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Kazakh Culture Minister's Remarks About Kyrgyz Spark Anger, Reveal Tension

Kazakh Culture and Sports Minister Arystanbek Mukhamediuly (file photo)
Kazakh Culture and Sports Minister Arystanbek Mukhamediuly (file photo)

Kazakhstan's culture minister has sparked resentment with remarks about neighboring Kyrgyzstan and its turbulent recent history.

The comments by Culture and Sports Minister Arystanbek Mukhamediuly, during a discussion about the late Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov, also underscored the jittery Kazakh government's fears of unrest amid an economic downturn and public anger over new land-use legislation.

"Aitmatov wanted to prevent his people from taking…senseless steps," Mukhamediuly said on May 24. "And really he forecast those negative events that we have witnessed in Kyrgyzstan."

"When I go to Moscow, it is painful for me to see how young Kyrgyz girls have to clean public toilets there. Since there are no jobs, no prospects in their country, Kyrgyz have to leave," he said.

The remarks sparked criticism in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with Internet users calling Mukhamediuly "uneducated," "arrogant," "ignorant," and "stupid."

Many in Kyrgyzstan found the comments offensive; some called for Mukhamediuly to be declared persona non grata and barred from entering the country.

Kytgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov (1928-2008)
Kytgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov (1928-2008)

People in the two neighboring Central Asian states were puzzled by the minister's link between Aitmatov, a revered writer and thinker, and the phenomenon of Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia – where many go to earn a living amid persistent economic troubles in Kyrgyzstan.

In the context of Kazakhstan's recent unrest, Kyrgyz historian Ainura Arzymaytova said Mukhamediuly's motive seems clear: He was invoking Aitmatov, and the political upheavals of post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, to urge Kazakhs to stay off the streets and steer clear of protests.

While authoritarian Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has ruled the oil-producing country since the Soviet era, antigovernment protests have twice ousted presidents in Kyrgyzstan, in 2005 and 2010.

"I suppose this Kazakh official was trying to hint to his people … 'Look what happened to Kyrgyz people after their revolutions,'" Arzymaytova, a professor at Jusup Balasagun Kyrgyz National University in Bishkek, told the news site on May 24. "It was some kind of a maneuver to distract Kazakh citizens from their problems by offering them our problems to discuss."

Kazakhstan authorities have struggled to suppress a wave of protest over a land-privatization plan that critics fear will be riddled with corruption and put large tracts of agricultural land in the hands of foreigners.

Astana's Carrot & Stick Approach

Anger over the plan has dovetailed with public concern over the economy, which is stronger than those of neighbors such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan but has been hit hard by the drop in world oil prices and repercussions from Russia's persistent recession.

In mosques across Kazakhstan, imams often start their sermons and prayers by calling on Muslims to respect "ethnic concord and economic stability" in the country -- which many interpret as an exhortation not to complain or protest.

Nazarbaev's government has used both concessions and forceful measures to attempt to avert unrest. Nazarbaev announced earlier this month that implementation of the land privatization would be postponed until 2017, and police detained hundreds of activists and journalists last week to thwart plans for major new protests on May 21.

The scale of the protests held so far and the number of those ready to demonstrate is unprecedented in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. The fatal shooting of at least 16 people by authorities dispersing protesting oil workers in the southwestern town of Zhanaozen in 2011 has added to the reluctance to demonstrate.

While Mukhamediuly has not commented publicly on the angry reaction to his remarks, several public figures in Kazakhstan have apologized on his behalf – while echoing the criticism.

"The minister's words expressed yesterday have caused hot discussions and resentment in Kyrgyz society. We would like to apologize to the people of Kyrgyzstan for the minister's words," several public figures including government critic Mukhtar Taizhan, who is a member of a hastily-created state commission on land reform, said in separate statements on Facebook.

"Unfortunately, some ministers of culture do not possess any culture," the statements said.

Kazakhs and Kyrgyz have close historical, linguistic, religious, and cultural ties.

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