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


Paul Christian Sander

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.

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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,...

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