Kyrgyzstan protests

By Donnelly McCleland

Kyrgyzstan’s president on Monday [12 October] ordered a new, week-long state of emergency in the country’s capital after parliament failed to consider and approve his previous order within the legally required three days. The confusion reflected the chaos that has engulfed the country after a disputed parliamentary election triggered mass protests. According to the office of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, the state of emergency in Bishkek is to last from 8 pm Monday to 7 am on 19 October and implies a curfew, a ban on rallies and other public events, and travel restrictions. The new decree also reiterates the order to deploy troops to the capital to enforce the measure. (Associated Press)

The disputed parliamentary elections

Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous, former Soviet republic of 6.5 million people is a landlocked country, sandwiched between China and Kazakhstan in Central Asia. Despite being one of the poorest countries in Central Asia, it is considered to be the only true democracy in the region.  In the 19th century, it was colonised by the Russian Empire and only gained its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The current upheaval is the third popular uprising which has forced regime change in Kyrgyzstan. In the 29 years since independence, there have been two popular revolutions – the ‘Tulip Revolution’ of 2005, and another in 2010. Since 2010, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has functioned as an imperfect, but a representative legislative body.

The recent unrest came quite unexpectedly since many citizens were anticipating the unseating of the current government in the 4 October parliamentary elections. However, among a field of 16 parties, only four—all of which are loyal to the current government—crossed the seven percent threshold of votes necessary for seats in parliament. There were widespread reports of vote-buying and of voting irregularities. Mass protests erupted the day after the election with protesters storming and seizing government buildings, looting some offices. On 6 October, after a night of violent protests, Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Committee annulled the outcome of the elections and set 6 November as the date for a new round of voting. The prime minister and speaker of the parliament both announced their resignations. Members of some opposition parties announced plans to oust Mr Jeenbekov and form a new government. An emergency parliament session on Tuesday 6 October named former lawmaker Sadyr Zhaparov as a new prime minister, but the move was contested by other opposition groups. On Saturday 10 October, lawmakers voted to confirm Zhaparov’s appointment, but Mr Jeenbekov, who said he may consider stepping down only after the political situation in the country stabilises, is yet to sign a decree confirming it.

The regional context

The political uncertainty is deeply concerning to neighbouring nations and international bodies. The unrest in Kyrgyzstan is the third outbreak of instability in former Soviet republics in recent months – mass protests are ongoing in Belarus, and fighting has broken out over the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who does not want long-time ally Kyrgyzstan to slip into China’s orbit, expressed hope that “a normal democratic political process will be restored.” The presidents of the other Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – issued a joint statement on 9 October expressing concern about the crisis. The Chinese foreign ministry also expressed their concern.

Despite the colonial Russian legacy, economic and political ties between Kyrgyzstan and Russia remain strong: Russian is still the language of business and of the capital city, while the Kyrgyz language predominates in the country’s rural areas and its second-largest city, Osh. Russia maintains a large presence in Kyrgyzstan and has a military base there. Traditionally, almost one million Kyrgyz migrants work abroad, mainly in Russia. As a result, in 2019 Kyrgyzstan received remittances totalling about 30% of GDP, one of the highest levels in the world.

According to an article in the South China Morning Post, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia remained the dominant power in Central Asia, accounting for 80 percent of regional trade. However, in recent years China overtook Russia, with the latter accounting for just under two-thirds of Beijing’s US$30 billion. China has also become the region’s leading investor and creditor, owning just under half of Kyrgyzstan and neighbouring Tajikistan’s foreign debt. But as China’s role in the region has grown, so has local resistance to it. Opinion polls in the region (in an August 2020 report produced by the Wilson Centre and Kennan Institute) indicate that while Russia is still viewed favourably by many Central Asians, China is viewed with greater suspicion, with 30 percent of Kazakhs and 35 percent of Kyrgyz polled reporting negative views of their eastern neighbour. Key concerns involve corruption (irregularities in the awarding of infrastructure projects), ‘land grabbing’ (part of a 2011 border deal, for example, with Tajikistan, led to 0.6 percent of its territory being ceded to China) and China’s reported crackdown on Muslim minorities has also served to further alienate it from the Muslim-majority region.

Islam’s growing political significance

In the early years of Kyrgyzstan’s independence, the government took a liberal approach to religion, and the number of mosques and religious schools expanded rapidly – with more than 1,000 in the first five years, and reaching 2,669 in 2016, according to official statistics. It was initially driven by foreign sources of religious influences from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Indian Subcontinent. Many Evangelical missionaries also arrived in Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s, using this window of opportunity to plant Christian churches. Protestant denominations from Europe, North America and South Korea played a particularly active role and thrived under the liberal religious environment of the 1990s. However, since the beginning of the 2000s, foreign missionaries became subject to stricter government controls which effectively halted their expansion.

