Kyrgyzstan had a sizable German population and there are still some living there. Many are Mennonites or are Germans who were shipped to Central Asia from the western Soviet Union during World War II when Stalin regarded them as potential traitors. Germans have a reputation for working hard and doing things well. Houses “built by Germans” or “formally occupied by Germans” can command higher prices than other houses, the idea being that they are better built than Russia- or Kyrgyz-built houses. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia “edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

In the Terskey Alatau mountains there is a three-hectare fir forest shaped like a swastika. Located about 10 kilometers north of the village of Eki-Naryn, which in turn is 50 kilometers east of Naryn, it was made by German POWs brought to the area in the final days of World War II to work in the logging industry. The POWs planted seedlings in a swastika shape on deforested land. For some reason Soviets never had it cut down.

There were 100,000 ethnic Germans in Kyrgyzstan in 1991. Today there are only about 10,000. Many of those who moved, moved to Germany, where they were given automatic citizenship, after Germany was unified. The German government provided them with a free ticket to Germany and gave them help finding a job. The German invitation has always been there. In the Soviet period Germans were not allowed to leave.

One German who stayed in Kyrgyzstan told the New York Times, “Naturally I’m tempted. My whole family has gone and my husband’s whole family have gone. They’re always writing us to tell us we should go too...What holds me back is that in Germany, we’ll be penned up in an apartment, maybe a big city. Here we live in a beautiful place with clean air. The children have the whole outdoors as a playground, plus animals to play with.”

Russians in Kyrgyzstan

Russians make up about 7.7 percent of the population of Kyrgyzstan. They arrived at different periods for different reasons in the 19th and 20th centuries. The majority of them settled in the northern part of the country. A large number Russian lives in the province of Chuy and in the region of Issyk-Kul. The Russian population is largely Russian Orthodox.

Number of Russians (and their percentage of the total population) in Kyrgyzstan: 623,500 in 1959 (30.2 percent); 856,000 in 1970 (29.2 percent); 911,700 in 1979 (25.9 percent); 916,500 in 1989 (21.5 percent); 603,000 in 1999–2000 (12.5 percent); Approx. 500,000 in 2007. [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2006]

A much-debated issue in Kyrgyzstan since independence has been the role of the Russian language. Kyrgyz was initially declared the official state language, but non-Kyrgyz citizens exerted pressure to have Russian assigned near-equal status, as was the case in neighboring Kazakstan, where Russian had been declared the "official language of interethnic communication." According to a 2003 study, only 1.6 percent of Russians in Kyrgyzstan speak Kyrgyz fluently, 22 percent have problems speaking it correctly, and 75 percent do not speak it at all.

Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “In Kyrgyzstan, where a high degree of political activity is permitted, civic life in the Russian community is richer than in the other Central Asian republics. More than 25 associations remain registered at the republic or regional level; however, they do not engage in politics or constitute parties. Among the most important of these is the Slavic Fund, created by Valerii Vishnevskii in 1989, which focuses on political and cultural questions. Others include Soglasie, a Russian cultural center founded by Oleg Mikhailov in 1994; the “Russian House” of Kyrgyzstan, registered in 1998 and led by the historian Vladimir Ploskikh; and the Association of Ethnic Russians, created in 1994 and concerned with social and economic issues. Since 1989, the Cossacks have also reorganized their community. Vladimir Kosenko leads their group, the Cossacks of Kyrgyzstan. It estimates that 20 communities (“stanitsa”) exist in traditional settlement areas, such as the cities near Bishkek (Kant, etc.) and along the shores of Lake Issyk Kul, and claims to have approximately 15,000 members. There is also a Cossack cultural and economic center, “Vozrozhdenie” (Rebirth), based in Bishkek, which occasionally publishes the newspaper “Slavianskie Vesti”. Between 1995 and 1999, some Cossacks served with the Russian troops who guarded the Kyrgyz border with China. [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2007 ^^]

Russians in Central Asia

The Russians and Ukrainians and other Slavs that live in Central Asia arrived in several waves. The first came in the 19th century after the serfs were freed. Many arrived in the 1950s and 60s, particularly in Kazakhstan, during the Virgin Land campaign. The number of Russians as a percentage of the population rose from 2 percent of Uzbekistan’s population in 1917 to 13.5 percent in 1950 and fell to 8.3 percent in 1989.

Russians in Central Asia tend to live in enclaves and dominate certain cities, towns or neighborhoods. They make up a much smaller percentage of the population in all five Central Asian countries than they do on other Soviet republics. This is explained by the exodus of Russians and higher birthrate among the Central Asians.

Some two million Russians in Central Asia returned to Russia after the the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some of the ethnic Russians who fled Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakstan said they dis so because ultra-nationalism there made life "unbearable for non-natives." Many Russians who left for Russia have since returned. Some did so because they found the going tougher there than in Central Asia.

