to poor representatives of ethnic Russians. I personally hate taking this help, which is delivered as handouts," said Svetlana Sinegubova, a 37-year-old single mother of two who works as a baker in the southwestern city of Jalal-Abad.

"It's not only Kyrgyzstan that's to blame for the miserable condition of ethnic Russians. The Russian authorities are guilty, too. They've completely forgotten us, they don't do anything to protect us," Sinegubova said.

Alexander Knyazev, director of the Bishkek branch of the CIS Institute think tank and a history professor at Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University, said Russia's neglect of Kyrgyzstan began during the transition period and is still reflected in Moscow's foreign policy.

"In the '90s, due to the policy of Yeltsin and [Foreign Minister Andrei] Kozyrev, [Moscow] was indifferent to everything [here], and everything was cut off," Knyazev said. "And only in 2002, did an understanding emerge that Russia has interests here. But Russia still has no mature understanding of the scale of what should be done here. If the political forces that govern Russia's policy are consistent, and the [Russian] economy allows, I believe this understanding will grow."

Svetlana Gafarova, an expert on interethnic relations and deputy director of the Center for Social Information and Forecasting in Osh, echoed the words of Sinegubova as well as many Russian-speaking residents of Kyrgyzstan.

"Due to hard times in Russia in the '90s, official Moscow kind of forgot about ethnic Russians in other republics of the former Soviet Union, including Kyrgyzstan," said Gafarova, an ethnic Tatar. "Only after 2001 did the Russian Federation start providing some support to ethnic Russians and launched certain programs for those who decided to move to Russia. Here in Kyrgyzstan, neither the Russian Embassy in Bishkek nor the General Consulate based in Osh provide any visible aid. All they give is lip service."

"Moscow sends lots of books for secondary schools, but how the hell do I benefit from this?" Antonova said. Although Russia gave a grant and loan package worth $450 million to Bishkek last year, Antonova complained that Moscow has done nothing to help the local economy grow. "Otherwise, we would have jobs here," she said.

According to local experts and observers, there have been three major waves of migration of ethnic Russians and Russian speaking citizens of Kyrgyzstan.

Gafarova said the first wave of migrants left right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Ethnic Russians, who had been in the role of the Big Brother for many decades under the Soviets, became a minority and felt vulnerable following the growth of a Kyrgyz national identity. They couldn't or didn't want to play the role of a younger brother." Russians here saw their status, and that of their language, downgraded, and their economic well-being become seemingly less important for the Kremlin.

Gafarova said the sinking of the Kyrgyz economy, whose GDP plunged by more than 25 percent in the early 1990s, also drove some out.

The second migration was launched by the Tulip Revolution of March 2005, which saw the overthrow of President Askar Akaev and which some people here considered a coup d'etat, considering that Akaev's successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, has shown the same tendencies toward corruption and authoritarianism.

Fearing the wrath of nationalists, "ethnic Russians, both in Bishkek and other regions of this country, were in a panic [during the revolution]. The situation was unpredictable," Gafarova said. "Ethnic Slavs appeared to be in a desperate plight. They were not wanted in the country of their origin, Kyrgyzstan, and they were forgotten by the historic motherland."

A growing nationalist mood caused a third wave of migration, which some people here call a "quiet migration." Many ethnic Russians say that under cover of a language law which requires officials to speak Kyrgyz, Kyrgyz authorities have started forcing ethnic Russians from state bodies.

"It's difficult for us to find jobs in the public sector due to nepotism. The Kyrgyz prefer to hire their relatives or friends. In addition, it's difficult to open small and medium-size businesses without having a protector in this corrupt business environment," Sinegubova said.

Kyrgyzstan's southern provinces, populated mostly by Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks, have been virtually emptied of ethnic Russians. In 2009 about 22,000 ethnic Russians remained in the south, down from more than 126,000 in 1989. The rest of the country's Russian citizens live in the north, concentrated in Bishkek.

"I left Osh and moved to Bishkek three years ago," said Natalya Sekerina, a 20-year-old student. "Life here is much better than that in the south. Here, Russians can find jobs. They're not discriminated against as badly as in the south. I want to stay here to finish my studies and find a good job. But my mother keeps urging me to leave for Russia."


Recently, the Kremlin has made efforts to rekindle ties with Kyrgyzstan, as the country could be a strategic ally for East and West due to its proximity to Afghanistan.

In 2009, Moscow offered Bishkek a large financial aid package consisting of a $150 million grant and a $300 million loan.

Vitaliy Skrinnik, the first secretary of the Russian Embassy in Bishkek, said in an interview that Moscow gave the aid to Kyrgyzstan "to address budget issues and to take care of its social obligations" such as pensions and salaries.

In addition, Moscow offered a $1.7 billion loan to help build Kambarata-1, a hydropower plant on the Naryn River, which flows across the country.

The aid was offered on the same day that Kyrgyzstan announced it would evict American service members from the Manas Air Base in the north, which served as a stopping-off point for supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan. The timing spurred widespread speculation that the aid was part of a quid pro quo with the Kremlin.

But then the Americans agreed to increase the rent they paid for the base and they remain there today.

"One of the main political conditions of the aid was withdrawal of the American military base," Knyazev, of the CIS Institute, said. "That did not happen. There is public diplomacy and there is private diplomacy."

On 10 July, the Interfax news agency reported that in exchange for the loan, Kyrgyzstan would transfer to Russia a number of arms makers. According to local media reports, Russia also agreed to write off Kyrgyz debt worth $193.6 million in exchange for companies including Dastan, an arms maker in northern Kyrgyzstan. Russia now holds 48 percent of the company.

Knyazev, who described relations between Kyrgyzstan and Russia as tense, said Bishkek offered Moscow the chance to open another Russian base "to make up for its decision to let the Americans stay in Kyrgyzstan." The initial plan was to deploy more Russian troops in Batken or Osh provinces in southern Kyrgyzstan, on the border with Uzbekistan, in addition to the Russian air base in Kant, near Bishkek. But opposition from Uzbekistan helped sink the plan.

"In general, Moscow takes a dim view of what the Kyrgyz authorities have been doing and is considering possible sanctions," Knyazev said.

It seems that the first sanction has already come into force, with Russia delaying payment of the money to help start the Kambarata project, which it was due to begin disbursing in February, according to a Kyrgyz official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Skrinnik said the $1.7 billion loan for construction of the hydropower station has been withheld because Bishkek "has not developed a program and has not built a structure to implement the Kambarata-1 project due to reorganization and restructuring in the Kyrgyz government."

Skrinnik said that without a detailed program and structure, Kyrgyzstan "may misuse the money." "There was such a precedent with the ... $450 million, which was misused," he said, citing the government's decision to use it to create a lending fund. "They may do the same with the Kambarata loan."

It is suspicion like that, which has led to a slumping economy and an increased distance between her two countries, that has people like Antonova packing. "I hate to leave the country, but I'm forced to," she said. "But I hope to keep my house here so that I can visit my hometown from time to time."

Hamid Toursunov is a TOL correspondent in Kyrgyzstan.

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