This work covers those challenges experienced by ethnic minorities in everyday life. The Kyrgyzstan situation is an example for Europe and other countries, where minorities face similar problems. Europe is rich with minority groups. Some of them migrated recently, the others have been living in Europe for generations. Do people think about ethnic groups who are stateless, who live far from their own country as a result of political or socio-economic reasons? People rarely reflect upon the plight of individuals and/or groups, who represent a minority in a foreign country.
Ethnicity, with all of its components, is a very sensitive topic and, at the same time, one of the first steps for triggering tension in a multi-ethnic country. History of Kyrgyzstan recalls many terrific and considerably violent rivalries that were ethnically grounded, including the revolutions of 2005 and 2010. The diversification of Kyrgyzstan started during the Second World War as a result of repressed people being forcefully exiled to Central Asian regions from their homes. Most of those ethnic groups were so-called ‘nation’s enemy’ (vrag naroda) who went through the massive deportation from their home lands. I was particularly interested in two minority groups: repressed Kurd and Dungan communities from the former Soviet Union, and a separate group of Dungans, whose ancestors previously fled from China.
Kurds and Dungans have been most frequently mentioned in local newspapers and in daily life in regards to their involvement with inter-ethnic conflict. Among the ethnic minorities in Kyrgyzstan, these two groups do not have their own land/republic/state. They are the most dependent and vulnerable. This vulnerability made them particularly interesting as the subjects of interethnic conflict analysis. One final factor that led to the choice of these groups specifically was access in the field. I was familiar with representatives of the Kurd and Dungan minorities and I knew working with them would allow for the most trustful environment during fieldwork. Ultimately, my clear understanding of the opportunities and possibilities for doing fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan helped guide this process.
I would like to clarify that my emphasis is on investigating Post-Soviet Kurds, but not those from Syria, Iraq and Iran. Two percent of Kurds living in post-Soviet states constitute an important part of the Kurdish diaspora. Those Kurds who live in the territory of The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are divided into four branches. These include:
1) Turkmen Kurds;
2) Armenian, Nakhichevan and Georgian Kurds;
3) The branch which formed due to the migration process in the USSR and CIS; this includes Russian, Belarus, Kazakh, Central Asian, Moldovan and Baltic Kurds.
4) Azerbaijan Kurds (1)
During Stalin’s repressions in 1944 considerable population of Kurds of Georgian and the Adjarian Soviet Socialistic Republic (SSR) were deported to Central Asia. The Kyrgyz SSR received 1533 Kurds.
The second minority studied in this work, the Dungans, call themselves descendants of Afghan, Arab, Turkish and Iranian merchants who traded in China, and took Chinese women as wives. Dungans speak Chinese (Gansu dialect) and profess Sunni Islam. In China, Dungans used the Arabic alphabet at the time; now, in modern Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan people use only the Cyrillic alphabet. Nowadays, there are more than 110,000 Dungan people. Out of those, about 60,000 live Kyrgyzstan and a bit more than 52,000 in Kazakhstan. About one thousand Dungan people live in Uzbekistan, and about the same number in Russia (2).
Kurds and Dungans have established homes within ethnic boundaries inside the country, which can to some extent replace a non-existent ethnic state. Such symbolically marginalised areas have particular inner norms, local government and historical traces.
Kyrgyzstan is a place where one can still find ethnic minorities who live in territories that symbolically and historically have belonged to them. These minorities have close and strong relative ties and, in some cases, economic incentives that keep them together. The idea of ethnic boundaries can be conceptualised from different perspectives. One perspective is that the territory of a people can emerge naturally through division by rivers, mountains, etc. It can be considered to be the result of geographical determinism, formed many years ago. Another perspective to view ethnic boundary formation is to see it as a social phenomenon. In this perspective, the social group or individual organises ‘ethnic boundaries,’ a term which underlines several features by which one ethnic group remains bounded from ‘others.’ The term was coined by a Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth. First, he understood ethnicity as a category of ascription and identification by the people belonging to a particular ethnic group. Ethnicity acts as a source of commonality for those who belong to the same group as your own. Second, Barth found dynamism in the phenomenon of ethnicity. He saw a vibrant energy in the processes of ethnic groups constructing and maintaining their identities. Third, Barth’s study of ethnicity focused not only on the internal structure and history of a particular ethnic group, but also that group’s communication and integrational processes (3).
Conducting such research, it is necessary to investigate everyday life, as well as the implicit threat or risk of being an inhabitant within an ethnic boundary. In this work, I investigated the manner in which the representatives of ethnic villages preserve their heritage, religion and whether they feel secure living close to each other. The research question answered in this work is:
Why do Dungan and Kurd minorities live in rural areas in Kyrgyzstan? In these areas, what are the advantages and challenges minorities confront in relation to their living conditions?
