Violence against Foreign Students in Kyrgyzstan: A Case of Looming Threat from Ultra-nationalist Forces

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On 17–18 May 2024, hundreds of citizens of Kyrgyzstan attacked the dormitories and flats in the capital city of Bishkek where foreign students, particularly those of Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi origin, resided. Between three and four Pakistani students were reportedly killed in the attacks, and scores of foreign students were injured. Moreover, there have been allegations that several Pakistani female students were sexually assaulted during the riots. This shocking incident is a striking reflection of the political currents in Kyrgyzstan, a post-Soviet state characterized by its frequent political upheavals, its regionally unique political culture, and its harbouring of extreme nationalism.

The Kyrgyz Republic: An Unstable Post-Soviet State

Located in the Tian Shan and Pamir mountain ranges, the Kyrgyz Republic is a landlocked state in Central Asia. With an area of 200,105 km² and a population of 7.16 million, Kyrgyzstan borders Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. With only 7% of the land being cultivated and possessing substantial deposits of gold, coal, and rare-earth elements, Kyrgyzstan is a lower-middle income country. 77.8% of the state’s population are ethnic Kyrgyz, a Turkic nation, and 90% of the population profess Islam. At present, Kyrgyzstan is a unitary presidential republic with a democratic form of government.

Historically, there had been no exclusive state structure for the Kyrgyz people on the current territory of Kyrgyzstan. The social and political structure of the Kyrgyz were traditionally dominated by competing tribes and clans. In the second half of the 19th century, the territory of Kyrgyzstan was absorbed into Russia. After the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Kyrgyz-populated lands were organized into the Kara-Kirgiz Autonomous Oblast in October 1924, and it was transformed into the Kirgiz Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic in February 1926. It was elevated to the Kirgiz Soviet Socialist Republic (Kirgiz SSR) in December 1936, and declared its independence from the USSR on 31 August 1991.

Since its independence, Kyrgyzstan emerged as the only democratic state in Central Asia. But the country has been plagued by numerous challenges, including three political revolutions, chronic political instability, intrusion of criminals into politics, persistent corruption, ethnic conflicts, deindustrialization, growth in economic disparity, poverty, climate crisis, partial radicalization of the population, and territorial disputes with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Moreover, a number of external powers, including Russia, China, the United States (US), Türkiye, and the European Union (EU), are seeking to expand their influence over the country, making it an important part of the Grand Chessboard of Eurasian geopolitics.

Kyrgyz Nationalism in the Former USSR

Before the undertaking of the Soviet national self-determination project in Kyrgyzstan in the 1920s, the Kyrgyz people did not form a coherent nation and did not experience the rise of nationalism that had swept Europe and Asia by the onset of the First World War. Indeed, the Kyrgyz tribes fought amongst themselves as much as they fought against neighbouring non-Kyrgyz states and peoples. After the formation of the USSR in December 1922, the Bolshevik-controlled Soviet government, in accordance with their policy of ensuring the right of self-determination for all ethnic groups, accorded national autonomy to the Kyrgyz, delimited a national territory for them, and implemented the policy of korenizatsiya (indigenization) and nation-building in the Kyrgyz lands. Accordingly, a full range of national institutions were built on the Kyrgyz national territory, the Communist Party of Kirgizia was created, ethnic Kyrgyz were employed in large numbers in local administration, and republican and party bureaucracy, the Kyrgyz language was given a coherent written form, Kyrgyz teachers were trained, Kyrgyz-language schools were established, Kyrgyz-language press was developed, the writing of books in the Kyrgyz language was encouraged, Kyrgyz-language films were produced, and the Kyrgyz culture, albeit in a secularized and Sovietized form, was actively promoted. Consequently, the Kyrgyz experienced a sort of national renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s.

