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Kyrgyzstan | Facts and History

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Statue of Manas in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek

Manas, the founder of the Kyrgyz people and hero of the lengthy "Epic of Manas"

neiljs on Flickr.com

The people of Kyrgyzstan come from a proud tradition as nomadic horsemen and warriors of the Central Asian steppe. Once the rulers of a vast empire in the middle of Central Asia, they have been under the thumb of one foreign people or another since the time of Genghis Khan.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kyrgyz got a long-awaited chance at self-rule. So far, unfortunately, they have not been able to capitalize on that chance. Still, given their warrior spirit, do not bet against the people of Kyrgyzstan.

Capital and Major Cities:

Capital:

Bishkek, pop. 762,000

Major Cities:

Osh, pop. 220,000

Karakol, pop. 75,000

Government of Kyrgyzstan:

Formally called the "Kyrgyz Republic," Kyrgyzstan is defined as a democratic republic under its post-Soviet constitution. (This 1993 Constitution has been amended in 1996, 1998, 2003, 2006 and 2007 - an indication of the country's tumultuous political situation.) The head of state is the President, while the head of government is the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister also leads the 90-member unicameral legislature, called the Jogorku Kengesh.

The judicial branch is headed by the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court; judges are recommended by the president and appointed to 10-year terms by the legislature. Lower courts include the Higher Court of Arbitration and Local Courts.

The Kyrgyzstani People:

Kyrgyzstan boasts about 5.4 million citizens (CIA's July 2009 estimate).

The Kyrgyzstani people come from a variety of ethno-linguistic groups: about 69% are Kyrgyz, 14% Uzbek, 9% Russian, 1% each Dungan, Uyghur, and Tajik, plus less than 1% Kazakh, Tatar, Korean and German.

During the Soviet era, Europeans including Russians and Ukrainians made up about 35% of the population of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic; since the fall of the Soviet Union, about three-quarters of the ethnic Europeans have left Kyrgyzstan.

Languages in Kyrgyzstan:

Kyrgyzstan's official languages are Kyrgyz and Russian.

Kyrgyz is a Turkic language, most closely related to Altay and Kazakh. Despite almost two decades of independence from Russia, the Kyrgyz language is still written primarily in the Cyrillic alphabet, although some writers use a modified Arabic script. This is unusual in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia; all of the others except Kazakhstan have adopted different alphabets since 1993 in a show of moving away from Russian domination.

Religion:

For 75 years under the Soviet system, the Kirghiz Republic was officially atheist. Nonetheless, most Kyrgyz citizens today self-identify as belonging to one religion or another.

Some 75% of the Kyrgyzstani people are Muslim, nearly all Sunni. Another 20% are Russian Orthodox Christians, and the remaining 5% adhere to Buddhism, other types of Christianity, or Judaism.

Geography of Kyrgyzstan:

Kyrgyzstan covers an area of 199,951 square kilometers in the eastern part of Central Asia. It borders on China to the east and south, Kazakhstan to the north, Tajikistan to the south and Uzbekistan to the west.

More than 80% of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, thus the country's nickname "the Switzerland of Central Asia." Its highest point is the Jengish Chokusu peak in the Tien Shan Mountains, at 7,439 meters (24,406 feet). The lowest point is Kara-Daryya, at 132 meters (433 feet).

The largest river is the Kara Darya, which crosses into Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan also boasts one of the world's largest mountain lakes, Issyk-Kul.

Climate:

Kyrgyzstan's climate is continental and can be rather harsh. The country receives very little rainfall, although it can snow very heavily during the winter months. Total yearly precipitation in the mountains averages almost 2,000 millimeters (79 inches), but in the Fergana Valley it drops to just 100 mm (about 4 inches).

Given the country's enormous range of altitudes, it comes as no surprise that temperatures vary widely as well. The record low temperature in the Tien Shan is -53.6°C or −64 °F. The highest temperature recorded is 44°C, or 111°F, in the Fergana Valley.

The Economy of Kyrgyzstan:

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has struggled to find its economic footing. In 2009, its GDP growth rate was an estimated -1%. The GDP per capita is only $2,100 US.

Some 48% of Kyrgyzstanis make their living through agriculture, with another 40% in services and about 12% in industry. 18% are unemployed, and a shocking 40% of the population is living below the poverty line.

