The dilemma of safe space for Kyrgyzstan’s LGBT population

Bilderesultat for gay kyrgyzstan flag

Picture taken from Google

Up until recent years Kyrgyzstan was seen as one of the most progressive countries in Central Asia in regards to LGBT rights. This is not to say that everyday life previously was without the threat of violence, but that in comparison to its neighbors there were some spaces that were safe; especially in the country’s capital, Bishkek, they were able to find a sense of community and safety in the anonymity of city. This has however changed over the last years, after several anti-LGBT moves by the state.

Public vs private space

Space, and the freedom to be yourself and safe within a space, is one of the most important aspects of the LGBT battles in Kyrgyzstan today. Up until recent years the LGBT community were left alone by the state. The state used to have the opinion that as long as people kept their ‘non-traditional’ relationships to the private sphere they were free to do as they chose themselves (Wilkinson et al, 2010). This has however changed as the Kyrgyz government in 2014 introduced a propaganda bill that makes it illegal to show ‘non-traditional’ relationships in a positive light. The law has passed the two out of the three readings in needs, and if it goes through people will risk one year in prison.

This law is directly influenced by the law Russia introduced in 2013 which prohibited ‘propaganda’ to children regarding speaking about ‘non-traditional’ relationships in a positive light. Russia’s closest allies and other former Soviet Union countries has been heavily affected by the attitudes and actions of Russia, which shows just how big of an influence Russia still have. However whereas Russia’s law only pertains to ‘propaganda’ against children, the proposed law by the Kyrgyz government will prohibit showing these relationships to people of any age. It was also voted on whether to make same-sex marriage legal in 2016, and this is now constitutionally banned.


Since 2014 there has been an increase in violence that makes it harder for people both in private and public spaces. Kyrgyz Indigo, a LGBT organization, found while doing a survey that 84% of the people who responded had been experienced physical violence, while 35% has been victims of sexual violence. This is exemplified by the statement made by a Kyrgyz woman the guardian spoke to “All of us will be a victim of rape or attack at some point.” This violence can come from multiple types of spaces in society, some of which I will go through now.

One area that can be a particularly sensitive place where violence and prejudice is a person’s home. If a LGBT person lives alone this rarely poses a threat and their home can be a form of sanctuary. However, if it is a family home where multiple members live people are uniquely vulnerable (Wilkinson et al., 2010). There can be pressure to conform to societal norms of being in a opposite-sex relationship, experiencing abuse from the family, and they can bring ‘shame’ on the family (Wilkinson et al., 2010). Many therefore choose to leave their home, especially if it is in a rural town, and move to Bishkek (Wilkinson et al., 2010). Youth is especially exposed in this context as they are often economically dependent on their family, in addition to the emotional ties that all people can experience (Wilkinson et al., 2010).

Public spaces (including semipublic spaces, such as events or nightclubs for the LGBT community, through organizations such as Labrys) are also increasingly unsafe due to an organ supposed to protect its citizens, the police. Police harassment is not something new in Kyrgyzstan, but following the trend of increasing homophobia, this harassment has increased. Often police demand money or sexual bribery (or rape them) threating with ‘outing’ them to their communities or the wider public if they do not comply. If an LGBT person wants to report a crime they will often either be harassed or ‘outed’, as in the case where police brought a tv crew to expose them instead of helping them (Arnold, 2018). A ‘tool’ the police uses is the lack of knowledge about LGBT rights for people who identify as LGBT; the police will claim that there is a law against same-sex sexual relations, even though this has been removed since the 90’s (Kirey, 2007).

The issue of safety does not only pertain to physical space. As Kyrgyz LGBT individuals are gaining more access to modern technology, the trend of using networking apps are rising, though this is not without risk (Arnold, 2017). It cannot be known for certain who is on the other side of the phone, and anti-LGBT gangs and members of police has taken advantage of this. According to the Guardian, there is already several videos out on YouTube of this happening (Arnold, 2017).

Concluding remarks

In this blog I have tried to show several things. One of them is how homophobic abuse is on the rise and how much Russia still influence the attitudes of the post-soviet countries and their citizens; I also wanted to show how Kyrgyzstan has also transcended Russia in the new proposed ‘propaganda’ bill. The danger for LGBT people in Kyrgyzstan is on the increase and getting out of hand, which is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that transgender youth are fleering to Russia because Russia is (rather disturbingly) for once seen as a safer place to live.


Arnold, K. (2017). ‘All of us will be victims at some point’: why Bishkek’s only gay club closed’. Available at:, (Accessed 27 July 2018).

