Nation-Building in the Shadow of the Bear: The Dialectics of National Identity and Foreign Policy in the Kyrgyz Republic 1991–2012

by Paul Christian Sander (Author)
©2017 Thesis 130 Pages


Since 1991, Kyrgyzstan’s leaders have pursued a post-Soviet national identity. Their concepts failed to consolidate the country’s multi-ethnic society, and continuously antagonize civic values and ethnic myth. The author applies international relations theory to frame Kyrgyzstan’s identity crisis: The ruling elite has to manage tensions between their strong dependency on Russia as main donor and security provider and domestic challenges in their pursuit of a national identity. A legitimate national identity must represent both the foreign policy interests of the country and the demands of the Kyrgyz majority and ethnic minorities for representation. The Kyrgyz case unveils the complex dialectics of domestic pressure and external interests that have defined post-Soviet nation building in Russia’s near abroad.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Abstract
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgement
  • Table of Contents
  • I. Introduction
  • 1. Research Puzzle
  • 2. Hypotheses
  • 3. Methodology and Data
  • 4. Relevance
  • 5. Chapter Outline
  • II. Literature Review – Nation-building in Central Asia
  • 1. The New Central Asia – Building National Identity from Scratch
  • 2. Nation-building attempts in Kyrgyzstan
  • III. Theoretical Chapter – The Dialectics of Foreign Policy and National Identity
  • 1. The Sociological Turn in International Relations
  • 2. Aspirational Constructivism – Framing Kyrgyzstan’s Pursuit of a National Identity
  • 3. Extending the Framework: The Concept of Diaspora in Constructivist Theory
  • 4. Nationalism, Nation-building and Competing National Self-Images in the Kyrgyz Republic
  • IV. Russia in Central Asia: Fixing the Dysfunctional Family-Relations?
  • 1. Russian Objectives in Central Asia - An Overview
  • 2. Maintaining Influence: The Russian Tool-Kit in Central Asia
  • 3. Kyrgyzstan – Russia’s Outpost in the Heart of Asia
  • V. Askar Akaev (1991–2005) – Building a “Common Home” for Kyrgyzstan’s Multi-Ethnic Society?
  • 1. First Term: 1991–1995
  • 2. Second Term: 1995–2000
  • 3. Third Term: 2000–2005
  • VI. The Second President: Kurmanbek Bakiev (2005–2010)
  • 1. The Tulip Revolution
  • 2. “The Discrepancy between Form and Content”
  • 3. Bakiev’s Downfall and the Russian Hand in the 2010 Revolution
  • 4. Identity Politics from Akaev to Bakiev: Between Persistence and Change
  • VII. The Third President: Roza Otunbaeva (2010–2011)
  • 1. Another “Revolution”
  • 2. The Dialectics of National Identity and Foreign Policy Reconsidered: The Demise of the “Common Home”
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Speeches, Laws, Decrees, National Programs, Reports, Statistics and Official Statements from the Russian Federation, the Kyrgyz Republic and International Organizations
  • List of Interviewees

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I. Introduction

1. Research Puzzle

In the wake of the Soviet collapse, 15 countries across Eastern Europe and Eurasia have been struggling to define – or redefine – themselves and their place in the world. Unequal at birth, the Soviet successor states have entered the world under very different preconditions and very different ways of conceiving their national identity (Huskey 2006: 111).

For the Central Asian states, independence came suddenly and was not necessarily wanted. There had been no historical memory of a nation lost, nor had there been nationalist movements preparing the ground, unlike in Armenia, Georgia and the Baltic States. The Muslim republics of the USSR had been created by decrees issued between 1924 and 1936. Not only did they determine their frontiers, but also their names, their reinvented pasts, the definition of ethnic groups and even their languages (Roy 2000: vii). In the face of independence, their leaders had to develop a national idea that would solidify the people’s recognition of post-Soviet statehood (Marat 2008b: 16), secure their political pre-eminence within the new citizen-polities, and assert their nation’s position within a new world order (Bohr 1998: 139).

