Like other Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan’s relations with Turkey have considerably strengthened since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A July 23 conference held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, on the role of political actors in state-building in Turkic countries in the 20th century showed that the legacy of Turkey’s historic leader, Kemal Ataturk, has been widely popularized in Kyrgyzstan and neighboring states. The conference was organized by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, established in memory of the late Azerbaijani president.
It is possible to divide Turkey’s involvement in Kyrgyzstan into three main stages. The first stage, in the early 1990s, was primarily intellectual, with Kyrgyz experts invited to Turkey to exchange ideas on links between the Central Asian and Turkish peoples. The second stage promoted stronger trade ties between Turkey and Kyrgyzstan in the mid- and late-1990s, making both countries economically interconnected. Stage three began in the late 1990s and consisted of intellectual exchanges, economic ties, and Turkey’s educational programs in Kyrgyzstan. However, Ankara’s policy in Central Asia has been criticized for having weak funding to promote transnational contacts and to popularize Turkish culture.
Today, Turkey’s presence in Kyrgyzstan is visible primarily through education programs and imported goods. Most of the early Turkish businesses in the country were opened by ethnic Kurds. For example, Bishkek’s largest supermarket, Beta Stores, is owned by Kurdish businessmen from Turkey. Although this fact is not politicized by the local population, it has raised tensions among the Turkish community in Kyrgyzstan. One Kyrgyz expert even alleges that some Kurdish businessmen in Kyrgyzstan might have contacts with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Aziz Kurumbayev, an aide to the Kyrgyz minister of foreign affairs, told Jamestown that official Bishkek has an equal, balanced approach to all ethnic groups from Turkey living and working in Kyrgyzstan.
Roughly 30% of imports at Bishkek’s Dordoi market are from Turkey. About 400-500 shuttle traders are constantly involved in importing goods from Turkey. Frakhad, a 23-year-old shuttle trader, told Jamestown that he has created his own niche in the market by importing men’s shoes. He explained that he does not need to speak even basic Turkish because he is able to move around by knowing Kyrgyz and Uzbek, and most dealers in Istanbul speak some Russian. He also says that unlike specialized trade companies, shuttle traders do not experience any informal pressure from criminals or law-enforcement agencies in Kyrgyzstan.
There are two Turkish universities functioning in Kyrgyzstan: the Kyrgyz-Turkish University of Manas and the International University of Ataturk-Ala-Too. There are also two state colleges – one for males and one for females. More than a dozen Turkish-sponsored “Sebat” colleges function throughout the country. Among the striking differences between Kyrgyz and Turkish schools is the strong emphasis on English and Turkish languages, natural sciences, and student discipline. Manas University also emphasizes its Anglo-Saxon system of administration (manas.kg).
Competition is strong among Kyrgyz and Turkish lecturers for employment at Turkish universities and colleges. According to one graduate from Manas University, faculty members at Turkish schools enjoy higher respect from the student body and considerably higher salaries than at Kyrgyz schools. They are also expected to be fluent in English and pass a language test. With all subjects taught in English and Turkish, the Russian language is not welcomed by university administrations, even outside of classrooms. As one graduate from a Turkish school told Jamestown, one of his exams included a text describing how Turkish became “one of the most fashionable” languages among young people in the former Soviet republics.
Manas University has a large, well-equipped campus in Bishkek’s Jal district and other parts of the city. Following the March 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, several members of the new regime illegally attempted to seize control over the university’s assets, but the dispute was soon settled. In contrast with Manas University, the construction of the Aga Khan’s university in Naryn has still not been completed and quarrels between the university and local officials over land ownership continue. The change of regimes from former president Askar Akayev to current President Kurmanbek Bakiyev considerably hindered the process.
In southern Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz-Uzbek University in Osh, supported by the Uzbek government, has an academic program in Turkic studies with 40 students, while the total number of student reaches about 20,000. Osh National University has a special Turkic department as well. Both academic divisions are financed by the Turkish International Cooperation Agency (TIKA).
According to Kurumbayev, Kyrgyzstan will welcome any foreign education programs, and Kyrgyz citizens should have a plurality of choice. Today, he notes, Chinese, Jewish, U.S., and other educational systems function in various parts of Kyrgyzstan. Turkish schools are oriented toward the poorer segments of the population, and therefore have a large, positive impact in the country. Kurumbayev argues that not only are Kyrgyz students becoming closer to the Turkish culture, but hundreds of students from Turkey who are studying in Kyrgyzstan are acquiring many features of the local culture as well. However, he also thinks that the level of education at Turkish colleges is generally lower than at Kyrgyz schools.
Turkey’s presence in Kyrgyzstan is growing, but at a slow rate. Representing Kyrgyz National University, Kemelbek Kozhomkulov told conference participants that Ataturk’s ideas should “receive prominent continuation” in the Turkic world and that conferences such as this contribute to this goal. However, Ataturk’s legacy still faces strong competition from Russian cultural influence and the growing popularity of the Chinese language.