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18 December 2023

Kyrgyzstan: Flag-tinkering, Another Japarov Nation-building Exercise

Proponents of the change say the new, bolder flag will enable the country to be more independent.

Kyrgyzstan: Flag-tinkering, Another Japarov Nation-building Exercise

Image: DOSALIEV SULTAN/president.kg

(Eurasianet) Kyrgyzstan’s president says one of the things stopping his country from flourishing is the national flag.

The symbolism is all wrong, he says.

“There are lot of people who hold the view that the current flag looks like a sunflower. And because of that, our state has been unable to rise up since it could do nothing but gaze upon the sun,”  Sadyr Japarov told a journalist from the state news agency in October.

The implication being that a sunflower conveys weakness and servility because of how it follows the sun.

But the asymmetrical yellow feature at the center of Kyrgyzstan’s vivid red flag, which was adopted in 1992, is not, in fact, a sunflower. The central feature is a tunduk, the circular lattice structure placed at the summit of traditional yurts, and the radiating wavy lines represent the sun’s rays.

An alternative proposed by Japarov’s proxies switches out the flag’s softer features for a similarly colored but pointier, more jagged design.

“If this option is adopted, God willing, we will no longer be dependent on anybody. From now on it will be as if the sun is shining and smiling on us,” Japarov said.

The president is close to getting his way. Late last month, the Jogorku Kenesh, the country’s single-chamber parliament, approved the flag change in the first of three planned votes.

The legislative proposal has two names attached to it: parliament speaker Nurlanbek Shakiyev and a member of the pro-government Ata-Jurt Kyrgyzstan party, Ulan Primov. They likewise cited the sunflower argument, claiming that the current standard causes a “conundrum of visual perception.”

“It is necessary to take measures to eliminate ambiguous interpretations,” they have argued.

Having MPs put forward this proposal is purely procedural theater, though. Japarov admitted over the weekend that it was he that had put the deputies up to the job.

For those who have been closely watching Japarov’s policies since he seized power amid a surge of street unrest in October 2020, the flag-tinkering is more than a sideshow. It is, instead, part of a system reset seemingly intended by Japarov to recast the country in his own image.

In January 2021, a constitutional referendum was held alongside the presidential election that sealed his grip on power. The new-look constitution diluted the powers of parliament and handed Japarov more authority.

Other important legislation, including the criminal code and the tax code, has been revamped since that time.

Another novelty willed into existence by Japarov is the People’s Kurultai, a new permanent branch of government that will convene periodically to rubber stamp policies and lend them an imprimatur of popular legitimacy. This institution is implicitly analogous to Afghan loya jirga in scale and style. The thinking is that the folksy, traditional flavor of the People’s Kurultai will aid the authorities overcome any grassroots resistance should it manifest.

Even the physical shape of Kyrgyzstan is changing under Japarov. A border delimitation deal with Uzbekistan that was signed and sealed at the start of 2023 required a series of land swaps. When activists and opposition politicians sought to whip up an outcry in the months ahead of that deal being formalized, the security services threw dozens of them into jail.

Even more fraught and politically explosive border negotiations are ongoing with Tajikistan, which Kyrgyzstan has engaged in increasingly deadly skirmishes over recent years.

Japarov is immodest in laying out his ambitions. In a Facebook post from September, he invoked the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who has been cited as a model figure by multiple Central Asian leaders, in writing about how “it is possible, in the space of less than 30 years, to drag a country out of the third into the first world.”

Later that same month, he spoke in an interview to the state news agency of his ability to see 20 or even 30 years into the future.

“My predictions always come true. This feeling must have been given to me by God,” he said.

Japarov’s iron-fist style of rule, which has been enacted by his gruff ally of old, the head of the security services, Kamchybek Tashiyev, has mostly extinguished a once-lively political activism scene. Washington-based advocacy group Freedom House downgraded Kyrgyzstan in its latest annual Nations in Transit survey.

“At one time, Kyrgyzstan had stood out among its authoritarian neighbors for its strong civil society, independent media, and active political opposition. But an upturn in repression, through criminal prosecutions and detentions, reached a new level in 2022 under the joint rule of Japarov and [Tashiyev],” Freedom House concluded.

Some members of the public have nevertheless felt sufficiently exercised by the flag-change idea to vent their discontent on the streets. On December 9, around 30 people, a small number by Kyrgyz standards, assembled in downtown Bishkek to demand that Japarov reverse course.

Kubatbek Alimbayev, a 24-year-old construction worker from Bishkek, argued that while Japarov could point to the referendum as a mandate for his changes to the constitution, the overhaul of the flag is happening without the opinion of the people being taken into account.

“Even if the people are against it, their opinion is not being considered,” Alimbayev said. “These changes to the flag are not needed by the people, they are needed by the authorities. And they have not even explained properly why they need them.”

But the scale of the Bishkek rally hints at two clear certainties: One is that repression is successfully working to enfeeble visible opposition activism (the organizer of the rally, Aftandul Zhorobekov, was detained on the eve of the event); the other is that Japarov does appear to still enjoy strong backing from a public wearied by decades of political turbulence and uncertainty.

“Japarov could not so easily and smoothly have pursued such a total control over power if there was not support for that from the public,” political analyst Emil Juraev told Eurasianet. “When the signal was received that the people have grown tired of lawlessness, irresponsible rulers, party-political games in parliament, the regular changes of government and ruling coalitions, circular corruption, and that ultimately nobody was held accountable, it was easy for [Japarov] to sell the idea of a strong hand.”