The Soviet Union was one of the most nationally-diverse empires in the world. More than twenty-eight ethno-administrative units co-existed together sharing various cuisines, costumes, music, dance, languages, religious backgrounds, though they all called themselves ‘Soviets.’ Mobility from republic to republic was very easy, because there were no borders or police control between borders. Everyone was mixed and there was no particular homogeneous republic. After collapse of the Soviet Union, while borders were randomly marked, many people who belonged to certain ethnic group may have ended up displaced from their original ethnic state.
Kyrgyzstan is one of fifteen republics that received independence after collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, statistics shows that Kyrgyzstan became home to more than 100 minority groups by 2012 and considers itself a multi-ethnic republic (4). At first glance, republic of Kyrgyzstan appears to be harmonious; however, when people of different ethnic groups live in close proximity and develop negative emotions toward each other, conflict emerges. Usually it happens at the local level, starting with a simple fight on a basic level between two representatives from different ethnicities. However, these fights can escalate, as occurred in cases such as the great massacres between the Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek ethnic group – considered to be the most numerous among minority groups. Occurring in Osh city in 1990 and 2010, these events involved conflict on a governmental level. Houses were burnt, Uzbeks fled from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan and vice versa (5). This example clearly demonstrates what can happen when government does not pay meaningful attention to small-scale conflicts, which happen in the local settings like villages. Many people from minority groups returned from Kyrgyzstan to their ethnic lands and changed their citizenships in order to avoid discrimination or experience conflict. Still the majorities of people have their families in Kyrgyzstan and are not ready to move yet.
One of the strong reasons for the high number of non-mixed and closely-knit ethnic groups is clannish, closed and sometimes marked communities. In Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, there are different streets and villages associated with each particular ethnic group. In 2012, the State Committee of National Security (SCNS) recorded 147 clashes of inter-ethnic conflicts, twenty-nine of which were particularly dangerous. The head of SCNS accused local authorities, of not engaging in conflict prevention and of lacking dialogue with the local population (6). Many clashes took place as a result of a poor economic situation and political instability. I emphasise the particular incidents of interethnic conflict in which Kurds and Dungans in Kyrgyzstan were involved, focusing on their reasons and consequences. For data collection I conducted ethnographic fieldwork using qualitative method. I used such techniques as interviewing, photo and video, participant and non-participant observations. These methods gave me a full picture of historical, cultural and political traces two groups were involved in.
To live or to survive
Looking back at the history of Kurds and Dungans and political oppressions during the Soviet Union period as well as events that also occurred during the twenty-first century, one can undoubtedly notice what these two ethnic groups encountered. They have suffered from being repressed and discriminated against living in a foreign country and existing as a minority group under foreign state. Besides being minorities without a state who deal with many social and economic problems, they are also settled in the specific territory where they live compactly with their ‘ethnohood.’ (7)
In 1936, due to lack of natural resources, considerable amount of the Dungan population asked the local government for permission to move from the capital, Bishkek (previously Pishpek), to the rural areas close to fields. One respondent from Dungan ethnic group in the Milianfan village shared her memories with me about that relocation. She said that after the Chinese uprising in 1881, Dungans were divided into three groups in order to escape the Chinese persecution. Her ancestors belonged to those who came to Pishpek and settled in the current center of the city. The street that is called today ‘Kievsakaia,’ at the time of this resettlement was called ‘Dungan Street.’ Dungan people were farmers, and today, still participate in this occupation. For the purposes of farming, the land in the city was not arable, and so, they started to search for a better place to work. Representatives from the Dungan community sent a request to the city administrative about this concern. Finally, after some time they formed the village of Milianfan which is located 40 minutes from the capital. From the Dungan language, this translates into English as ‘The Valley of Rice.’ Before the village was established, the land was a bog. However, Dungans were able to establish fertile fields and build many houses alongside. Crops were, and still are the main economic profit for many Dungans.
In contrast to Dungans, Kurds suffered from being relocated from their established boundaries (8). In 1997, disputed claims to natural resources initiated by the majority ethnic group became a major tool used to oppress the minority Kurd population in Kyrgyzstan. In Kok-Yangak, a city in the Djalal-Abad region of Southern Kyrgyzstan, huge territories belonged to Kurd people. These territories were close to mountains, where Kurds could breed their cattle. However, the major population of the city started to oppress Kurds, which led them to flee from their territories in the region. The oppression was not violent, but Kurds were forced to leave their houses. Some even migrated to the other countries, primarily Russia (9).
This situation is applicable to forced migration which can also be a considerable factor in causing migration from certain nations, depending on the ethnic and political tensions within the country. We may trace the effect of this in the example of Kurds forcibly ‘asked’ to leave their territories in Kyrgyzstan. From an interview with one of Kurds representatives, I found out that the territory of compact settlement of Kurds was named Kurdistan (even though Kurdish state does not exist) among local people. This fact tells a lot about how compact and segregated this settlement was. China town, Jewish district, Afro-American district, to mention some, are well known marginalized areas, or so-called ethnic boundary spaces.
My key findings clearly indicate the reasons why particular ethnic groups have formed their ethnic boundary in the territory of Kyrgyzstan. Dungans who were repressed in China in 1881 and ended up in Kyrgyzstan also suffered during the Second World War due to dispossession of the kulaks. Nevertheless, once created, an ethnic boundary kept them united and attached to their land and people. Able to partially assimilate without losing their own ethnicity, Dungans managed to retract into the business sphere in Kyrgyzstan. However, their profit is always limited. Hence, even having an ethnic boundary and a united ethnic group cannot entirely keep a people secure. An unpleasant example related to the interethnic conflict is extortion. There are many cases when Dungans rent land in another neighbouring village for field cultivation. After the harvest the locals extort money from Dungans when the latter exports the crop from the territory, even though Dungans have already paid for the land in rent. Nevertheless, Dungans do not change their identity and purely assimilate with Kyrgyz for the sake of political and economic benefit as Barth brought up saying that circumstances have possible incentive to acquire and change identity (10).
Nevertheless, Dungans have a very developed system of family business, which allows them to retain monetary stability and support in case of an economic crash. Dungans also have the advantage of schools where children are able to learn their mother tongue. In the villages I visited, there was a school with the Dungan language in their curriculum. This is a strong indicator of how well their culture has been preserved since the establishment of an ethnic boundary.
Kurds were deported to Kyrgyzstan twice, first in 1937 and then in 1944. Both times, they had no say in choosing where they lived. A location was chosen for them. Thus, an ethnic boundary appeared in an unoccupied territory and was maintained until recent times. In theory, relocated Kurds could have moved back to Armenia or Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, poor financial circumstances prevented them from doing so. Another issue, which is quite dichotomised, is routine and habit. Many Kurds believe that the only possible way to live is the way their ancestors used to live. Such thoughts prevent cultural adaptation and change. According to Fredrik Barth, embracing new forms of behaviour, as well as physical and social relocation evokes fears of behaving inappropriately. Consequently, adopting new ways or settling in new places may be associated with reconstructing commonly accepted social and cultural norms of the dominant ethnic group. On the other hand, ethnic boundaries positively influence preservation of ethnic identity, language, and historical background.
Moreover, the advantages of living in an ethnic boundary space can be analysed from economic and demographic perspectives. Finances often are concentrated inside the boundary. For instance, in the Kurds’ case, working on cotton or bean fields, and selling products to the local market or exporting to Turkey or Russia generates income. Still, there is always a risk of environmental problems suspending business temporarily. Those ethnic minorities forced to move to Kyrgyzstan were forced to adapt to other ethnic groups, and to the natural environment. Kurds and Dungans faced minimal competition for resources, which led them to maintain their occupations, reciprocity and trading.
The complex organisation of social and cultural relations, behaviour, and sharing of the same values entails interaction and maintenance of the social units people belong to. In this way, ethnic boundaries can be identified as not only territorial demarcations, but also as social boundaries. Moreover, the nature of continuity, which was proposed by Fredrik Barth (11) in his theory of ethnic boundary, indicates that ethnic boundaries in Kyrgyzstan have been well preserved and maintained by both the Kurd and Dungan minority groups from the time of their settlement. Taking into account the possibility of social changes inside the boundary, and possible economic pressure from outside of the boundaries makes ethnic boundaries either flexible or stable. However, according to analysed data I discovered that cultural characteristics as well as partial denial of assimilation in both ethnic groups have allowed both groups’ ethnic boundaries to remain stable.
The results demonstrate that an ethnic group living within an ethnic boundary can long maintain their linguistic and cultural heritage, while living among other ethnic groups and periodically experiencing interethnic conflicts.