Johan Engvall, in his report ‘Religion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan’, explains: “Kyrgyzstani laws and policies separate between what is referred to as traditional faiths, on the one hand, and non-traditional faiths on the other. The former – Hanafi Islam (one of four schools of jurisprudence or law schools/Sharia implementations strands in Sunni Islam – considered a very moderate interpretation[1]) and the Russian Orthodox Church – are prioritised and given preferential treatment due to their historical influence on the development of Kyrgyz statehood.” Non-traditional faiths (which includes Evangelical Christianity and most other Protestant denominations) is viewed with suspicion. State intervention into the activities of religious institutions is mainly justified on the grounds of “preventing religious extremism”, similar to the religious laws which Russia has instituted.

Islam has become an increasingly potent factor in Kyrgyzstan’s political landscape – predominantly as a source of legitimisation for politicians and a resource for the mobilisation of voters. According to Engvall: “Clerics use their political connections to build up their own power bases. Politicians, in turn, enjoying clerical support strengthen their local electoral base.” Engvall explains further: “It is said that the political atmosphere in Kyrgyzstan, is a barometer of the dynamics of society and religion. The evolution of Kyrgyzstan’s secularism under its various presidents can be illustrated with the help of  Starr and Cornell’s continuum of five distinct models, or ideal types, of interaction between the state and religion: on one end is ‘Fusion’, a merger of political and spiritual realms. The next step is ‘Dominant Religion’, in which religious minorities are tolerated, but the state endorses one particular religion. In the middle of the continuum is the ‘State Neutrality’ model exemplified by the United States; it is followed by what we call the ‘Sceptical/Insulating’ model, as in France, which seeks to regulate and control religious influence on state and society. The last model is the ‘hostile’ model, to which Soviet atheism can be counted. In comparison to other post-Soviet states, Kyrgyzstan’s religious space remains unmatched in its openness. Kyrgyzstan stands at a crossroads. [Mr] Jeenbekov may be the last of the presidents from the Soviet generation.” The current political upheaval in Kyrgyzstan will once again bring a shift in the interaction between state and religion, and Engvall’s explanation raises the question of which possible direction Kyrgyzstan could take if a new generation comes into power –  will they maintain the separation between politics and religion, or become more like their other Central Asian neighbours?


According to legend, Christianity came to Central Asia from Persia in the 1st Century by way of the Apostle Thomas who went to Samarkand (now a city in Uzbekistan) by the Great Silk Road and appointed several bishops there. Documents confirm that in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries there were Christian churches in that region and Christianity spread mainly through Nestorian Christians. But by the 14th Century, Christianity started to be wiped out by Islam and Buddhism and practically disappeared for several centuries. A new season of Christianity began around the mid-19th Century with the arrival of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian farmer migrants. By the end of the 19th Century, many evangelical Christians came to the region, often due to persecution. Although the local population was quite tolerant of both Orthodox and evangelical Christians, Christianity was still considered the religion of the non-ethnic people.

Dr Kathleen Collins’ research in Christian Response to Persecution in Kyrgyzstan explains: “Kyrgyzstan is the most liberal of the five republics of Central Asia, with greater pluralism and more lenient enforcement of religious restrictions, but general repression of religion has increased since the early 1990s. The leaders of Kyrgyzstan consider any activity outside of state control to be a challenge to their legitimacy and authority, and an atheist mentality still persists in the government, even though it is no longer an official policy. Most perceive all forms of Christianity apart from Russian Orthodoxy to be linked to Western goals of destabilizing political power and therefore suspect.

Most churches, other than Russian Orthodox, face both societal and government oppression and the estimated number of non-Orthodox believers is vague, anything from one to five percent of the population, with believers from a Muslim background, included in this number. According to The Joshua Project, the majority of Kyrgyz are Muslim (92.7%).

The current climate of political uncertainty provides both a challenge and opportunity for the Church in Kyrgyzstan – there is opportunity to encourage and share the hope they carry in Christ Jesus, but there is also deep uncertainty surrounding what the new incoming government could bring to the nation ­– will there be a shift towards the oppressive control of neighbouring nations, or will they manage to cling to a measure of democracy and freedom of belief?

Please pray with us:

  • For a quick and peaceful resolution to the current political crisis – and for the new incoming government (especially as they consider the role of the state and religion)
  • For the Church in Kyrgyzstan to clearly identify the spiritual season they find themselves in and to respond appropriately
  • For the larger Body of Christ to support and encourage believers in Kyrgyzstan – predominantly through prayer, but in practical ways too, as the Lord provides opportunities

[1] Hanafi interpretation allows state and religion to be separate, and this has been a saving grace for Kyrgyzstan thus far because once Sharia law and governance becomes one thing, freedom decreases for all other religions in a country.



Image: REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov