Book Review: Where Are All Our Sheep? Kyrgyzstan, a Global Political Arena

Boris Petric’s short and accessible book identifies local and global dynamics that have shaped the Kyrgyz Republic since its independence in 1991. In each chapter Petric focuses on one place he has visited, event he has witnessed, or person he has met in the course of numerous visits to the country. He uses this ethnographic material to offer a set of important—if disparate—insights into the post-Soviet experience.

Although Petric’s book lacks the theoretical arguments and exhaustive literature reviews typical of more conventional ethnographies, it offers an important critique of the international community. Drawing on a fascinating and diverse set of experiences, Petric shows how the international community’s policies—from structural adjustment to election monitoring to cultural resource management—have hindered the citizenry’s ability to build the nation’s future on its own terms.

Petric’s narrative begins in the high mountain pastures of Song Köl, where the history of Soviet prosperity and post-independence crisis is written in the landscape. This region was once the territory of nomadic tribes whom the Soviets settled and put to work on collective farms. The farms produced one of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic’s most lucrative exports: merino wool. Now the sheds and shearing barns have fallen into disrepair, their valuable metals sent to China, and livestock counts are a fraction of what they once were. Many people in the region have left for the capital, Bishkek, where they work in the burgeoning bazaar economy or pursue more lucrative opportunities in Kazakhstan or Russia. Those left behind have reverted to traditional forms of sheep and horse breeding or invest in tourism or handicraft ventures.

In Song Köl, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, those who had power before independence often retained it afterward. Petric introduces us to Sujunali Monolov, the former chairman of the collective farm who cashed in his pre-independence social and political capital to become a wealthy landowner, respected employer, and local politician. In Bishkek we meet an even more dazzling example: Askar Salymbekov, founder and owner of Dordoi, the largest and most iconic bazaar in Central Asia. Salymbekov was born in At Bashy, a few mountain ranges away from Song Köl. In Soviet times he was a member of the Communist Party and headed the committee that oversaw markets. At independence he bought a bankrupt sheep hide tannery outside Bishkek and turned it into—what else?—a giant bazaar.

Today Dordoi employs thousands of workers and hosts tens of thousands of wholesale vendors who sell goods that are then distributed across the republic by legions of shuttle traders (many of them former professionals whose education and experience are worth little thanks to neoliberal reforms that caused a collapse of the public sector). Although goods come from all over the world, Dordoi is recognized as a critical entry point for Chinese goods on their way into Central Asia and Russia. Conspicuously absent from Dordoi are Kyrgyz goods. Dordoi is the grandest manifestation of the rise of a vast bazaar economy whose success indexes “the decline of a goods-producing society and the rise of a society that depends massively on imports” (pg. 93).

In a country where nothing is produced, profiting off the bazaar economy is one way the rich retain their status. Another way is to enter politics. Wealthy businessmen such as Monolov and Salymbekov learn quickly that protecting their assets requires allying themselves with the governing regime. For many of them, entering politics is the easiest way to do this (thus Monolov became a member of the Naryn assembly and Salymbekov served as governor of Naryn and Member of Parliament). They win political office by nurturing clientelist networks: they distribute money and promises among their constituents in exchange for political support.

If political clientelism is one determinant of Kyrgyzstan’s political trajectory, the other is the international aid economy. International influence manifests in far-flung outposts such as Song Köl, where female-dominated tourist and handicraft companies attract international investors. It is also evident in the growing number of foreign-funded democracy-promoting NGOs. These NGOs promote a variety of causes, but Petric focuses on election reform and monitoring. Petric signs up to work as a short-term election observer with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, shortly before President Askar Akayev’s ouster (in 2005). Petric is disappointed that the OSCE and similar organizations present themselves as neutral players—they offer technical expertise and free observers—but actually seem to want regime change. Many of the volunteer observers he works with have made a career of traveling the world to observe elections in authoritarian countries. They are still celebrating their ‘victory’ in the 2004 election in Ukraine, which led to the overthrow of President Kuchma, and hope for a replay in Kyrgyzstan.

Petric is similarly dismayed by the international community’s involvement in ethnic politics. Ethnic Kyrgyz were barely a majority when the republic became independent but quickly established political dominance. Akayev, to his credit, initially promoted internationalism. He adopted the slogan, “Kyrgyzstan is our common house,” as the anchor for a short-lived multi-ethnic nationalism. Too soon, the growing visibility of Kyrgyz iconography in the public sphere indexed the “kyrgyzyfication” of society and ethnic (and regional) identities determined access to resources and power.

Petric notes that when the regime raised up Manas, the storied hero of Kyrgyz epic poetry, as the national hero, the international community eagerly played along. The UN declared 1995 the “year of Manas,” and numerous international organizations contributed funding for a lavish festival that celebrated the hero and the renovation of his tomb. UNESCO added the Manas epic to its list of representatives of “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.” Meanwhile, in the south, international organizations promoted consciousness raising among ethnic Uzbeks. They funded Uzbek universities and schools and created NGOs tasked with defending the rights of the Uzbek minority. The international community also helped organize a celebration of the southern city of Osh’s 2000th anniversary, an Uzbek-dominated counterpart to the festivities surrounding Manas.

Although Petric does not blame the international community for the devastating ethnic pogroms of 2010, when thousands of Uzbeks (and hundreds of Kyrgyz) were killed in Osh, he suggests that by promoting ethnically-defined institutions and events rather than shared symbols, the international community intensified and politicized ethnic differences. Far from empowering anyone, these efforts deepened the divide between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks and further marginalized smaller ethnic groups. When President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was forced out of power in 2010 and bitter elites in Osh wanted retribution, they easily turned popular resentment into ethnic-based violence.

Noor Borbieva, Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne

Petric, Boris. 2015. Where Are All Our Sheep? Kyrgyzstan, a Global Political Arena. Translated by Cynthia Schoch. New York: Berghahn.

About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University in the State University of New York system. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, specializing in medical anthropology and the social study of science and technology. He is author of the forthcoming book The Slumbering Masses (UMN Press), which focuses on sleep in American culture and its historical and contemporary relations to capitalism.

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