By Jonathan Hillman —
For the first time in a long time, perhaps ever, Kyrgyzstan was trending on Twitter this week, and for all the wrong reasons. On August 30, a suicide bomber drove into the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, the nation’s capital, killing himself and injuring three staff.
The attack highlights obstacles to China’s growing role in Central Asia and also threatens to overshadow celebrations on September 1, which marks a quarter century since Kyrgyzstan became independent from the Soviet Union.
But for some people, it raised a much simpler question: what is Kyrgyzstan?
Perhaps it is best to begin with what Kyrgyzstan is not. It is not where Borat claimed to hail from (Kazakhstan). It is not what Herman Cain parodied during the last U.S. presidential election (Uzbekistan). And no, it is not the country with the golden statue of a former president that rotated to face the sun (Turkmenistan).
Of course, there is a group of Americans who are familiar with Bishkek. For nearly 13 years, it hosted a transit center for NATO-led operations in Afghanistan, ferrying hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops through the region.
As anyone who has been there can attest, Bishkek can be a disorienting place for foreigners. When I traveled there through the Fulbright program in 2009, I felt like I had entered a world of cultural contradictions.
In Bishkek, many residents look Asian and speak Russian. They worship Allah and drink vodka. They listen to American music and eat Turkish food. Living at the intersection of major influences, a cultural crossroads, they seem to be swimming in a buffet of international choices.
They are both poor and rich in history. They are poor in the sense that their young country lacks the common history to provide a strong national identity. To be sure, there are literary, musical, artistic and even equestrian traditions. But many of these traditions speak to only parts of an ethnically diverse population.
But in a different and more important sense, Kyrgyz citizens are rich in history. Many have been active participants in their country’s formative moments over the last two and a half decades. Indeed, the more liberal path that Kyrgyzstan charted in the 1990s led some to call it Central Asia’s “island of democracy.”
While that nickname may have set unrealistic expectations, the country has remained one of the most free in the region, according to Freedom House. Revolutions in 2005 and 2010 replaced the country’s leadership, with the latter paving the way for constitutional reforms.
All of this makes today a very different kind of independence day. For many nations, independence day evokes distant triumphs. Even in the United States, a young country by global standards, celebrations recall events that occurred in the 18th century. In those celebrations, it is not personal memories that are being tapped, but a collective national memory.
For Kyrgyzstan, September 1 is much more personal. It is a celebration of personal survival, with many citizens having lived through massive changes — the collapse of the Soviet Union, and many transitions that continue: to democracy, to a more open economy, and to a higher level of development. In short, today is also a celebration of future potential.
It may help U.S. observers to imagine what Washington, D.C. felt like in 1801, 25 years after the United States declared independence. On July 4, Thomas Jefferson hosted the first official celebration at the White House, opening the doors and treating the public to punch. On the surrounding public grounds, there were horse races and cockfights.
Democratization, and democracy itself, can be an uneven, ugly process, fraught with setbacks and half-steps forward. Kyrgyzstan’s experience since independence has not been easy. But considering the obstacles it has faced, and the experience of its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan has much to celebrate. Here is to the next 25 years.
Mr. Jonathan E. Hillman is a fellow with the Simon Chair in Political Economy and director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at CSIS.