During this period, a nascent form of Kyrgyz nationalism was developed. The Soviet government initially tolerated the expressions of local nationalisms in order to weaken Great Russian nationalism, which was the primary internal ideological opponent of the Soviet system. However, as geopolitical tensions in Europe and Asia rose in the 1930s and the USSR was confronted with a host of enemy states, including the United Kingdom (UK), France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Japan, China, and the US, the Soviet political and security elite became increasingly suspicious of minority nationalism. During the Great Purge in 1938, 137 Kyrgyz politicians and intellectuals were arrested and executed by the NKVD. Despite this, approximately 380,000 Kyrgyz troops served in the Soviet Armed Forces during the Second World War, and more than 100,000 Kyrgyz troops were killed while defending the USSR. The participation of the Kyrgyz in the Second World War constituted an important element in the development of national identity of the Kyrgyz people, and after three decades of independence, the Kyrgyz continue to celebrate it in the form of Victory Day on 9 May.

After the war, the development of Kyrgyz national identity continued in the USSR. However, in the 1970s, Communism as an all-encompassing ideology started to gradually lose its appeal among the Soviet people, including the Kyrgyz, and the Soviet central government accorded more autonomy to the national republics, including the Kirgiz SSR. During this period, ethno-nationalist sentiments among part of the Kyrgyz population started to take root. Kyrgyz ethno-nationalists viewed themselves as disadvantaged and discriminated against vis-à-vis other nationalities on the territory of the Kirgiz SSR. Particularly, the Kyrgyz nationalists viewed ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, concentrated in the northern Kirgiz SSR, as having more white-collar jobs and better economic conditions. Similarly, while the Kyrgyz constituted the bulk of the political and administrative elite in southern Kirgiz SSR, ethnic Uzbeks dominated the economic sector, breeding resentment among the Kyrgyz nationalists. Moreover, following the Sino–Soviet split in the 1960s, the Soviet government nurtured anti-Chinese sentiment in its Central Asian republics, including the Kirgiz SSR.

Upon the introduction of glasnost and perestroika in the USSR in the mid-1980s, ethno-nationalist groups became very active in the national republics of the USSR, and the Kirgiz SSR was no exception. Ethno-nationalist groups mushroomed in the Kirgiz SSR. Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Kirgizia started to lose control over the republic, and became divided into pro-status quo and anti-status quo factions. The Kyrgyzstan Democratic Movement, a coalition of pro-democratic and nationalist parties, groups and non-government organizations (NGOs), formed in May 1990, challenged the Communist government. In June 1990, conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbek nationalists in southern Kirgiz SSR turned into deadly riots, unleashing an orgy of murder, rape, pillage, arson, and other crimes. Thousands of people were killed, wounded, or subjected to other crimes during the clashes, and the riots were quelled only after the deployment of Soviet troops.

In October 1990, Askar Akayev, an anti-status quo Communist politician and academician, was elected the President of the Kirgiz SSR. In December 1990, the name of the Kirgiz SSR was changed to the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, and the republic declared its sovereignty, but still remained part of the USSR. While ethno-nationalism and opposition to the status quo grew in the republic, 95.98% of the Kyrgyzstani voters still voted in favour of preserving the USSR in a referendum held in March 1991. However, after the pro-status quo Communist leaders launched an abortive coup d’état in Moscow in August 1991, Kyrgyzstan declared independence from the USSR on 31 August.

Kyrgyz Nationalism after Independence

During the presidency of Askar Akayev (1990–2005), the Kyrgyzstani government promoted a form of civic nationalism in the country and attempted to maintain interethnic harmony. Yet, a number of factors, including the use of extreme nationalism as an electoral tool by Kyrgyz politicians, the perceived deprivation of the Kyrgyz vis-à-vis the Uzbeks, the persistent fear of Uzbek secessionism in southern Kyrgyzstan, the apprehension about the loss of sovereignty to foreign states, and the relatively free space for the operation of Kyrgyz nationalist groups, contributed to the spread of Kyrgyz ethno-nationalism among part of the Kyrgyz population.

