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Central Asian (neo) Conservatism: National Identity, Civic Freedoms, and the Challenge of Protecting Women’s and Minority rights

On March 25, 2021, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Central Asia in cooperation with the Foreign Policy Center London organized an online discussion on the topic “Central Asian (neo) Conservatism: National identity, civic freedoms and the challenge of protecting women’s and minority rights”.

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The speakers discussed the growing tendency to «return to traditional conservative values», discrimination of rights and freedom of minority groups and the overall growing influence of conservatively minded groups in Central Asia. The meeting was opened with a welcoming speech by Adam Hug, Director of Foregn Policy Center. Speaking about the theme of the meeting, Hug emphasized that the topic is important and it brings in complex issues of identity, which is a part of regional and global trends around the rise of populism and social conservatism. After introductory remarks, brief overview of the situation Hug presented the three speakers of the event.

Nationalism and conservatism within the context of Kyrgyzstan

Gulzat Baialieva

Gulzat Baialieva, PhD candidate at the University of Tuebingen believes that the influence of the conservatively minded people in Kyrgyzstan is undoubtably growing: “Conservatism or neoconservatism in the context of Kyrgyz society includes traditionalist revivalist groups and it’s the interplay of religious and national identity in the country. So, there are those whose values are based on Islam and trans local forms of Islam and those whose values are based on “pure” Kyrgyz lifestyle, revival of traditional games, and spreading ideas from the epic Manas.

In general conservatism is developed both on the top down and bottom-up levels: the government embraces traditionalization for the sake of nation building and Islamic movements do it for unifying religious identity. There are also some groups in between like ultra-nationalist Kyrk-choro movement, self-declared defenders and self-appointed experts on Kyrgyz traditions and Islam, bloggers, and influential people whose provocative content is proclaiming conservative religious ideals and discriminating other groups. So, this means that the conservative non-state and state actors are not homogeneous and different players share the space more or less peacefully, they have more of a similar agenda, and the same challenges and threats in the face of democratic forces.”

Baialieva also mentioned that the discourse between these conservatist groups and the identities they are willing to build is intensifying more with the new regime: “What I observe nowadays from social media research and my participation in the expert talks with the pro-government and traditional organizations is that there is a conflict boiling within the conservative groups. On one side there are traditionalists supported by the president’s office and on the other side there are religious groups and leaders of Islamic civil society. The confrontation between these two groups is not only because of economic or political control, but also because of the right to build the nation according to their own values.

The new project of the constitution and the new decree on the vague concepts of moral and spiritual values signed by the president indicate the inclination towards unclear nationalist movements. During our close debates, the leaders of these traditionalist organizations who developed the text for the decree argued that this law is unique, and it is needed to purify the nation from foreign influence. The result of this law is yet to come, but even now we can see that conservatism has been causing societal polarization and it is becoming an important issue. Recent political events in Kyrgyzstan intensified the divide across various segments and revealed growing cleavages within Kyrgyz society. These events demonstrated the absence of constructive dialog which could bridge different social groups”.

The role of social media in polarizing people

The speakers agreed that the social media is playing a big role in polarizing societies and can is used by authorities to control the minds of the people. Baialieva discussed the division of the Kyrgyz social media into two distinct groups and how each of those is used for manipulating the masses: “The role of social media is surely very strong in the emergence and transformation of norms and values. Online platforms and digital technologies significantly contribute to the modes of interactions and relationships.

The Kyrgyz social media users are divided into two groups which exist in parallel worlds – Russian speaking users and Kyrgyz speaking users. The Russian social media is oriented towards middle class and urban residents while the Kyrgyz media is normally popular among residents of regions and urban areas. This created echo-chambers where the reflections, values, and perceptions of people are trapped. People in rural areas tended to trust the content in newspapers, so when social media replace traditional newspaper it was not surprising that people took for granted the reliability of the online content.

Regardless of the type of news, be that fake or real, one salient trend on the Kyrgyz social media appears to be personal attacks, negative memes, and hate speech towards civic activists and mainly women. In one of our social media researches we documented many cases of hate speech and death threats against opposition leaders and explicit threats of sexual violence against female activists. Information campaigns and literacy on human rights have been almost absent for many years on Kyrgyz-speaking social media, so the content was rather enriched by religious stories, entertaining videos, lives of celebrities or distorted news.

The Kyrgyz speaking social media is instrumentalized and easily used for manipulation to shift attention away from pro-democratic or oppositional discourses.  It is not only during the current regime but also during Atambayev the Kyrgyz public has been incited against human rights activists, independent mass media, opposition leaders and NGOs by labeling them “westerners” and “spies.

In conclusion I would say that the conservative troops foster polarization by instrumentalizing these divisions for their own benefit. In one of our publications, we recommended civil society groups to educate citizens about such issues, but the challenge is that by simply exposing people to the real facts and breaking pre-existing beliefs can accentuate polarization more. Therefore, liberal actors should focus on shaping people’s perceptions of norms, rather than trying to educate and change attitudes”.        

Origins of Kyrgyz political contestation and populism

Eric McGlinchey

Eric McGlinchey, Associate Professor of Politics at the Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University said that there there is a good news and a bad news for Kyrgyzstan : “The good news is that, unlike Tajikistan, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan,  Kyrgyzstan is not a consolidated authoritarian government. The bad news is that precisely because Kyrgyzstan is not a consolidated authoritarian government, we see the rise of populism and nationalism. In secure autocratic regimes there is less of a need for populism and people in power to maintain support and authority.”