Perhaps nowhere in the region has this endeavor been more difficult than in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan. There, history and geography have dealt the leaders a particularly difficult hand. The Kyrgyz Republic has an unenviable location and limited natural resources (Huskey 2006: 111). The Kyrgyz titular ethnic group, which itself is divided by region, tribe, and clan, accounted for only a bare majority of the population in the early 1990s (Collins 2006: 98). Moreover, Kyrgyzstan is encircled by powerful neighbors, two of which, Russia and China, are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Their conflicting economic and geopolitical interests, combined with the ethnic patchwork of the Central Asian republics, add up to a field of tension, in which the small mountainous republic has to stand its ground. With Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s strongest military power, neighborhood relations have been conflict prone from the outset (Fawn 2003: 126–27). Therefore, in defining a national identity for Kyrgyzstan, the challenge for the country’s first president, Askar Akaev, was to deliver ← 1 | 2 → a national self-image that was acceptable not only to polarized ethnic constituencies at home, but also to key international actors challenging the country’s stability (Huskey 2006: 112).

Akaev’s definition of citizenship in the early years of independence was the most liberal among the Central Asian states. Right from the outset, he differentiated between the concepts of “nationality” (natsional’nost’1) and “people” (narod). While the first category referred to ethnic groups, the second embodied a more inclusive, civic-based understanding almost synonymous with citizenship (Marat 2008a: 14).

By the end of the 1990s, however, Akaev had abandoned his initial idea of citizenship as a central element of the state ideology and shifted towards a concept of ethnogenesis (ibid. 16). Ethnic symbols and rhetoric portraying the country as home primarily to its Kyrgyz population became dominant. Thereafter, Akaev maintained and moved between two contradictory visions of Kyrgyzstan, one ethnic and one civic. Manifestations of Kyrgyzstan’s state-sponsored national identity during public speeches, or by means of policies intended to regulate the country’s inter-ethnic relations, have remained contradictory, inconsistent and subject to constant redefinitions. This tendency has continuously been reflected in the policies and statements of his successors, namely Kurmanbek Bakiev, Roza Otunbaeva and Almazbek Atambaev (Laruelle 2012: 42), and poses the broader research puzzle that this book seeks to address:

What explains the constant variations between civic and ethnic conceptions of national identity in the official rhetoric of the Kyrgyz leadership between 1991 and 2012?

Previous studies dedicated to Kyrgyzstan’s ambiguous identity rhetoric and policies have emphasized Soviet legacies of ethnic engineering, a complex domestic political context culminating in two revolutions (2005, 2010) and brutal ethnic violence (2010), as wells as sub-national identities, such as clan structures, to explain the observed variation. This book, on the contrary, ← 2 | 3 → intends to investigate the tension between Kyrgyzstan’s strong dependency on Russia as security provider (Bernard 2005; Olcott 1996a: 110) and domestic policy challenges (Bogatyrev 2007; Muzakulova & Dyatlenko 2012: 31; Hanks 2011), which the ruling elite has to manage in its pursuit of a national identity concept. Such a concept must represent both the foreign policy interests of the state, as well as the demands of the titular nation and ethnic minorities for appropriate representation. In neighboring multi-ethnic Kazakhstan, similar problems can be observed. There, foreign policy discourse and identity are closely intertwined, too (Cummings 2003: 140). However, in Kazakhstan, the political elite is much less vulnerable than it is in Kyrgyzstan: The pluralistic and self-confident character of the Kyrgyzstani society (Megoran 2001: 125; Bingol 2010: 49; Saivetz & Jones 1994: 91) and the small country’s strong economic dependence from international aid funds and Kyrgyz migrant workers (The World Bank 2013) in Russia have exposed the country’s elite to strong domestic and international pressure (Engvall 2015:11; Cummings et. al. 2013: 453; Anderson 1999: 98). In addition, permanent political crises prevent the development of a long-term perspective for the country (Hanks 2011: 185–86). Given Kyrgyzstan’s unique geopolitical position, this book proposes the following hypotheses:

2. Hypotheses

1. Kyrgyzstan’s leadership has to maintain a delicate balance of tensions and dynamics created and conditioned by domestic and foreign policy challenges. It has deployed identity rhetoric strategically to legitimize foreign policy alignments and to appease both international partners and its multi-ethnic population (This has created a foreign policy – national identity nexus).


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (December)
National Identity CIS Foreign Policy Central Asia Russian Diaspora
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. XIV, 130 pp., 1 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Paul Christian Sander (Author)

Paul Christian Sander graduated in 2013 from the University of Bamberg, Germany, with a major in Slavonic Studies and Political Science. In 2015, he earned a graduate degree in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, UK.


Title: Nation-Building in the Shadow of the Bear: The Dialectics of National Identity and Foreign Policy in the Kyrgyz Republic 1991–2012
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146 pages