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Kyrgyzstan: Russians Leaving, Despite Acceptance By Kyrgyz

By Timothy Jasek Bachtiar Raimyanov and his wife Machiidil For decades, Russians have been more accepted in Kyrgyzstan than perhaps anywhere else in Central Asia. But with the revolution last March that brought down the government of President Askar Akaev, the number of Russians seeking emigration has increased to a point not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. RFE/RL correspondent Timothy Jasek recently traveled across Kyrgyzstan to find out why Russians are leaving and how the Kyrgyz feel about their departure.

Bishkek, 29 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russians have lived in Kyrgyzstan since the mid-1800s when tsarist forces moved south into Central Asia. More than any of their neighbors, the Kyrgyz have embraced Russians along with other minority groups in the country.

Byubina Oruzbaeva, a linguistics professor at the National Academy of Sciences in Bishkek, says the prominence of the Russian language is evidence of how the Kyrgyz feel about what she calls their “brothers.”

She says that in her 80 years, Russian has never declined in popularity as a language both in the government and in the markets. "The Russian language is in full use in Kyrgyzstan, as nowhere else in Central Asia," Oruzbaeva said.

Indeed, Russian is a more practical language in Kyrgyzstan than even Kyrgyz. Most Kyrgyz speak some Russian. And many of the other minorities -- Dungan, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, and Germans -- are more likely to speak Russian than Kyrgyz.

Oruzbaeva says it is unthinkable that Russians would not be part of Kyrgyzstan. "It's impossible [to tell Russians to leave], because for ages, for 150 years, Russians have been living here," Oruzbaeva says.

It’s not just the academics in Bishkek who feel this way. Bekbolot Manashev and his wife Burul have lived all their lives in a village near the Issyk-Ata spa, 40 kilometers southeast of the capital. They say the 10 Russian families in their village are very much a part of the community.
"Mainly the young people, of course, they want to see a future in this country. And if they get the impression they're not liked here, of course they will leave."

"We live as brothers. This is where we work. This is where we live. Both sides [Russians and Kyrgyz] even go together when there is a funeral," Burul Manasheva says.

The feeling is no different in Uzgen, an Uzbek-dominated city in southwestern Kyrgyzstan near the border with Uzbekistan.

Bachtiar Raimyanov and his wife Machiidil, an unemployed couple with two children, have nothing but praise for Russians. “We think it would be better if future generations of Russians continue to live here," Bachtiar Raimyanov said.

But despite such evident acceptance, the number of Russians is dwindling. Russians officially comprised 22 percent of the population when Kyrgyzstan broke from the Soviet Union in 1991. Ten years later, that number had decreased to 13 percent, or about 600,000 people.

Then, in mid-March, antigovernment protesters stormed and occupied the presidential compound in Bishkek and, fearing the unrest, emigration applications rose dramatically.

Then-President Akaev was openly pro-Russian and had close ties to Moscow. Russians in Kyrgyzstan feared his ouster would cut off ties with the Kremlin, dealing a blow to the Kyrgyz economy and raising resentment of ethnic Russians in the process.

The Russian Embassy in the capital says the number of ethnic Russians requesting migration increased from about 60 people per day to nearly 300 a day in March.

Back in Uzgen, Raimyanov says Russians have nothing to fear. The revolution, he says, was not aimed at them. "They [Russians] decided by themselves to leave the country. There was no one to kick them out of the country. Nothing like that. There were no bad feelings toward them. They made the decision to leave on their own," Raimyanov says.

Russians generally agree they are not treated badly in Kyrgyzstan, but some complain they are not as valued as during Soviet times.

Vladimir Vereshchagin, an ethnic Russian who has lived all his life in Kyrgyzstan, says he has witnessed a gradual increase in tension between Kyrgyz and Russians since Kyrgyzstan became independent. "I can feel disrespect toward Russians and other nationalities. There is some disdain for us -- not a huge amount, but there is," Vereshchagin says.

Vereshchagin says a number of his friends have left. But he says he will stay, primarily because he has taken advantage of business opportunities -- namely, in tourism -- and has become one of the country’s wealthier citizens.

Svetlana Rogoinikova, an ethnic Russian born and raised in Bishkek, also says Russians have lost respect in recent years.

Rogoinikova says seven of her ethnic Russian friends have left Kyrgyzstan in the last six months. She has a good job -- as a national program officer with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. But Rogoinikova says she remains determined to get her husband and two children out of the country, even after five fruitless years of attempting to immigrate to Canada.

"The economic situation is getting worse, and conditions -- environmental conditions and social conditions -- are getting worse. And I feel I can find a [better] application of my knowledge and skills in other countries," Rogoinikova says.

So when will this current wave of emigration end? Will the trend be slowed by the July election victory of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who has a Russian wife?

Markus Muller, head of the Bishkek bureau of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, says it is too early to answer these questions.

Muller says it is now important that the government convince the country’s Russians that they remain an important part of society, and that there will still be opportunities for them in Kyrgyzstan.

"Mainly the young people, of course, they want to see a future in this country. And if they get the impression they're not liked here, of course they will leave," Muller says.

Muller says it does not seem likely at the moment, but there are always opportunities in difficult times for Kyrgyz nationalists to gain significant support on the basis of religious and ethnic issues -- particularly because the Russians themselves have never felt a need to organize politically in Kyrgyzstan.

"As it’s cheap and easy to make politics with religion, it’s also very cheap and easy to make politics on national topics or ethnic topics," Muller says.

As the future remains uncertain, perhaps Vereshchagin sums up the feelings of Russians in Kyrgyzstan best: "Leave us alone. Just let us live."

(RFE/RL's Larissa Balanovskaya and Amirbek Usmanov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)