Eric McGlinchey argues that the Kyrgyz political contestation started in 2010 after Bakiyev’s overthrow. “There are three reason for why we see high degrees of contestation in Kyrgyzstan and not elsewhere. First, is the nature of Kyrgyz transition in 1991 when we saw the fracturing of the Kyrgyz political elite.

Second is the the absence of resource wealth that we may see in other countries in Central Asia. Unlike Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan does not have vast natural resources with which an authoritarian power can consolidate autocracy right. When autocrats have lots of resource wealth they don’t need to draw on the population for revenues, rather they can hand out revenues  and as a result these autocrats are far less accountable to the population. As in Kyrgyzstan the government is so dependent on the population for revenues for daily functioning there is a high bottom-up demand.

The last reason is the strength and support of religious communities which are not persecuted and repressed to the extent they were Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. As a result, we see civil society emerging around these religious communities and having social capital with shared norm these communities can overcome what we call in political science the collective action dilemma – becomes easier to protest and to put pressure on government.

The thrust of international development community and the thrust of civil society organizations in Kyrgyzstan is this idea that civil society is inherently a good thing and it brings things like liberalization and democracy. However, there has been many research showing that civil society can bring illiberal outcomes as easily as it can liberal outcomes and I think this is what we are seeing in Kyrgyzstan today. The thing that the international community, Kyrgyz non-profit groups, and NGOs have been working on so diligently in 1990s is this effort to build shared social norms to bring up political liberalization. But this is also enabling the civil society to bring up illiberal things like nationalism and populism because you can champion illiberal ideas as easily as u can champion liberal ideas.

The discourse around LGBTQ+ groups in Kyrgyzstan is the favorite topic for the nationalist and populist movements and it is pointed as a threat to Kyrgyz culture and identity.”


Professor McGlinchey shared some recommendations on how the international community and Kyrgyzstan can address the issue of populism and conservatism: “The 1st thing is that Kyrgyzstan would benefit greatly if it had predictable strong and stable institutions that can maintain a level playing field so as to ensure the unpredictability of democracy. Democracy is defined by its unpredictability  and even if we don’t know who is winning the elections, the only way to secure this unpredictability is if political elites don’t trample of the constitution, electoral laws or judicial.

The 2nd thing is for people like us to think about civil society in the same way as we think about the internet. If you rewind to 2010-2011 and you look at the uprising there was this assumption that internet was inherently a good thing in liberalizing and was going to help to bring democratic reforms. We no longer hold this assumption about the internet, and we see that it can be as problematic as it is a good thing. I don’t think civil society and our perception of civil society has reached that level, so we need to begin to bring this healthy ambivalence to civil society and recognize that it helps overcome collective action both for liberal ends and for illiberal ends.”

Traditionalism in Uzbekistan and the role of women in the discourse of national identity

Nazima Davletova

Nazima Davletova, Adjunct Professor at Webster University in Tashkent and Independent Researcher discussed Uzbek traditionalism and how it shapes the role of women in society: “If we try to recognize what traditionalism is and what is conservatism, this terms are very relative for Uzbekistan and we first have to figure out what we can compare them with either with what we had during Karimov’s era or during Soviet Union. But I think we have to go back to pre-soviet time as here is when the history of conservatism and traditionalism starts. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Karimov exploited the discourse of national identity and glorious past that was in the pre-soviet times and he was depicting the Soviet Union as imperialist. This discourse against the soviet past was formed in order to figure out the nation building identity and values and it had a huge impact of the citizens of Uzbekistan.

Today we have different speculations on whether the manaviat and mariafat ideologies had a great impact on people pr it was received with a great skepticism. When I talk to people who are not engaged in politics, they frequently refer to this ideology and their thoughts are build on those national values and national identity. However, the national identity is not conceptualized in any legal documents although from the time of Karimov up to the present days this is kind of a “legal habit” to use every time the concept of national values especially in regard to women and gender issues. With this growing traditionalism people start to question the very basic and fundamental principles of human rights and they try to substitute it with their traditional values and vision of how society should function.

During Karimov’s era the tough repressive authoritarian regime was trying to substitute the religion and to use it as a tool of fixing their own ideology in the minds of people. In this discourse the women’s roles were inferior since the rhetoric and the discourse itself were very patriarchal and in numerous books and speeches of Karimov women were seen as the mothers of nation, but not active political players or social leaders. In this discourse women are perceived as some complementary instrument in nation building, the guards of national identity and values, and someone who would help the men to build this new and strong society.

Of course, the current government has changed this discourse, it is talking about women empowerment, and many legal documents and normative acts for addressing gender issues have been adopted.  However, de facto women’s rights are becoming even more inferior and the growing fame of Islamic bloggers who blame women for being too emancipated, powerful, or liberal argue that women need to be treated according to the sharia norms negatively affect gender issues. Not having much research on social relations and gender norms in Uzbekistan, we can’t say for sure how the youth perceive gender issues, but from my personal experience I can say that people view it as a threat to male dignity.

There is also a backlash from the liberal part of the society which is minority, but which is opposing this conservative views and it is worth mentioning that the gap between conservatists and liberalists is expanding. We also need to understand that there might be liberal people in terms of their political views, views to economy, democracy, and human rights, but they don’t necessarily include women’s rights and don’t think that women’s rights need to be advanced in the nearest future.”

The speaker’s speeches were followed by a Q&A session where participants addressed their questions to the international experts. Watch the full video:

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