Kyrgyzstan exports minerals, wool, and electricity. It imports oil, natural gas, iron, chemicals, machinery, wood, food, and many other products; its balance of trade is about -$34 million US annually.

The Kyrgyz currency is the som. As of April, 2010, $1 US = 45.6 som.

The History of Kyrgyzstan:

The earliest human occupation in what is now Kyrgyzstan dates back some 200,000-300,000 years, according to the archaeological evidence. It is unlikely that the people who knapped those early stone tools were the direct ancestors of modern day Kyrgyz, however.

Early Kyrgyz History

The Kyrgyz people probably originated in central Siberia, in the region of the Yenisey River Valley, sometime around 200 BCE. Their foundational myth, a 500,000-line poem that was kept alive as an oral tradition for centuries, tells the story of Manas, a great warrior who united the Kyrgyz people. The Epic of Manas relates how he brought together the 40 clans of the Kyrgyz (represented on the modern flag by forty sun-rays) to fight against their common enemy, the Uyghurs.

Interestingly, Tang Chinese sources report that the Kyrgyz had red hair and green or blue eyes. DNA evidence suggests a genetic link with Tajiks, Ukrainians and Poles - a clear indication of Central Asia's role as a melting pot of Eurasian peoples.

The Tang fought one of their most important battles - the Battle of Talas River - against the Caliph of Baghdad in what is now Kyrgyzstan in 751 CE; however, the ancestors of the Kyrgyz lived north of the area at that time.

The early Kyrgyz were subjects of the Gokturks and Uyghurs, but in 840 CE the Kyrgyz defeated the Uyghur Khanate. An army of as many as 80,000 Kyrgyz horseman captured the Uyghur capital of Ordu Baliq and beheaded the Uyghur leader. With this victory, the Kyrgyz expanded their territory to include a large swathe of land in the middle of Central Asia.

Kyrgyz History in the Middle Ages

The Kyrgyz maintained control over much of this land until the 12th and 13th centuries CE, when Genghis Khan and the Mongols exploded out from their homeland to the northeast of Kyrgyz territory and conquered much of the known world. The Mongolian expansion forced the Kyrgyz to begin migrating south, from what is now Tuva into the Tien Shan mountains; despite the move, they came under the control of the Mongol's Golden Horde.

When the last remnant of the Golden Horde was destroyed by Timur in 1394-95, the Kyrgyz found themselves subjects of the Timurid rulers. The Kyrgyz finally settled in the land now known as Kyrgyzstan in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Over the following centuries, the Kyrgyz would be ruled in turn by the Kalmyks, the Manchus and Uzbeks. Early in the 19th century, they fell under the control of the Khanate of Kokand (1709-1876), which was centered in eastern Uzbekistan.

In 1876, tsarist Russia conquered the Khanate including Kyrgyzstan, prompting many Kyrgyz to flee into Afghanistan or up into the high mountains.

The Kyrgyz under Russian Rule

In 1916, in response to Russia's imposition of a military draft on the peoples of Central Asia for the World War I war effort, the Kyrgyz revolted against Russian rule. The Russians responded with massive force, killing nearly one-sixth of the Kyrgyz people. Many of the survivors fled into China.

The Russian tsar fell in 1917, and the new Soviet government took control of Kyrgyzstan and the rest of Central Asia the following year. In 1924, the Kyrgyz section was renamed the "Kara-Kyrgyz Autonomous Oblast"; two years later, it became the Kirghiz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. The Kirghiz Republic became a full-fledged member of the Soviet Union in 1936.

In 1991, the USSR collapsed and Kyrgyzstan became an independent nation. The new government changed the capital's name from Frunze back to the pre-Soviet name, Bishkek.

The first president was a hold-over from the Soviet era, Askar Akaev, but he was ousted from power in street demonstrations in 2005. The former Prime Minister, Kurmanbek Bakiev, won presidential elections that same year; ironically, he also was ousted in street demonstrations in April of 2010.

The Kyrgyz people have a long and proud history as fierce warriors and nomads. They seem disinclined, at this stage, to accept substandard governance in their newly independent state. Perhaps they need a latter-day Manas, who can unite them once again.

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