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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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What can explain the constant variations between civic and ethnic concepts of national identity in the official rhetoric of the Kyrgyz leadership? Previous studies dedicated to Kyrgyzstan’s ambiguous identity rhetoric and policies have emphasized Soviet legacies of ethnic engineering, a complex domestic political context breeding two revolutions (2005, 2010) and brutal ethnic violence (2010), as well as the predominance of sub-national identities in their explanations. This book, on the contrary, will investigate the tensions between Kyrgyzstan’s strong dependency on Russia as donor and security provider and domestic policy challenges, which the ruling elite has to manage in its pursuit of a national identity. The main argument, guided by the theory of Aspirational Constructivism, is that Kyrgyz leaders define the national interest and identity, inspired by both common historical memories and current socio-political challenges, in an attempt to integrate Kyrgyzstan’s international and domestic realms. A legitimate national identity must represent both the foreign policy interests of the country, as well as the demands of the titular nation and ethnic minorities for appropriate representation. In order to respond to these challenges simultaneously, Kyrgyz leaders have shifted between civic and ethnic conceptions of the national-self to legitimize their policies in front of domestic and international audience. While ethno-centered concepts of national identity have been strategically deployed to appeal to the ethnic-Kyrgyz population and rally it around the state, civic concepts of national identity were used to appease Kyrgyzstan’s national minorities and the powerful neighbor Russia.

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