Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (GVO) – The downing of a Russian bomber aircraft by a Turkish fighter jet on November 24 and the subsequent deterioration of relations between Russia and Turkey have led to robust online debates in Central Asia, where citizens predominantly belong to Turkic linguistic groups, but where Russian geopolitical and cultural influences are all-pervading.
Kyrgyzstan, a member of the Ankara-led Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States and the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), is no exception. The cooling of relations between two of its key allies presents the impoverished country of six million people with a dilemma that it has so far dealt with via a fairly bland appeal for restraint issued by the head of foreign relations in President Almazbek Atambayev’s administration.
Russia’s state-directed media meanwhile has demonstrated disappointment at the tepid responses of Kremlin allies.
Inside Kyrgyz society, the reactions have been somewhat more bold.
On November 25, a small group of pro-Russian Kyrgyz citizens organized a peaceful meeting in front of the Turkish embassy in Bishkek. They called on Turkish authorities to bring to justice the perpetrators of the shoot down and “pray for Vladimir Putin and the Russian people before retribution for this mistake arrives.”
They also reminded the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that throughout history “Turkey had attacked Russia 600 times losing every time” — a not completely accurate recollection of the pair’s military encounters.
The appearance of the video of the meeting on social networks sparked heated comments on Facebook and in the discussion sections of Kyrgyz websites. Some of the less inflammatory of these can be seen below:
The Turkish, the Turkmen, and the Kyrgyz are brothers. Russia is something else.
Turkic countries shall support each other. We are one. We share common religion, culture, history, and language. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan!!!
Where was Turkey when the Kyrgyz went begging? Where was Turkey when the Kyrgyz were all ignoramuses? Chingiz Aitmatov, [Turdakun] Usubalijev, [Turabay] Kulatov, and all other progressive Kyrgyz public figures emerged due to the brotherly help of Russian people. This is what I, a true Kyrgyz, believe. The Turkish are not brothers to us. Our brothers are the Russians, who will never sell us out.
One commenter on the Facebook page of news website Zanoza.kg attributed the protest to Russian propaganda, which has been particularly keenly felt in Kyrgyzstan in the wake of Russian-backed military conflict in Ukraine:
How strong indeed the influence of Russian propaganda is. These are just “zombie” people. People look at Putin as a God. It would be good idea to deactivate all Russian TV channels.
While Elzat Ismailbekova responded:
Kyrgyzstan is a member of the CSTO, and in the case of a military threat all nationalists and americanized pseudo-patriots will expect help from Russia. And [Russia] will help, not because Putin is God or a Tsar, but because the security of Central Asia is one of the priorities of Russian national security. We are the “soft underbelly” of Russia. Of course, it is ridiculous to protest in front of the Turkish embassy, but to write these comments that Russia should leave us is also idiotism.
On November 26, there was a second demonstration, also outside the Turkish embassy, staged by a lone protester.
The protester expressed his concerns about the visa-free regime between Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, complaining that terrorists could freely enter the country and destabilize the whole region, since “Erdogan was an abetter of terrorism”.
Finally, on November 27, another group of protesters led by Igor Trofimov, head of a pro-Russian lobby group, and Klara Ajibekova, the conspiracy theory-crazed Chairman of the Communist Party of Kyrgyzstan, gathered in front of the Turkish embassy to call on Kyrgyz authorities to sever diplomatic relations with Ankara.
For Kyrgyzstan’s political bosses, the diplomatic standoff grew even more uncomfortable on November 28, when Russia announced a number of political and economic sanctions against Turkey. Kyrgyzstan, as a newly minted member of Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union trade bloc, might soon face the dilemma of whether and how to participate in such sanctions.
And the simmering identity crisis for the impoverished Central Asian state applies in particular to President Atambayev, a fluent speaker of Turkish and Russian who has shown an occasionally cringing admiration for both Erdogan and Putin in the past.