On Monday, August 31 Kyrgyzstan celebrated 29 years of independence in somewhat muted form, with the usual large public gatherings cancelled on account of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, President Sooronbay Jeenbekov addressed a gathering at Ala-Too Square in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, at which a well-known Kyrgyz akyn, an improvisational poet-singer, called out corruption as an enduring problem in the country.
The usual congratulations rolled in for Bishkek, from partner countries near and far such as the United States, Russia, Ukraine, as well as Kyrgyzstan’s Central Asian neighbors which will all celebrate their own 29th independence days in the next few months. Kyrgyzstan was among first of the five Soviet Central Asian republics to declare independence in 1991 as the USSR dissolved.
In his remarks on independence day, Jeenbekov called Kyrgyz independence “a sacred legacy” and that it was the “sacred duty” of all Kyrgyz to protect the “independence of the state, the unity of the people, the integrity of our land.” Jeenbekov acknowledged the challenging times of the present pandemic and thanked those fighting diligently against it. He alluded to Kyrgyzstan’s trials and tribulations — a pair of revolutions in 2005 and 2010 — and tried to strike a hopeful tone ahead of parliamentary elections slatted for early October.
In the shadow of the still-closed State History Museum, noted akyn Aaly Tutkuchev performed ahead of the main speakers, surrounded by Kyrgyz dressed in traditional outfits down through the ages before a spread out and seated crowd of dignitaries, including the president.
Akyns are improvisational poet-singers who recite ad lib rhythmic verses often accompanied by a komuz, a stringed instrument. The artform is rooted in Kyrgyzstan’s (and Kazakhstan’s) nomadic history and the ways the people of the region have entertained and informed each other over the centuries. While manaschi perform classic, ages-old epics like that of Manas, akyns improvise as they perform, often touching on contemporary topics and sentiments.
Tutkuchev did just that, reportedly remarking in his performance on corruption in Kyrgyzstan. According to Kaktus, a Kyrgyz media outlet, Tutkuchev said in the first part of his performance, “Today there are big people sitting here. Even if they do not have big names, they became big thanks to theft.” Tutkuchev went on to list the country’s most corrupt institutions including the courts, the customs service, and the election commission.
Tutkuchev is not alone in fronting corruption as a major problem in Kyrgyzstan. President Jeenebkov has touted his administration as one promising to fight corruption, though skeptics could point to the government’s response to a damning investigative report last year alleging massive corruption in the customs service as undercutting that promise.
Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perception Index ranked Kyrgyzstan and 126 out of 198 countries. While its score — 30 out of 100, in which 100 is “very clean” and 0 is “highly corrupt” — places it above neighbors Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and a little behind Kazakhstan, it’s still closer to “highly corrupt” than “very clean.”