This study has offered a critical perspective on how stateless, repressed ethnic groups manage to preserve their ethnic identities and how they see themselves in relation to the ‘titular nation.’ The aspiration of stateless ethnicities to seek for themselves political self-determination in various forms (a state or autonomy) leads people to migrate to their ethnic territory. Consequently, wars and political conflict in the state are often the causes for this decision. Therefore, security, economic stability and support has to be a priority for the state that became a shelter for specific ethnic groups. Political parties could provide more seats for the minorities in the parliament. Such steps might control bias decision making and open the horizon for different points of view. There is a lack of assistance from the government and little awareness amongst other ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan who are rife with prejudice and reluctance to accept people without division in social status, economic status or ethnic enmity.
This work explored challenges of two post-repressed ethnic minorities in modern-day Kyrgyzstan, Kurds and Dungans, with particular emphasis upon the places where they live and their historical and heritage traces. It also explored what caused one ethnic group to bond together and maintain cultural habits without being forced to fully integrate and assimilate.
Both minorities live within ethnic boundaries, which can also be described simply as ethnic villages, which became their homes after deportation. Ethnic boundaries are a widespread phenomenon in multi-ethnic Kyrgyzstan.
The emergence and maintenance of symbolic and physical ethnic boundaries is much more significant than what is visible on the surface. Diasporas all over the globe including Europe preserves its heritage mainly by living inside the ethnic boundaries. Though, to maintain peaceful and authentic situation among the people of different backgrounds the policy of one country needs to be aware of such delicate space. Being an ethnic minority inside of an ethnic boundary in Kyrgyzstan is economically difficult; however, it gives people a space and possibilities to safeguard their own identities, which can be very difficult in an increasingly globalised society. I hope that people can be more tolerant to each other, not only during celebrations, but also during revolutions and parliamentary elections. Recent violent situations in Syria (Kurds), Israel (Palestinians), China (Uighurs) provokes revolts that in critical situation leads to massacres, immigration and migration. It is important to support those who live in the rural areas of one country, because they consider to be more vulnerable in terms of economy, protection and human rights. It is usually rural people who preserve and pass their heritage to other generations. If not, a country can lose many ethnic minority groups who are now eager to migrate. Therefore, in order to maintain the richness of a poly-ethnic country, with multi-ethnic friendships, unity, and reciprocity, we need to be aware of our preconceptions and prejudice and also investigate interethnic conflicts thoroughly.
(1) Askerov, G., “Kurd diaspora in CIS” [Курдская диаспора в странах СНГ] (Midiya, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: 2007), 15.
(2) Alles, E., “The Chinese-speaking Muslims (Dungans) of Central Asia: A Case of Multiple Identities in a Changing Context,” Asian Ethnicity, Vol. 6 (2005), Carfax: 122.
(3) Barth. F., Ethnic group and boundaries: The social organization of culture difference (Illinois: Waveland Press Inc, 1998), 9, 25.
(4) Abdykalykov, O.,“Main social and demographic characteristics of population and number of housing units,” in Population and Housing Census of the Kyrgyz Republic of 2009, Book I (Bishkek, 2009), 10, 18.
(5) Sidorenko, A. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan: Initial Coverage of the “Osh Massacre,” accessed February 11, 2016, <http://globalvoicesonline.org/2010/06/13/kyrgyzstan-uzbekistan-initial-coverage-of-the-osh-massacre/>
(6) Shustov, A.,”Kyrgyzstan: new wave of inter-ethnic conflict” (2012), accessed November 12, 2016, <http://www.fondsk.ru/pview/2012/02/21/kirgizia-novaya-volna-mezhetnicheskih-stolknovenij-12944.html#>
(7) ‘Ethnohood’ is defined as neighbours who live within the same ethnic boundaries and belong to the same ethnic group.
(8) Basing on the interviews with representatives of both Kurds and Dungans from fieldwork conducted in July 2015 in Kyrgyzstan.
(9) Basing on the interviews with the representatives of both Kurds and Dungans from fieldwork conducted in July 2015 in Kyrgyzstan.
(10) Barth, F., Ethnic group and boundaries: The social organization of culture difference (Illinois: Waveland Press Inc,  1998), 9, 25.
(11) Ibid., 11.
Diana Takutdinova graduated in 2016 from the University of Tromso with Master degree in Peace and Conflict Transformation. In July 2017 she completed Master program Choreomundus, an International Master in Dance Knowledge, Practice and Heritage; a consortium of four universities: University of Clermont Auvergne (UCA, coordinator), Clermont-Ferrand, France; Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, Norway; University of Szeged (SZTE), Hungary; University of Roehampton, London (URL), United Kingdom. Diana hopes that her experience around the world and studies will help her contribute in new ways for preserving and help shape the culture and arts of people in Kyrgyzstan and to transmit the knowledge to the next generation of artists and scholars.