Of the more than eight million former Soviet citizens taken in by Russia between 1990 and 2003, half came from the five Central Asian republics—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—which were home to more than one third of this Russian “diaspora.” Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “ Russians made up nearly 20 percent of the total population of these five states: some 9.5 million individuals in 1989. But their presence was not evenly distributed, and each state faced a unique domestic situation...Though their situations were diverse, the five states nonetheless had to manage a similar problem: how to affirm a “de-Russified” national identity in the wake of local economic collapse, which occurred as bonds among the former Soviet republicsbroke, and how to do so without integrating into the larger post-Soviet space. [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2007]

Russians in the Former Soviet Union

About 20 million Russians live outside of Russia in the former Soviet republics. The greatest number are in 1) the Ukraine (11.4 million); 2) Kazakhstan (6.2 million); 3) Uzbekistan (1.7 million); and 4) Belarus (1.3 million).

Russians once made up more than 20 percent of the population in smaller republic such as Estonia, Latvia and Kyrgyzstan. The percentage in these places is much lower now as many Russians have resettled to escape discrimination and anti-Russian sentiment.

By 1995, about 2.5 million Russians had moved back to Russia. The Russian government worried that Russia would be flooded with Russian returnees and was not forthcoming with the documentation necessary to live in Russia. Russians that had high-prestige jobs in the former Soviet republics were replaced by locals and were found they were not welcome in Russia. They were unable to get residence permits and were forced to work as illegal immigrants.

The increased numbers of Russians arriving from other CIS nations create both logistical and political problems. As in the case of non-Russian refugees, statistical estimates of intra-CIS migration vary widely, partly because Russia has not differentiated that category clearly from the refugee category and partly because actual numbers are assumed to be much higher than official registrations indicate. Many newly arrived Russians (like non-Russians) simply settle with friends or relatives without official registration. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russian Migration Out of Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan

About 300,000 Russians, two thirds of the Russians that lived in the country in 1991, left Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s. Many of those that left complained that their jobs had been "Kyrgyz-ified" or been given to Kyrgyz. About 10 percent of those who left did so the first year or so after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The exodus of Russians has resulted in the loss of skilled managers and professionals. Part of the effort to halt the exodus of skilled Russian included making Russian an official language along with Kyrgyz in 1996. Many of the Russians that remain in Kyrgyzstan live in Bishkek.

Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “In Kyrgyzstan, the number of Russians fell by 34 percent between the censuses of 1989 and 1999. Though Russians in Kyrgyzstan numbered 916,500 in 1989, this figure dropped to no more than 720,000 in 1995 and 603,000 in 1999. In 2006, their number was estimated at 500,000. Nearly 150,000 Russians left the country between 1989 and 1991. The outflow eventually decreased and stabilized at around 9,000 to 10,000 departures per year. Many Russians left the south of the country; between the two censuses, their numbers in the Osh region fell from 68,300 to 14,100. The cohort of Ukrainians in Osh decreased from 8,200 to 1,300, of Belarusians from 1,100 to 100, and of Germans from 700 to 200. [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2007 ^^]

“Today, Russians represent 12 percent of the population of Kyrgyzstan and constitute the republic’s second-largest ethnic minority, after the Uzbeks. Russians account for less than 14 percent of the population in each of Kyrgyzstan’s seven provinces, with the exception of Chu, where they make up more than 32 percent, and in the capital, where 33 percent of people self-identify as Russian. Once thought to have slowed because of the state’s conciliatory linguistic policies, migratory flows have shown a resurgence in the past four years, strengthened especially by the political turmoil of 2005. In that year, Russia granted residence permits to more than 25,000 residents of Kyrgyzstan—a figure that takes into account ethnic Kyrgyz in addition to others—or 10,000 more than the previous year. The Russian consulate in Bishkek claims to receive permit requests from 200 to 300 people per day, rather than the 60 to 70 typical of years before the 2005 Tulip Revolution. The Embassy of the Russian Federation confirmed that it processed 60,000 departure requests in 2006. Since achieving independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has lost 600,000 inhabitants, of which more than half have been Russian.”^^

Russian Language Issue in Kyrgyzstan

Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “Since 1992, the government of Kyrgyzstan has modified the 1989 language law and authorized companies and organizations whose workforce is more than 70 percent Russophone to use the Russian language in their administrative correspondence. Kyrgyzstan’s first constitution, implemented in 1993, recognizes Kyrgyz as the only state language but protects the free use of Russian throughout the country. The authorities took note that only an official measure in favor of Russian could slow migration out of Kyrgyzstan. Thus, in May 2000, a new law accorded Russian the title of “official language.” [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2007 ^^]

