By Chris Rickleton
With their country torn by ethnic strife and experiencing wrenching political change, it’s understandable why many older Kyrgyzstanis sometimes feel nostalgic for the relative comforts of the Soviet era. By tapping into a sense of loss and longing, Kyrgyzstan’s remaining Communists have been able to maintain a loyal, but small following.
In the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, dedicated communists have found it impossible to cling to the past. Caught between a desire to remain ideologically pure and the need to remain relevant in the post-independence era, the Communist Party splintered into two in 1999: One faction became the Party of Communists of Kyrgyzstan, led by Iskhak Masaliyev; the other, headed by Klara Azhibekova, adopted the name Kyrgyz Communist Party. Divided, they fell. Competing for an ageing constituency on platforms based on Soviet-era bromides, neither party won enough votes to enter parliament in 2010.
“The leaders of the parties … differed in terms of their personal ambitions,” said Medet Tiulegenov, a senior lecturer in the International and Comparative Politics department at the American University of Central Asia. Personality is a major factor in Kyrgyz party politics, but Masaliyev’s party was stained by his close ties with former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in violent street protests last year.
“Currently, Masaliyev’s party is more of an establishment party, which had strong ties with the former [Bakiyev] regime, while the other party [Azhibekova’s] seems almost anti-systemic by nature,” Tiulegenov told EurasiaNet.org.
One day each year, the two factions set aside their differences and present at least an outward appearance of unity. Gathered below Bishkek’s largest statue of Vladimir Lenin, now standing idly behind the city’s mammoth Soviet-era history museum, both leaders made speeches on April 22, honoring what would have been the Bolshevik leader’s 141st birthday.
Cheered by several dozen elderly onlookers, both Masaliyev and Azhibekova presented World War II veterans with medals. Party anthems and military music played over a dated PA system, as a loyalist in tattered combat fatigues stood at attention under the old Soviet flag.
Azhibekova, a firebrand whose rhetoric remains steeped in Marxist-Leninist dogma, gave a speech hailing Lenin as a “visionary” who “continued the ideas of Marx and Engels.” Simultaneously, she laid blame for Kyrgyzstan’s bloody ethnic violence last year on members of the interim government that took over from Bakiyev, telling the current “petty bourgeoisie government” to take “a lesson from the Soviet Union whose priorities were friendship, brotherhood and unity between peoples.” In turn, Masaliyev, the scion of the last leader of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic, Absamat Masaliyev, bemoaned the current government’s “lack of national ideology.”
Both communist leaders face a major challenge as they attempt to rebrand themselves and the parties they lead in the post-Bakiyev era. For now, the sudden emergence of new parties and political alliances has left them on the sidelines of politics.
Azhibekova, for her part, seems entangled in the web of ideological orthodoxy, while her immediate rival has his own problems. Masaliyev, a fixture in legislative assemblies under both Askar Akayev and Bakiyev, was only recently released from house arrest. Acquitted of organizing unrest in the south of Kyrgyzstan in May 2010, he is nevertheless viewed by many as a leftover element of a southern political clique that dominated national decision-making prior to last year’s uprising. Though technically he led an opposition party in parliament until last year, he generally voted with Bakiyev’s governing party.
“These are dying parties led by old politicians,” says Marat Kazakpayev, a lecturer at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek. “Naturally some people in the country miss the Soviet Union, but turning back is both impossible and erroneous. When people talk about the Soviet Union, they should remember that although it had good aspects, there were a number of violations taking place regularly – cultural and human rights violations.”
Agreeing that the country’s current leadership lacks a “state ideology” capable of encouraging a strong sense of national cohesion, Kazakpayev nevertheless maintains that the two communist parties are incapable of filling the vacuum. “The problem with these parties […] is that they depend fully on their leaders. The leaders in turn are motivated by personal ambitions and are thus unable to offer the country a significant vision. He [Masaliyev] talks about ideology, but is by any measure a non-ideological politician,” Kazakpayev adds.
Sergei Nepohodov, 27, a member of the Central Committee of Azhibekova’s Kyrgyz Communist Party, represents youth in a generally graying movement. Admitting that the 1999 split divided the parties’ traditional constituency, he disputes the notion that Marxist ideology is irrelevant in today’s world. “[The split] is between leaders,” Nepohodov told EurasiaNet.org. “We simple communists still ultimately have the same beliefs and goals. Even [in Lenin’s] first Central Committee, the politicians had their differences, but critically, society itself was united.”
Today, in Kyrgyzstan’s 20th year of independence, and after a violent year that produced an unstable legislature, the principles of Marxism-Leninism still resonate, he insisted. “People understand deeply that the politicians sitting in this parliament have no real values,” Nepohodov said. “Everything good in this country was built during the Soviet period. That was a time when we were equal, had stable lives and cared for one another. People haven’t forgotten those things.”
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.