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Kyrgyz Politicians Annoyed Over Russian Anger At Possible Soviet-Era Name Changes

Some lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan's parliament have drawn Russian ire by suggesting that the Soviet-era names for districts in the capital, Bishkek, should be changed. (file photo)
Some lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan's parliament have drawn Russian ire by suggesting that the Soviet-era names for districts in the capital, Bishkek, should be changed. (file photo)

Bishkek is the only capital city in Central Asia that has kept the Soviet-era names of its districts, including the Lenin district.

So it didn't seem so strange that Kyrgyz lawmakers and Bishkek city council members have suggested giving the districts new, Kyrgyz names.

But those calls have angered politicians in Moscow who likened the name change to an alarming first step toward a “very serious negative process” that they believe must be stopped.

They want Kyrgyzstan to keep the Soviet names even though Russia itself ditched virtually all the same such names from its cities and landmarks long ago.

Bishkek is comprised of four districts and all of them have kept their communist-era names: Lenin, Sverdlov (named after a Soviet politician), Birinchi Mai (May 1st), and Octyabr (October -- to mark the October Revolution).

Kyrgyz politicians say the districts’ names have become “morally obsolete.”

The most recent call for a name change came from parliament speaker Nurlanbek Shakiev in late November when he said there are still many cities, villages, and districts in Kyrgyzstan that bear foreign names.

Shakiev said they should be renamed as part of measures to promote the state language, which is Kyrgyz.

Shakiev also said every citizen of Kyrgyzstan -- where Russian is very widely spoken -- must know the Kyrgyz language. In an apparent dig at ethnic Kyrgyz who use Russian in their daily lives, Shakiev suggested that Kyrgyz must speak in their mother tongue to each other.

Shakiev’s remarks resulted in furious reactions in Moscow with several lawmakers taking them as an attack on the Russian language and Russians living in Kyrgyzstan. Russian media described it as a “call to de-Russify Bishkek.”

Kyrgyzstan's parliament speaker Nurlanbek Shakiev (file photo)
Kyrgyzstan's parliament speaker Nurlanbek Shakiev (file photo)

Dmitry Novikov, the first deputy chief of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, warned that “very serious negative processes often begin with such trifles, and it is better to stop them at the earliest stage.”

Novikov’s comment was echoed by another senior Russian lawmaker, Svetlana Zhurova, who said removing the Soviet names “are the first small steps to eventually squeeze out the Russian language completely,” which she claimed was also done in Ukraine and Georgia.

“And then the next stage -- schools, and then another one, and it will be like in Georgia, when young people, unfortunately, practically don’t speak Russian. In Ukraine, too, it started like this,” she added.

In Bishkek, lawmaker Kamila Talieva responded to her Russian colleagues that any name change to a district is Kyrgyzstan’s internal matter. Talieva also said Russian has a “special place” in Kyrgyzstan where it’s widely used as an official language of the country.

She urged Russian lawmakers to restrain from “baseless accusations” that could fuel an anti-Russian mood and spoil friendly ties between the two countries.

Support For Russian A Precondition For Aid?

Zhurova suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin could step in and speak with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sadyr Japarov, about the matter.

Should Putin get involved in highlighting the role of the Russian language in Kyrgyzstan, it wouldn't be the first time.

At a meeting on September 15, Putin paid tribute to Japarov’s “support for the Russian language” in Kyrgyzstan and praised the country for opening nine Russian schools and hiring teachers from Russia for its educational institutions.

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov (left) and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov (left) and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Putin made it clear that Bishkek’s “support” for Russian “is the fundamental basis for the development of bilateral relations in many other areas."

Putin noted that Russia is the “largest supplier of energy resources to Kyrgyzstan” and that Bishkek receives the supplies on a special duty-free basis.

He also said Russia remains a key partner for Kyrgyzstan in trade and continues to provide significant foreign aid.

Adding to Moscow’s leverage over Bishkek, Russia is also host to hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz workers who send vital remittances to their impoverished home country.

'Won’t Ask Permission'

The Russian lawmakers’ reactions seemed to be blown out of proportion as all of the former Soviet countries, including Russia, have abandoned most of the Soviet-era names of geographical locations after the collapse of the union more than 30 years ago.

The Kyrgyz capital, which had been renamed Frunze -- after Bolshevik leader Mikhail Frunze -- during the Soviet era, reinstated its original name, Bishkek, in 1991.

Calls to rename the Bishkek’s districts are nothing new.

In June, Bishkek city council members suggested replacing the old names with ones that reflect the country’s national ideology and identity.

Their proposal included renaming the districts after prominent Kyrgyz figures, including the 10th century legend Manas, 19th century politician Baitik Kanai-uulu, and world-renowned author Chinghiz Aitmatov.

In 2017, lawmaker Zarylbek Rysaliev suggested that the renaming of Bishkek districts was long overdue, saying, “there is even a vodka assortment called Manas -- why do we not rename the Bishkek districts after our heroes?”

Fellow lawmaker Dastan Bekeshev says it’s strictly up to Bishkek residents and Kyrgyz citizens what they want to call their districts but that the capital faces far more pressing daily issues these days, such as poor roads and irregular garbage collection.

They won't -- he said -- ask anyone else for permission to make such decisions.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.