The Constitution of 2003 confirmed the bilingual status of the country, as it qualified Russian as a “state language” and rendered education in both languages obligatory in the entire education system. The situation evolved in April 2004, when a new language law obliged all civil servants to demonstrate their knowledge of the Kyrgyz language. The law included a provision that would take effect in 2005 (since delayed to 2007) mandating that all administrative documents be written in Kyrgyz. However, it did not threaten those already occupying public posts with job loss for a lack of command of the language. As in Kazakhstan, investigations reveal that many Kyrgyz civil servants lack sufficient command of their national language and therefore continue to write in Russian and then translate the text into Kyrgyz.^^

“One cannot view the 2004 language law as a manifestation of the will of the state to confirm the status of the Kyrgyz language to the detriment of Russian, but rather as a response to the internal struggles among Kyrgyz elites. Since the Tulip Revolution of March 2005, claims supporting the removal of any official status for the Russian language have returned to the forefront of debate, particularly thanks to the efforts of Azimbek Beknazarov, a member of parliament. Southern elites, more clearly Kyrgyz speaking, use this issue as a means of applying pressure in their fights with northern elites, who are more Russified. Throughout 2006, debate surrounding the drafting of a new constitution confirmed that a portion of the political elites, particularly from the south, wish to remove the official status of the Russian language. Several nationalist associations have denounced the difficulty with which the Kyrgyz language is finding its place in a country where Russian has the same rights, but the general population does not support them. A survey conducted by the Institute of Eurasian Research found that more than 80 percent of the Kyrgyz-speakers it questioned did not want Russian to lose its official status. The Constitution of 2006 thus did not question the bilingual status of the republic.^^

Russian Education and Media Issues in Kyrgyzstan

Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “In Kyrgyzstan, one can count in 2006 no more than 133 schools that teach entirely in Russian, compared to 1,300 that teach in Kyrgyz and 138 in Uzbek. Approximately 440 schools offer bilingual Russian-Kyrgyz classes, 30 offer Russian-Uzbek classes, and 20 offer RussianKyrgyz-Uzbek classes. The authorities hope to end the scarcity of Russian-language instructors through the Center for the Education of Russian Language Teachers, managed by the RussianKyrgyz University. [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2007 ^^]

“ Almost all Russian students attend Russian-language schools (96 percent), while 18 percent of Kyrgyz and 14 percent of Uzbeks are educated in Russian rather than in their native language. As in Tajikistan, the number of Russian schools has dropped precipitously since the beginning of the 2000s, whereas the number of students seeking Russian-language education is steadily increasing. In the city of Osh, the four Russian-language schools mainly accommodate Kyrgyz or Uzbek students who have a very poor knowledge of Russian, thus modifying how students are taught and professors are trained. In rural areas, Russian-language schools are increasingly prestigious because Russia is the principle destination for Kyrgyz seasonal laborers. Thus, Russian-language communities, once urban, now tend to be a rural phenomenon. In Kazakhstan, the political authorities clearly give preference to Kazakh-language schools, in resistance to the middle-class tradition of sending one’s children to Russian schools. The results of this policy remain mixed. ^^

“In Kyrgyzstan, the Russian-Kyrgyz University, created in cooperation with Russia in 1993, is the most prestigious establishment of higher learning in the country other than the Kyrgyz-American University. It enrolls more than 4,000 students, who, as in Tajikistan, learn both official languages, as well as English, and complete courses valid in the eyes of both countries’ ministries of education. Kyrgyzstan also has seven Russian university branches.” ^^

“Newspapers from Russia are available in Kyrgyzstan, and several of them have a distributor in Bishkek, most notably “Komsomolskaya Pravda”, “Argumenty i Fakty”, and “Moskovskii Komsomolets”. ORT and the other main Russian channel, RTR, are accessible every- where, and several Kyrgyz channels rebroadcast Russian programs throughout the day. Bilingualism is mandatory in local newspapers. More than 70 percent of the Kyrgyz media mar- ket is Russian speaking and about half of the books sold in the country come from Russia.” ^^

Meskhetian Turks

Meskhetian Turks are a Turkish group that has traditionally lived in south-southwestern Georgia to the south of Meskhetian mountain range. In November 1944, after being denounced as “enemies” of the people” by Stalin, they were rounded to and deported to Central Asia (mostly Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). About 155,000 Meskhetian Turks from 200 villages in the Meskhetia region of southern Georgia were deported.

Meskhetian Turks have received some attention for the way they adapted their traditional culture and lifestyle from the western Caucasus region to Central Asia. The two areas could not be more unalike. The western Caucasus is well-watered, mountainous and mostly Christian. Central Asia is flat dry and mostly Muslim. The traditional way of life of the Caucasus was of little use to the Meskhetian Turks in Central Asia and their modern identity has been shaped by how they dealt with this change.

The traditional homelands of the Meskhetian Turks has since been taken over by Georgians and other ethnic groups who are adverse to te idea of giving the land back to the Meskhetian Turks. The Georgian government said Meskhetian Turks could return under the condition that they replace their Turkish names with Georgian ones. Proud of their Turkish identify, most refused. The issue o resettlement is still being debated to this day.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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