Arnold, K. (2018). Transgender Kyrgyz seek unlikely refuge in Russia. Available at:, (Accessed: 27 July 2018).

Kirey, A. (2007). ‘Kyrgyzstan: Dangerous attraction’, Transitions Online, 10 (22), pp. 1-4.

Wilkinson, C. and Kirey, A. (2010). ‘What’s in a name? The personal and political meanings of ‘LGBT’ for non-heterosexual and transgender youth in Kyrgyzstan’, Central Asian Survey, 29 (4), pp. 485-499.


The controversy of women’s clothing and behaviour in Central Asia: Embodiments of the nation?

In this blogpost I will discuss the controversy of women’s clothing and behaviour in Kyrgyzstan. The type of clothing that women use is often in discussion in this globalising world and the countries in Central Asia is no exception. I will show how the need for a specific national identity shapes the debate around clothing, and how the debate about clothing is only a small part of the discussion regarding women’s role in Kyrgyzstan’s nationalism.

Clothing in Kyrgyzstan

There has been a large amount of discussion around the way women should dress in Kyrgyzstan in recent times, both from citizens themselves and the government. In 2016 there was a specific discussion revolving around the perceived notion that women’s clothing was correlated to the future of the country and the direction society was taking. In July 2016 billboards appeared with three pictures; the first one showed women in white traditional Kyrgyz dresses and headdress (that didn’t cover the face), the second showed women in white Islamic dresses (some with their faces covered and some without) and the last one was of women in Islamic black clothes with their face covered (Esenamanova et al, 2017). Under it there was a sign that asked ‘My poor people, where are we going?’ (ibid) (Illustration 1).

Bilderesultat for billboards in kyrgyzstan clothing

Illustration 1. Picture taken from Google.

A month later another billboard appeared with the same question, but going from the traditional Kyrgyz dress to western style of clothes (Ibid)(Illustration 2)

Bilderesultat for billboards in kyrgyzstan clothing

Illustration 2. Picture taken from Google.

The debate was all over social media and the news; on one side Muslims argued that Islamic dress was closer to traditional Kyrgyz clothing than Western Clothing; on the other side, the president claimed that western clothing (in particular miniskirts) had a longer history than the Burqa in Kyrgyzstan and that women in miniskirts did not ‘hide bombs under them’ (ibid, p.221). The point of interest however is that no matter which ‘side’ you were on, they are both a part of a very public debate about women and what they are wearing. This plays a role in how the topic are thought of and discussed in everyday life in society, therefore shaping the way people think. The fact that women’s dress is so controversial, while men’s clothing rarely gets put in the spotlight is interesting because it clearly displays the gender hierarchy in the society, but it also tells a great deal about what role women are perceived to have in society.

Nationalism and women

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union there has been a continuous goal to define Kyrgyzstan’s national identity. After the Soviet Union dissolved many Central Asian countries needed to find exactly what made their country unique and therefore the government try to reject everything they perceive to be foreign and not traditionally Kyrgyz (Esenamanova, 2017). It is in the light of this nationalism that women and the way they are dressing comes into light. The idea that women are the bearers of culture and responsible for both the biological and cultural reproduction is prevalent in national ideologies (Suyarkulova, 2016). Therefore, women can be seen as needing to act or look a certain way (Ibid). The way they perform this act needs to be carefully controlled, just as the national identity is something to control in order to be perceived a certain way (Ibid). This is not to say that women do not have agency, but to show the correlation between the pressure of having a specific identity after being a part of the Soviet Union for so long, and the responsibility women is seen as having in the creation and maintenance of this identity (Esenamanova et al. , 2017: Suyarkulova, 2016). In Kyrgyzstan, and within Kyrgyz migrant populations in other countries, the view that women ‘belong’ to the nation are showed in a few instances in recent times (Suyarkulova, 2016). I’ll show an example of where this has been ‘implemented’ on the extreme side. One example is from 2012 where there appeared videos of Kyrgyz men beating, raping and torturing Kyrgyz women for what is perceived to be ‘unpatriotic’ behaviour because they were associating with non-Kyrgyz men. The women’s clothes were also taken off and their identity was revealed which removed the women of their compatriot identity (Ibid). The act of removing the women’s clothes is significant because it is one of the ways in which women’s is perceived to show their nationality. Although these videos sparked a reaction in both Russia, where it happened, and Kyrgyzstan itself, many sympathised with the patriotic nature of the acts and the need to punish women who acted ‘unpatriotic’ (Ibid).

Concluding remarks

It is important to consider the control of women and women’s bodies not only from a feministic view, but also a historical and social view. A lot of what was familiar and known was upheaved during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, therefore the Central Asian countries needed to find a new identity. Kyrgyzstan placed a strong significance on nationalism and one of the consequences of nationalism is the view of women as the bearers and embodiment of culture. This view of one Kyrgyz identity is hard to maintain however as Kyrgyzstan has many ethnicities and a population will always be made up of different people who have their own sub-cultures. No nation will ever be completely homogenous.


Esenamanova, N. and Nasitdinov, E. (2017). ‘The war of billboards: hijab, secularism, and public space in Bishkek’, Central Asian Affairs, 4, 217-242.

Suyarkulova, M. (2016). ‘Fashioning the nation: gender and politics of dress in contemporary Kyrgyzstan’, Nationalities papers, 44 (2), 247-265.


Dam-nation: Dam construction and shifts in nationalism in post-socialist Central Asia

Key Words: Dams, Nationalism, Post-Socialism, ‘Modernization’, Competition


This blog post explores how the impacts of dam construction have shifted in central Asia since the fall of communism. I will show that when planned ‘from above’, dam construction could be planned in such a way that served everyone in the region. Post-socialism, however, strengthened national boundaries which have created international competition unseen in  the soviet era. Accordingly, dams have shifted from being a unifying factor in the region to being a potentially divisive one.

Hirsch (2000) employs the idea of ‘double-assimilation’ to describe the nationalising projects of the Soviets in central Asia: assimilating people into Soviet national identity first required regional, state-bounded national identities. For this, infrastructure was central; Lenin once declared that ‘Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country’ (Féaux de la croix , 2006: 90). Dams, then, were central to the creation of both national identities and a successful communist order in central Asia. Being planned ‘from above’, dam construction occurred with regional, transnational interests in mind. These interests included the creation of industry and employment, soviet independence from the West, and regional welfare and productivity. However, the government of ‘men in relation to things’ (Inda, 2008: 94) is a difficult endeavour, and the results were not always as planned. For example, Soviet infrastructure projects such as irrigating water from its two major tributaries to grow cotton had a devastating impact on the Aral Sea. However, under a supra-national government and no capitalist competition, ecological fishing practices were easier to enforce (Wheeler, 2017).

After the fall of communism, nationalism in the region shifted. There is no longer a supranational state within which regional nationalism is embedded, nor is there supranational planning with regard to infrastructure projects. The result is the competitive disposition that inevitably follows capitalism. This happens on both the local and the international scale. Under communism, there was no vested interest for significant over-fishing in the Aral Sea. However under the capitalist system, the more one fishes, the more one earns (Wheeler, 2017). Similarly, when the building of infrastructure served the region not  individual nation-states alone, there was no vested interest to over extract local resources, nor any interest in potentially antagonising your neighbouring country. However, post-socialism there is less reason to think of your neighbouring state when extracting natural resources.

The result is that if a country wants to build a dam, the nationalising effects are now confined to the country in which the dam is being built. If Tajikistan wants to build the Roghun Dam, for example, they will not be doing so with for their downstream, and its construction will not create a feeling of pride for the Uzbek people. It is, however, very much in the interest of individual nation-states to dam their rivers. Harvey notes that infrastructure construction is an effective means of demonstrating that a government is acting in the population’s interests (Harvey, 2005 in Féaux de la Croix 2016: 105); and that the modernising connotations of dam construction further help to encourage a sense of national-pride. Aside from the financial gains that come from dam construction, then, nationalist identities can be forged- something of great importance since the fall of communism (Diener and Hagen, 2013: 488).

Accordingly, the construction of dams has become a point of contention between Central Asian states. For example, Uzbekistan protested the Tajik government’s plan to build the Roghun dam (a plan originally conceived by the Soviets, without Uzbek protest) by closing land borders and Tajik access to its airspace. The results benefited nobody, hitting industry and driving fuel prices up by 40% (Ibañez-Tirado, 2015: 556). Without the confidence that infrastructure projects benefit the region as a whole, the damming of rivers which cross international borders becomes a political issue fraught with tension. The benefits for individual nations may be irresistible; regional power, a strong sense of national pride and popular faith in government, as well as economic and energy independence are all important factors for countries trying to carve a place out for themselves in the post-socialist world. However, to do so is to threaten your neighbours’ potential for economic independence which can create massive tension between the once cooperative neighbours.

Recent developments between Uzbekistan’s new president and Tajikistan have led to an easing of tensions; Uzbekistan has endorsed the Roghun dam and Tajikistan promised to never leave its neighbours without water. The impacts of this on national identity will be interesting to monitor and warrant anthropological attention. It is possible, that the region’s history of cooperation can permeate through capitalism’s competitive disposition, and all can continue to benefit from their neighbours’ development. However, Nationalism in the post-socialist era has shifted from a nationalism embedded within a wider communist order to one that potentially favours inter-national competition. The result is that resources and dam construction are no longer built to serve those downstream. Post-socialist states must make a decision between retaining and protecting old alliances, or racing for regional domination with potentially disastrous consequences.





Diener, A.C. & Hagen, J. (2013). From socialist to post-socialist cities: narrating the nation through urban space, Nationalities Papers, 41:4, 487-514.


Féaux de la Croix. (2017). “Damning the Naryn River”. In Iconic Places in Central Asia: The Moral Geography of Dams, Pastures and Holy Sites. Berlin: Transcript, 85-110.


Ibañez-Tirado, D. (2015). “Everday disasters, stagnation, and the normalcy of nondevelopment: Roghun dam, a flood, and campaigns of forced taxation in southern Tajikistan.” Central Asian Survey 34 (4): 549-563.


Inda, J.X. (2008). Analytics of the modern: an introduction. In Inda J.X. (ed.) Anthropologies of modernity: Foucault, governmentality and life politics. Oxford: Blackwell. Pp.1-20.


Wheeler, W. (2015). “Fish as Property on the Small Aral Sea, Kazakhstan.” In Georgy Kantor, Tom Lambert and Hannah Skoda, eds., Legalism: Property and Ownership. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 203-234.

PERISTROIKA (restructuring) – Transitions and How They are Translated

The transition from socialism to capitalism is not an easy one. Problems arise when deep rooted ideologies that have structured the infrastructure of a country are suddenly revolutionised. The translation of these changes into the political, ideological, economic and cultural landscape is a long process that I will argue is still not fully complete in most central Asian countries. Through this article I will raise the greatest issues this transition has caused and evaluate how much of this supposed change has come to fruition in the re-structure of affected countries and societies.


Soviet state communism had at its downfalls an inefficient infrastructure, where a decrease in its ‘smokestack-type infrastructure’ inhibited the development and implementation of high-tech innovations (Klump:2011). In short, economists have shown that the soviet empire was run into the ground well before its official end, even the agricultural machinery, supporting vital food resources, had not seen investment for 50 years prior to soviet breakdown. Capitalism held the hope of leaving an economy of shortage and degradation of the previous era behind as the future promised to move the newly found states out of the stagnation caused by the soviet rule from as far back as the 1970’s (Klump:2011). When analysing the transition period, that is still in continuation, from 1991 to the present, it is important to bear in mind the multiplicity of political, ethnic and economic implications affecting all and one section of state at the same time. Overall analysis can never be in a singular discipline without consideration of external disciplinary factors.


Soviet dissolution and the creation of national territories triggered a crisis for state legitimacy in the newly formulated Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The rise of nationalism redirected the ideological underpinnings of the country whilst international borders geographically shaped them. Culturally this resulting in a deepening of ethnic separatism, and an overthrowing the previous religious and cultural practices of the now borderland inhibitors, in favour of the new nationalist culture. The vision of modernity and enthusiasm for free market and economic liberalism was far from realisation and substantially more difficult to achieve than its accompanying discourse, as seen in the examples of post-soviet planning in Alamaty (Alexander: 2017). The newly formed states inherited resource based economies that were dependent on state sections located far across the USSR as each state was specialised in individual and particular exports that functioned as a whole unit, causing issues of contention when separated.


The world bank was one of the main guiding powers in the regional transition, their outline of administrative decentralisation in the 3 D’s can be helpful in analysing the issues faced.

The Deconcentration of power and financial management was incomplete as Russia still held financial power in essential provisions and project such as the Kambar Ata dam, where Russia’s major stock holder-ship in the project was slow to be released (Croix: 2017). Questions have further been asked as to “the difference, if any, … of a soviet –era dam and a dam sponsored by the Kyrgyzstani government, but formerly owned by a private-share holder company.” (Croix: 2017,88). The Soviet Union’s infrastructural design was based on its communist ideals, with one main party having central monopoly over all provisions. When the party fell, state-owned industries were rife for the taking by the already established elite, giving birth to the oligarchic markets that consolidated an authoritarian regime with nominal freedom (Klump: 2011). This shows how the supposed Delegation of responsibility for public functions to semi-autonomous organisations in factuality saw very little power change hands or be dispersed. Devolution is the next stage in the decentralisation plan, where bureaucratic means and powers are further delegated to quasi-autonomous units of local government. As capitalism implements itself, its regeneration in order to remain is a dependence on involving consecutively lower classes into its working order one at a time. However, sharing the power amongst newly formed rungs on the hierarchical ladder only saw partial realisation with central Asian states which still remaining very top heavy, a reminisce of its socialist past.

The extent of decentralisation has been discussed, this is not to say that it has not taken place in small reforms. However, even the arts of governance in infrastructure and control in Kazakhstan can be compared to those in Xingjian. Where the Chinese ‘bulldozer state’ demolishes and rebuilds the history and the future of state and power relations through its infrastructure, architecture and control over space (Beller-Hann: 2014). In the wake of soviet break-down the same spacial reconstruction can be seen in newly-formed-stans, where the ideological change had to be translated into physical manifestations. Public spaces and buildings were reconstructed, re-built and renamed but how much of this space has socially changed in reference to practices and control is further under nominal debate (Alexander:2007).

Whether it be, the control over resources, industries or markets, the changes in central Asia are evident in the spacial reorganisation so avidly subscribed to by governments to physically illustrate the apparent changes. This period of great reform is still in continuation within the region. However, there is a sense of nominalism in how much the power, control of state affairs and the technologies employed by such governing bodies has changed. Further, the inconsistencies and confusion caused by such mass social reorganisation and ideological transition of the societies and hierarchies involved, in a relatively short period of time, is clearly seen throughout the referenced ethnographic material below.



Alexander, C (2007). Soviet and Post-Soviet planning in Alamaty, Kazakhstan, Goldsmiths College, SAGE publications.

Beller-Hann, I (2014) ethnographies of the state in central asia, Chp: The Bulldozer state: chinese socialist development in xinjiang. Indiana University Press.

Burawoy. M, Krotov. P. (1992) The Soviet Transition from Socialism to Capitalism: Worker Control and Economic Bargaining in the Wood Industry American Sociological Review, Vol. 57, No. 1. (Feb., 1992), pp. 16-38

Croix, Jeanne Féaux de la. (2016 ) Iconic Places in Central Asia : The Moral Geography of Dams, Pastures and Holy Sites, Transcipt Verlag,. ProQuest Ebook Central. CHPT, 3, pg. 88

Harris, Marvin (1991) Distinguished Lecture: Anthropology and the Theoretical and Paradigmatic Significance of the Collapse of Soviet and East European Communism. This essay was delivered as the Distinguished Lecture at the 90th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, November 23, 1991, in Chicago, Illinois.

Klump, Sarah (2011) Paradoxes of Capitalism: Market Building in Central Asia. The Wilson centre., Visited last: 21/04/18, 18.06.

Visited last: 20/04/18, 12.35.

Identity crisis and the threatened future for nomad ethnic Kazakhs of Xinjiang. Physical and cultural borders of migration; a harsh reality.

Key words: ethnic Kazakhs, Xinjiang, identity, modernization, nomadism, migration

The promised land 

The Xinjiang autonomous region in China is home to around 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs, a result of the Soviet Empire expansion and persecution, which forced a mass migration of Kazakhs across the Chinese border. These ethnic Kazakhs, notable for their nomadic pastoralists traditions and Islamic values, have, up until relatively recently, continued their cultural practices, reasonably freely. However, as Chinese ‘modernization’ ideals have further developed and the Kazakhstan Oralman project remains in place for ethnic Kazakhs to return to their homeland, these peoples have shown desires for repatriation as a process to relieve ‘them from the exhausted soils of their counties and removing the yoke of Chinese cultural coercion’ (Cerny, 2010: 221). The Chinese state’s modernization projects to inforce sedentism and regulated farming ‘to the backwards region of the country’ (ibid, 220) have caused grave indignation to ethnic Kazakhs to whom the important nomadic prerequisite of the ‘widest flexibility of grazing options’ (ibid, 221) is no longer available. The Oralman project, as one that includes Article 46 which ‘establishes that plots of land must be set aside for free use by oralmandar’ (Hierman and Nekbakhtshoev, 2014: 340), has unsurprisingly encouraged many ethnic Kazakhs to emigrate back to Kazakhstan as a ‘way to continue living in line with their values’ (ibid, 229) and preserving nomadic pastoralism. Driven by their own ideas of modernity, which for them are ‘rooted in Kazakh culture and tradition’ (Shanatibieke, 3), and primarily include their pastoralist lifestyle, a large number of ethnic Kazakhs have returned to their homeland from Xinjiang to maintain their valued ‘Kazakh identity and culture’ (ibid).



Ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang famous for their nomadic traditions


Increased marginalisation through modernization

This desire for emigration has taken a further toll in recent months, with ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang facing further marginalisation and constraints on their way of life, in regard to their religious customs. Through an increased fear of religious extremism exacerbated by their links with the Uyghurs, and as further part of their modernization scheme, the Chinese authorities have recently cracked down on traditional Islamic practices. News reports on the region have recounted the Chinese police to have carried out ‘routine detentions of ethnic minority Kazakhs who attend mosque or who pray regularly’, as well as ‘raids on ethnic Kazakh homes including confiscation of Qurans and prayer mats’ (Putz, 2017). Faced with further threat to their ethnic identity, the promises of the Oralman project which promotes Kazakhstan as the “ethnic centre of the Kazakhs” (Kuscu, 2008: 87), incites an increased desire in ethic Kazakhs for emigration as a chance to reclaim their ethnic identity.



Ethnic Kazakhs face increased religious persecution by Chinese authorities


Shattered dreams. The Grass is not always greener

In reality however, many ethnic Kazakhs’ hopes of restoring their identity have been shattered, forcing returning Kazakhs to face a social reality that radically differs from the image that inspired their “repatriation”’ (Diener, 2005: 329).  Despite the Oralman project promising land and stability to migrant ethnic Kazakhs through contracts which offered ‘housing, a stipend to help with initial settlement, as well as provision of animals (one cow, five to ten sheep)’ (Ibid: 335), many have not been granted this due to residing Kazakhstani ‘stereotype(s) holding the migrants to be ‘backward and lacking in sophistication’’ (ibid, 337). Returning migrants have been denied citizenship, and therefore proposed land, as a result of local Kazakh official’s critiques ‘wherein their lack of modernization is denigrated’ (ibid, 340). As a country which has experienced a newborn increased ‘shift from nomadic pastoralism to a modern industrial society’ (Burkhanov and Wen Chen, 2016: 2144), accelerated more recently by the Chinese One Belt One Road initiative, which has already seen rumours of Chinese land takeover and expansion, the pastoral traditions of emigrating Kazakhs face increased discrimination. The hardships with acquiring land due to their perceived primitiveness, a barrier that has ‘squeeze(d) nomadic Kazaks in recent years in Xinjiang’ (Cerny, 2010: 238), sees the migrating ethnic Kazakhs as a displaced diaspora both abroad and at home. As Cerny points out ‘as so often with the nomads of the world, they do their best to cope with the reality around them, while so much of that reality is stacked against them’ (ibid, 241). In this case, however, is the reality they face too much for their continued survival? Forced into sedentism in Xinjiang as a Chinese recognized modernization initiative viewing nomadism as unprogressive, and denied access to necessary grazing land in Kazakhstan through social discrimination, does the ethnic identity of nomad Kazakhs face possible extinction? This case is a poignant reminder of the harsh realities of migration; that not only does it entail the arduous crossing of physical borders, but that the crossing of cultural borders can be equally as challenging to one’s identity.



Nomad ethnic Kazakhs stuck between their pastoralist heritage and increased modernization



Burkhanov, A & Chen, Y (2016) Kazakh perspective on China, the Chinese, and Chinese migration. Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol (39) 12, pp. 2129-2148.

Cerny, A. (2010) Going where the grass is greener: China Kazaks and the oralman immigration policy in Kazakhstan. Pastoralism. Vol 1(2), pp. 218-247.

Diener, A. (2005) Kazakhstan’s Kin State Diaspora: Settlement Planning and the Oralman Dilemma. Europe-Asia Studies. Vol 57 (2), pp. 327-348.

Hierman, B and Nekbakhtshoev, N. (2014) Whose land is it? Land reform, minorities, and the titular “nation” in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Nationalities papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity. Vol 42 (2), pp. 336-354.

Kuscu, I. (2008) Kazakhstan’s Oralman Project: A Remedy for Ambiguous Identity? Indiana University. Pp. 1-214.

Shanatibieke, M. (2016) China Kazakhs emigration to Kazakhstan from a modernity perspective. Crossroads Asia Working Paper Series. Vol 33, pp. 1-25.

Putz, C. (2017) In Xinjiang, Ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz Face Increased Pressure. Available at: (Accessed 1st April 2018).




Conscription or Migration: A Difficult Choice for Tajik Men?

Key Words: Conscription, Abduction, Dedovshchina, Migration, Tajikistan

A 2 year period of service within the Tajik Armed Forces is mandatory for men aged between 18 and 27. This obligation to serve their country is considered ones duty, and failure to abide by the law leads to detention, or forced conscription. This leaves Tajik men with very little options; either succumb to the pressures of the state, or leave the country all together and attempt to start a new life elsewhere, away from the jurisdiction of Tajikistan. This blog post will explore just how tough it is for Tajik men, whether they choose to comply or not.

Avoiding “Dedovshchina”

The thought of conscription is frightening for many young Tajik’s due to the Soviet tradition of Dedovshchina; the hazing or bullying of new recruits by senior conscripts in their last year of service. The word translates to ‘the reign of grandfathers’, and this reign of terror is what terrifies those that are due to enlist (Yuldoshev, 2014). Poor living conditions, insufficient clothing, beatings by their superiors and little food all contribute to the hatred that these men have towards their situation, as well as generating a continued cycle of hatred as these recruits go on to commit similar tortures, whether it be through their own frustrations or the continued pressures of those above them.


Tajik Army Display (Flickr, 2011)

Avoiding “Oblava”

For those who are summoned for national service but choose to ignore the state, the formal process is simple; firstly they are issued a fine, and ordered to attend the next summon. If they fail to comply a second time, they are summoned to court instead, whereby they are liable to face criminal charges for breaking the law. This process seems relatively fair from an outside perspective, despite the obvious human rights issue of forced conscription. Sadly this process seemingly never takes place, instead the state carries out “oblava”, the abduction of conscripts. The issue of oblava is well known; many young men have even filmed their own abductions, cementing the knowledge that this practice is happening. Most of those who are abducted come from poor, uneducated families that are not notified of their sons whereabouts leading to significant stress and confusion. These families also have no knowledge of their rights; even those that may have suspicions about where their son has gone cannot speak out, in fear their may be repercussions by the state.

Families that have enough money choose to buy their sons out of conscription. The purchase of fake certificates is enough to escape questioning by the state and ensure that they avoid the brutal realities of conscription.

Migration: The Other Way Out

The last option available to young Tajik men is to move out of the country and seek work, most likely in Russia. For many this is an obvious option, with work more readily available in a country that is crying out for cheap migrant labour. The realities of migration can be much harsher than many envisage; poor working conditions, racist abuse and a feeling of complete powerlessness is common amongst Tajik migrants. As many as 50 migrants live in a single dormitory, living where they work in dilapidated buildings set to be demolished after construction work is done. Many migrants expose themselves to HIV, through the use of dirty needles and poor education about contraception, coupled with a high frequency of prostitute use.


Tajik Migrant Living Quarters

These workers live in fear of Russians and the power they can exert within their own jurisdiction. Tajik migrants become more reliant on their home networks than they would be at home; one migrant explains, “We listen to our village leaders. They keep us united, which is very important for us today. We are far from our homes and need support from each other. Nobody can survive alone in this terrible society. You have to belong to a network” (Jing et al, 2012). This begs the question: Is migration a way out for Tajik men? Or is it merely an environment in which they face similar tortures and abuse, just from different people?

Impact on families

For Tajik men, the importance of their family networks becomes apparent whichever route they choose. Hardship and potential abuse comes from all angles, whether that be from dedovschina, oblava, or those who take advantage of the vulnerabilities of Tajik migrants abroad. It is interesting to look from afar at a society that ignores its own laws in order to blindly follow its own traditions.

Spousal absence should also be mentioned, as conscription forces Tajik men away from their spouse for a prolonged period. Although ‘staying put’ may be a cultural norm for many central asian women (Reeves, 2011), the absence is more difficult when the circumstances of your spousal absence are hostile; Tajik men cannot return when they choose, their situation has been forced upon them. Women therefore become more prominent figures within their home networks, and the emphasis on ‘staying put’ is forced upon them once more, not through tradition, but necessity.

There has been much pressure from human rights groups and international agencies to try and end the countries forceful conscription regime; some law changes have been accepted over the years which aim to soften the burden for Tajik conscripts and their families, however these laws are just to please the international community, and are useless when not followed domestically.


Jing, L., Weine, S., Bahromov, M., & Golobof, A. (2012). Does Powerlessness Explain Elevated HIV Risk Amongst Tajik Labor Migrants? An Ethnographic Study. Journal of HIV/AIDS & Social Services, 11(2), 105–124.

Civic Solidarity (2015). New Law of the Republic of Tajikistan “Military Duty and Military Service” can legitimize the “Raid” [Online] Available at:

Madeleine Reeves (2011) Staying put? Towards a relational politics of mobility at a time of migration, Central Asian Survey, 30:3-4, 555-576, DOI: 10.1080/02634937.2011.614402

Yuldoshev, A. (2014) Tajikistan expected to put an end to forced conscription practice [Online] Available at:

The post-Soviet ‘kazakhisation’ of Kazakhstan

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan along with the other thirteen former Soviet republics suddenly became independent states. As a result of the Soviet impact on Kazakhstan (notably total freedom of movement between the republics during the Soviet era), Kazakhstan’s population prior to the collapse was 37.8% ethnically Russian. Kazakhstan had the second largest Russian population outside of Russia coming after Ukraine, which has the largest number of ethnic Russians but this group makes up only 13% of Ukraine’s larger population.

Although Russians were not the only minority in Kazakhstan, there were also Germans, Greeks, Koreans, Poles and Ukrainians (including those without a titular state; Chechen, Buryats, Dungans, Kurds, and Uighurs), their populations were nowhere near as large as the Russian one (Peyrouse 2007: 481-3). Interestingly, in post-Soviet Kazakhstan ethnic Russians suddenly found themselves marginalised and seen as foreigners in a country that they had belonged to for multiple generations.  

Along with the collapse came economic problems such as inflation and unemployment (Werner et al. 2017: 1564); life expectancy fell dramatically, old diseases started to reappear and the natality rate decreased whilst the mortality rate increased. Between 1989 and 1999, the total population decreased by 10%. Reports of such a huge population decline provoked calls for change in the country, which took the shape of Nazarbayev’s authoritarian ruling. Many citizens favoured Nazarbayev’s authoritarian style as they saw it as bringing political stability to the country yet this form of government gave special treatment to the ethnically Kazakh and Kazakh speakers. As a result, discrimination against ethnic Russians increased. This was noticeable when Kazakh became the main administrative language and official language of the republic, situating Russian as a language only for interethnic communication. In the late 1990’s, all public sector jobs required knowledge of the Kazakh language which led to 80% of the people working in administration and academia being ethnically Kazakh despite the Kazakhs only making up half of the population (Peyrouse 2007: 481-6).

Regardless of the poor economic situation during this period, the Kazakh government introduced a repatriation programme for ethnically Kazakh people outside of Kazakhstan to return to the ‘homeland’. The programme appeared very attractive as it covered many expenses such as travel and housing, and also offered employment. This programme specifically targeted the large Kazakh population in Mongolia as they had an extensive knowledge of the Kazakh language and traditions – better, arguably, than the Kazakhs actually residing in Kazakhstan (Werner et al. 2017: 1557-8). But the repatriates that came from Mongolia (Oralman) did not emerge perfecting into the Kazakhstani Kazakh society as they could not speak Russian and did not have the joint Soviet experience that the Kazakhstani Kazakhs had. At the same time, the Mongolian Kazakhs had a sense of belonging as well as not belonging. In fact, some studies suggest that 40% of the Kazakhs in Kazakhstan were no longer fluent in Kazakh but spoke Russian as their preferred language (Werner et al. 2017: 1561-4). In reality, most of the Kazakhs were not in favour of the idea of a single ethnic state which promoted ‘Kazakhness’ and excluded minorities (Peyrouse 2007: 486). But this did not change the situation of Russians feeling out of place and gradually abandoning their houses to move to Russia where they felt they ‘belonged’ and were not discriminated against due to ethnicity.


Figure 1. Poster of the Kazakh film called Oralman (eng. Returnee) (

All in all, Nazarbayev’s Kazakh nationalism and repatriation programme influenced a departure of Russians and an influx of Kazakhs forming the ethnic demographic of Kazakhstan as it is today.



Peyrouse, S. 2007 Nationhood and the Minority Question in Central Asia. The Russians in Kazakhstan. EUROPE-ASIA STUDIES, Vol. 59, No. 3. Pp 481-501. Taylor & Francis Ltd.


Werner, C. A. Emmelhainz, C.& Barcus, H. 2017. Privileged Exclusion in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan: Ethnic Return Migration, Citizenship, and the Politics of (Not) Belonging. EUROPE-ASIA STUDIES, Vol. 69, No. 10. Pp. 1557-1583.