In fact, most major political parties in Kyrgyzstan subscribe to some form of Kyrgyz nationalism, ranging from moderate to very extreme. The democratic nature of the Kyrgyzstani polity helped proliferate nationalist ideas. While other Central Asian states with more authoritarian forms of government imposed restrictions on nationalist groups in order to maintain order in their states, Kyrgyzstan allowed the expression of nationalist sentiments and the mushrooming of nationalist groups and movements.

Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan became a battleground for influence among the great powers, including the US, Russia, and China. In 1992, Kyrgyzstan joined a Russian-led security alliance, now termed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The US established an airbase near Bishkek in 2001 to prosecute its war in Afghanistan, while Russia was granted an airbase near the town of Kant in 2003. In March 2003, President Akayev was overthrown in a US-backed political coup d’état, termed the Tulip Revolution. US–Russian competition over Kyrgyzstan continued into the 2010s, while Kyrgyzstan had to cede some territory to China to resolve a long-standing territorial dispute with the latter.

In April 2010, an uprising, termed the People’s April Revolution, overthrew the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and the ensuing chaos unleashed another orgy of violence throughout Kyrgyzstan. The violence involved clashes between anti-Bakiyev and pro-Bakiyev forces, attacks on ethnic Russians and Meskhetian Turks in northern Kyrgyzstan, and riots against ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan. Thousands of people were killed, wounded, or otherwise attacked during the violence, and the riots only ended after the deployment of Kyrgyz troops and policemen. Most of the victims of the violence were ethnic Uzbeks, but the new Kyrgyzstani government undertook several anti-Uzbek measures, including the near-elimination of the Uzbek language from the public life.

After the events of 2010, nationalism was further mainstreamed into Kyrgyzstani political culture. Ethno-nationalism spread further, and in addition, anti-Chinese sentiment began to rise. Sinophobia in Kyrgyzstan is rooted in a host of factors, including the effects of Soviet-era anti-Chinese information warfare, the opposition to the growing presence of Chinese immigrants and their courting of Kyrgyz women, the fear of falling into a Chinese ‘debt trap,’ the loss of territory to China, and the opposition to the mass internment of Kyrgyz Muslims in China’s Xinjiang. In addition, substantial Russian influence in the country, coupled with the social conservatism of the Kyrgyz and the Western states’ military misadventures in Muslim states, has given rise to anti-Western sentiment among segments of the Kyrgyz population. Moreover, some Kyrgyz nationalists oppose Russian influence in Kyrgyzstan, and promote a series of steps, including greater use of the Kyrgyz language in public life, Latinization of the Kyrgyz language, revocation of the official status of the Russian language, and opposition to Russian foreign policy, to implement de-Russification of the country. What is more, owing to territorial disputes and repeated border clashes with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan has entered into some sort of arms race with Tajikistan, and has been accused of persecuting ethnic Tajiks. Also, some Kyrgyz nationalists harbour pan-Islamist and pan-Turkic ambitions.

Hence, Kyrgyz nationalism, well-integrated into the Kyrgyzstani political culture, is a very complex phenomenon, and includes anti-minority sentiment, racism, xenophobia, and militancy among its elements.

South Asians: New Targets for Kyrgyz Nationalism

The immediate cause of the riots of 17–18 May was an altercation between a group of Kyrgyz and a group of Egyptian medical students on 13 May. Apparently, the incident had incited the Kyrgyz against the foreign student community in Bishkek. However, the root causes of the riots are more complex.

First, Kyrgyz ethno-nationalism, as mentioned earlier, has taken deep root in the Kyrgyzstani society, and as such, many Kyrgyz view foreigners in a negative light. Moreover, the growing urbanization in Kyrgyzstan has led to the relocation of tens of thousands of rural youth into Bishkek, and they are considerably less welcoming towards foreigners than the urban populace. In fact, before the riots, there were several incidents of anti-immigrant violence in the country.

Second, Kyrgyzstan has witnessed an influx of immigrants in recent years. Around a million Kyrgyzstani citizens work in Russia as migrant workers, and tens of thousands of Kyrgyzstanis go to Russia every year in search of work. As a result, there is a serious shortage of workers for blue-collar jobs in Kyrgyzstan itself. The Kyrgyzstani government has tried to fill the gap by recruiting workers from South Asian states, including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. At present, some 60,000 South Asian immigrants work in Kyrgyzstan, many of them illegally. This has bred anti-migrant sentiment among the Kyrgyz, particularly against South Asians.

Third, owing to the presence of Soviet-built advanced medical institutions, relatively lower fees, and lax criteria for entry, tens of thousands of foreign students go to Kyrgyzstan for studying medical sciences. Before the riots, approximately 71,000 foreign students, largely from former Soviet, South Asian, Arab, and African states, studied in Kyrgyzstan. Some 15,000 Indians, 12,000 Pakistanis, and 1,200 Bangladeshis study in the country, and were predominantly students of medical sciences. Many of them also work as part-time workers. This, along with the perceived misbehaviour of foreign students, turned many of the local Kyrgyz against the foreign students.

Fourth, the socio-political conditions in Kyrgyzstan have not been particularly satisfactory in recent years. The outbreak of the Russian–Ukrainian War has negatively affected the Kyrgyzstani economy, since the economies of Russia and Kyrgyzstan are largely interconnected. Moreover, the government of President Sadyr Japarov has undertaken several measures to strengthen the government’s political position at by restricting some civil and political rights. Meanwhile, it has facilitated the entry of foreign workers into the country. Hence, the violence against foreigners can also be viewed an expression of anti-government sentiments in an extreme form.

Last but not the least, the Kyrgyzstani government has implied that they believe foreign forces are trying to destabilize Kyrgyzstan through inciting unrest in the country. While this may be an attempt to deflect responsibility, it also has some grounds. In the Western capitals, the current Kyrgyzstani government is viewed as tilting towards Moscow and Beijing. While Kyrgyzstan has refrained from supporting Russia in the ongoing Russian–Ukrainian War and sought to prevent the Russian recruitment of Kyrgyzstani citizens for the war, it has also refused to condemn Russia, has not joined Western sanctions on Russia, and served as a medium for Russia in evading sanctions. Moreover, the Kyrgyzstani government has recently adopted a law targeting foreign-funded non-government organizations (NGOs), and it has created a diplomatic altercation between Kyrgyzstan and the US. The US has previously used socio-political unrest in the country to bring about regime change in 2005, and so external role in inciting the riots cannot be fully ruled out.

Following the riots, the Kyrgyzstani government sought to restore order by simultaneously satisfying the Kyrgyz nationalists and the foreign students. They arrested some rioters and some foreign students, and reassured the foreign students of their safety while initiating a limited crackdown on illegal immigrants. Moreover, President Japarov called upon Kyrgyzstani citizens to take up the jobs that are filled by foreign workers. However, over 4,000 foreign students have left Kyrgyzstan, while the relations between the locals and the foreign students have mot yet been fully normalized. Also, Kyrgyzstani citizens are largely unlikely to respond to the calls of President Japarov to take up the jobs which foreign workers fill.

Conclusion

On a final note, the violence against foreign students in Kyrgyzstan in May 2024 was brought about by the decades-long proliferation of Kyrgyz ethno-nationalism in a context of persistent socio-political instability. After the dissolution of the USSR, the Kyrgyzstani political culture allowed the spread of nationalism, and became increasingly influenced by it. On the other hand, economic necessity propelled the Kyrgyzstani government to admit foreign workers and students into the country. This contradiction culminated in the riots of May 2024, and unless the root causes of the riots are addressed, the repetition of the incident cannot be completely ruled out.

– Md. Himel Rahman is a Research Assistant at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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