Kirghizistan (KI), Uzbekistan (UZ), Kazakhstan (KA). What are their common points ?
What about the language?
In KA, everyone speaks Russian, they have almost no knowledge of their original language.
In KI, everyone knows Russian, would speak it with you, but they would speak their own language when they are together.
In UZ, Russian comes as a second language, and some people don’t even speak it.
What about their English skills?
I’m not sure they know more than Russians but they are highly interested in talking to foreigners to practice their skills. In Tashkent for example, as I was taking the metro, two young students decided not to get out at their station but stayed with me until I reached my destination, so that we could chat together.
What about religion?
In KA, you will find as many orthodox churches as mosques.
In KI, there is a mosque in every single village. Though, people don’t go everyday. Mainly on Fridays, and still, when they have time only. The adhan (prier call from the minaret) is even forbidden.
In UZ, it looks like they pray more often. Whenever they hear a prayer, they would freeze, open their hands like if they were holding an open Koran, and pray. Around 85% of Uzbeks claim to be Muslim (nearly all are the Hanafi Sunni variety), although only around 5% to 15% are practicing.
What about women?
No veils. Scarfs for old women in KI, and one most of women outside of Tashkent in UZ. As a matter of fact, in Bishkek (KI) and Tashkent (UZ), the youth is completely westernized. In KA, Astana’s youth seems trendier than in Almaty. And you could even meet there some bimbos in a Russian style.
Though, Uzbek women struggle for equality. Considered second-class citizens in the workplace and in the home, women are not given the same rights as their Western counterparts, or their Kyrgyz and Kazakh neighbors. Domestic violence occurs in 40% of Uzbek homes, yet overall household control lies in the hands of the husband’s mother. Abuse, however, rarely leads to divorce, and there are occasional reports of suicide by self- immolation, a cultural trait that dates back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism.
from left to right : Bishkek (KI), Astana (KA), Tashkent (UZ)
What about their knowledge of France ?
All of them know Mireille Mathieu, Piaf, Brel. My driver to the Isyk-Kol Lake in KI was able to sing some of their hits. And I remembered that when I was in Ekaterinburg, Russia, we saw posters featuring the next Patricia Kass concert. Several time, in bars, coffee shops, or on the radio, I heard French songs.
And of course, they all know about the Eiffel Tower. My driver to the Aral Sea has made it is anthem: He wants to see the Eiffel Tower.
More surprisingly, all of them heard about the gay marriage that was voted last year in France. This is the first thing the taxi driver who picked me up at the Bishkek Airport asked me : “Are there many gays in France ?”. He knew everything about the debate and didn’t seem judgmental, just very curious. The son of Dilbar, in Almaty, asked me completely out of the blue : “Is Hollande gay ?”. Unbelievable. He don’t hear a single thing about those countries and they know everything about mine…
What about their vision of USSR ?
Overall, all the people I talked to miss USSR and their independence in 1991 was a chock. “Before, we wouldn’t have to worry about our future”, said my Tashkent (UZ) taxi driver. “We used to have social services, and we miss that”. “Poor people are more poor and rich people are richer”, said the woman I had met on my flight to Bishkek (KI). “All of the sudden we had to reflect on what we should do to make a living”, said my mountains guide in Almaty (KA).
(Lenin at the Historical State Museum, Bishkek, KI)
What about their vision of Putin ?
“He did a lot for his country”. This is what I heard everywhere. They have a great admiration for him, and wish they could have such a leader in their own country. A rich country, recognized as a serious power by the entire world.
I was there right in the middle of the crisis with Ukraine but none of them mentioned any fear of being annexed by Russia. In my opinion, may be some of them even wish they would…
What about their democratic transition after independence ?
In Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev became first secretary in 1989 and has ruled Kazakhstan ever since. Kazakhstan’s first multiparty elections, in 1994, returned a parliament favorable to Nazarbaev, He dissolved parliament in 1995 to get more favorable deputies and afterwards won an overwhelming referendum majority to extend his presidential term until 2000. Nazarbaev continues to rule Kazakhstan with an iron hand, but enjoys broad popularity as the country posts 10% economic growth year after year and maintains broad ethnic harmony. He won another seven-year presidential term with over 90% of the vote in the 2005 elections. Nazarbaev’s political rivals and critics are frequently sacked, jailed and even, in two cases in 2005 and 2006, found shot dead.
Uzbekistan’s first serious noncommunist popular movement, Birlik, was formed by intellectuals in 1989. Despite popular support, it was barred from contesting the election in February 1990 for the Uzbek Supreme Soviet by the Communist Party. The resulting communist-dominated body elected Islam Karimov, the first secretary of the Communist Party, to the new post of executive president.
Following the abortive coup in Moscow in August 1991, Karimov declared Uzbekistan independent and held the first direct presidential elections, which Karimov won with 86% of the vote. His only rival was a poet who got 12% and was soon driven into exile (where he remains to this day). The real opposition groups, Birlik and the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), and all other parties with a religious platform, had been forbidden to take part. A new constitution unveiled in 1992 declared Uzbekistan ‘a secular, democratic presidential republic’. The years after independence saw Karimov consolidate his grip on power. Karimov won a third consecutive term in January 2000, garnering 92% of the votes. Foreign observers deemed the election a farce and international condemnation was wide- spread. But the 9/11 attacks on the United States gave Karimov a reprieve. Karimov sought another term in 2007, which he won on a turnout rate that was placed at 90.6%…
Kirghizstan knows alternance, but change comes every time from street insurrections denouncing corruption, nepotism and civil unrest.
What about Jews in those countries ?
Oh, that. Well, all of them were very happy and nobody understands why they all left Central Asia in 1991 when USSR collapsed…
So, I’m gonna check in Israel what’s going on. Next time I’ll report from there, after a one-day stop in Istanbul, this city in between two worlds…