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Kyrgyzstan: Statehood Anniversary Raises Questions About History, Motives

President Askar Akaev has proclaimed this year as the 2,200th anniversary of Kyrgyz statehood. While some Kyrgyz historians believe ancient Chinese chronicles substantiate that claim, eminent Western scholars are more skeptical.

Prague, 23 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Responding to a request by Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akaev, the UN General Assembly recently adopted a resolution designating 2003 as the 2,200th anniversary of Kyrgyz statehood.

The evidence behind Akaev's statehood claim is based on early Chinese chronicles cited by Kyrgyz historians, which posit the existence of a Kyrgyz state as early as the third century B.C.

In his book "Kyrgyz Statehood and the Popular Epic 'Manas'," Akaev wrote that in 201 B.C., a Hunnic governor in China subjugated and added to his state the Sovereign Kyrgyz. This means, writes Akaev, that ancient Kyrgyz had a system that was capable of resisting external threats, "a system that corresponds to a state system."

The fact that Chinese reports of the Kyrgyz date to the middle of the first century B.C. "shows that the Kyrgyz people gained independence and had created their own state by that time," Akaev writes.

Professor Jengishbek Junushaliev, director of the History Institute of the Kyrgyz National Academy of Sciences, basically supports Akaev's argument. "The 2,200th anniversary is a historically divined issue. There is not a case to question it. The ancient Chinese manuscripts were written on the [ancient Kyrgyz state] 2,200 years ago. Ssuma Tsian is a man who lived in the second century B.C. At that time, mention was made of the existence of Kyrgyz statehood." Ssuma Tsian, the author of the ancient Chinese chronicle, was the first historian to mention the Kyrgyz.

Zakir ErAliyev is a professor of history at Kyrgyz National University. While basically supporting the notion of such a long period of Kyrgyz statehood, he attributed the precise claim of 2,200 years of statehood mainly to Akaev himself. "This information was first mentioned in 201 B.C. There is a mention of Kyrgyz statehood, a Kyrgyz state and a Kyrgyz kingdom in ancient Chinese sources. That is why scholars have put aside their debates and made this conclusion [on the anniversary of Kyrgyz statehood]. For the time being, of course, it is [President] Askar Akaev who has supported the idea of an independent [ancient] Kyrgyz state, and he has made worldwide awareness of that. That is why it is not an untruth if we say that the idea [of the 2,200 anniversary of Kyrgyz statehood] belongs to the president," he said.

While supporting the notion, Topchubek Turgunaliev, leader of the Erkindik (Freedom) Party, questions the costs. "This [celebration] has a huge negative impact on the state because, instead of using such money for the economy and the prosperity of the people, hundreds of millions of soms are being wasted for celebrations and for keeping the public mind on the festivities, even without proper investigation of the [historical] data," he said. ($1 equals 46 soms.)

In his book "Inner Asia: A Syllabus," historian Denis Sinor questions the existence of a Kyrgyz state at such an early period. He writes that the first mention of the Kyrgyz in Western sources is from 568, and that this is only a brief mention. It was not until 840 when the Uighur empire of Mongolia was overthrown by a forest-dwelling Turkic people living in the upper reaches of the Yenesei, known as the Kyrgyz, that they first entered the historical arena as a power.

However, there are historians who question whether the Yenesei Kyrgyz were the immediate ancestors of the modern Kyrgyz. The modern Kyrgyz, those historians say, are the descendants of the Altaic mountain Kyrgyz who migrated to the area of present-day Kyrgyzstan and formed a Kyrgyz state only in the 15th and early 16th centuries.

But Akaev cites Chinese sources in 201 B.C. that claim the Kyrgyz people existed almost 10 centuries before the time they conquered the Uighurs. On 18 January, Akaev said the Chinese government has promised to finance research into chronicles that could provide further evidence on the ethnogenesis of the Kyrgyz people.

Denis Twitchett is a noted British professor of Chinese studies and a former professor of Chinese at Princeton University. Twitchett is skeptical about the existence of a Kyrgyz state at such an early period. "I think to call it a state probably would be an exaggeration. To call it a state brings to the modern mind an image of a centralized power with regular institutions and a solid social base, none of which we can verify from the sources, which are very, very thin," Twitchett said.

Twitchett also questioned the identity of the people who were later called Kyrgyz in the seventh century. "The claim for such an old antiquity for the Kyrgyz state is based on the fact that the first well-recorded contacts between the Kyrgyz and the Chinese court occurred already during the Tang Dynasty, that is, in the seventh century A.D. And contacts were made by representatives of people who were later to be identified as Kyrgyz. It is by no means clear that this identity is, in fact, well-based. There is no archaeological evidence to my knowledge which would support such a claim," he said.

However, Twitchett does recognize the Kyrgyz as having formed a kind of state in the ninth century after the dissipation of the Uighur state. "From 840 to about 850, the Kyrgyz remained an important player in the politics of the northern steppe."

It was only in the 1990s, after Kyrgyzstan gained its independence, that historians were able to conduct research on the history of their statehood, free from all ideological constraints. It is understandable they would want to trace their statehood as far back as possible to satisfy their quest for national identity.

The director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Tynchtykbek Tchoroev, who is also a historian, believes more research needs to be done before one can firmly establish Kyrgyz statehood. "I think Kyrgyz historians support the idea of deepening scientific research into their nation's history. However, they are divided into groups, challenging each other, and in defining many aspects of their ancient past. They don't have a common view on the places where the Kyrgyz lived during the Hunnic period, on the dates of their migration to Siberia and back, and on the stages of their ethnic development from tribal system to a modern nation. However, it is good that Bishkek authorities are not preventing historians from studying their ancient past, the way the Soviet regime did," Tchoroev said.

Akaev's motives for scheduling the celebration of 2,200 years of statehood now can only be guessed at. Is he engaging in historical one-upmanship by trying to demonstrate that the Kyrgyz can trace their statehood back further than most of their fellow former Soviet republics? Or does he regard such celebrations, including those in 1995 to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the composition of the epic poem "Manas," as an opportunity to promote an international image of the Kyrgyz as an ancient and cultured people? Or is he seeking to demonstrate to the domestic political opposition the influence he wields with international organizations?

Certainly other Central Asian leaders have used such anniversaries to make specific political points. Writing in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" in August 1999, on the eve of celebrations to mark the 1,100th anniversary of the Samanid state, Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmonov expressed the hope that the celebrations would serve to foster a sense of national unity that would help overcome the bitter legacy of the 1992-97 civil war.

At the same time, he also spoke of the threat posed by alien values to the Tajik nation, criticizing the Tajik Islamic opposition -- although he did not name them -- for trying to impose on the Tajik people "an alien form of statehood [an Islamic state] that is unacceptable to the majority of the population of Tajikistan."

What Akaev's message to the Kyrgyz people will be during this anniversary year remains to be seen.