It seems that the current flag of Kyrgyzstan may soon be a thing of the past. The change will not be a drastic one, but the reasons behind the need to alter the flag remain unclear. All this is taking place against a backdrop of growing authoritarianism in a country in which the president is increasing his hold on power.
On September 28, Speaker of the Jogorku Kenesh (Kyrgyzstan’s parliament) Nurlanbek Shakiyev and deputy Ulan Primov introduced a bill for public discussion to change the country’s flag. According to them, the rays of the sun represented in the current flag are mistaken for other objects, namely a sunflower.
It was not long before powerful officials showed their support for the initiative. The following day, Cholponbek Abykeev, an adviser to President Sadyr Japarov, wrote on his Facebook page that “the idea itself [to change the flag] is correct”, and went on to agree with the sunflower comparisons.
A sunflower, the root of all that’s wrong
The new flag proposed however fell out of favour with the president, and it was therefore slightly changed. Japarov then blamed his country’s failures on the alleged sunflower-looking flag.
“Before that [the proposal to change the flag], there was an active opinion in society that our flag was like a sunflower and against this background the country could not stand from its knees. There have even been such cases when foreigners who came to visit us said that, probably, in our republic, sunflowers are growing in large numbers.”
He did not provide further details regarding the foreigners who supposedly mistook the sun in the Kyrgyz flag for sunflowers, and that thought that the country was covered by swathes of golden-petal plants.
“Speaking openly, since gaining independence, we are heavily dependent on the outside world. Therefore, maybe it’s time to review our flag. This practice exists in many states of the world when certain changes have been made to the elements of the national flag. As for the initiative of the deputies, if you deepen, they do not propose changes to the concept of the national flag. They just propose changing the rays of the sun so that there is no comparison with the sunflower,” Japarov also stated.
However, the relation between a sunflower-looking flag and Kyrgyzstan’s reliance on the outside world is also one that begs to be explained.
Besides Japarov, his close associate, Kamchybek Tashiyev, head of the State Committee for National Security, also supported the new flag. “I support the change of flag. Shining like a ray of sunshine. Let’s be one, like a fist in front of our flag!”, he enthusiastically stated in his Facebook page.
The new flag has not yet been adopted. It has to go through the relevant parliamentary procedure, where pro-government forces have a majority.
Lack of consensus
The national flag is perhaps the most important symbol a country has. A banner that represents all its citizens and under which they can unite. But is the Kyrgyz public demanding such a change? It does not seem so.
An online poll by the Kyrgyz news website 24.kg shows that only 6% of respondents believe it is necessary to change the flag, with 88% thinking it is not While the poll may have it flaws, it does indicate a clear trend. Nobody was asking for this change.
Opposition MPs have expressed their dissatisfaction with the initiative, stating that there was no need for it. “Replacing 7 million passports, car numbers… Instead, it’s better to build hospitals for children, kindergartens. There is no need to change the flag. No need to let billions [of soms] down the drain. The situation in the country will improve when all citizens, from a simple person to the head of the Cabinet of Ministers and deputies will be patriots,” stated Tazabek Ikromov.
For Abykeev there is no need to panic. According to him, the changes would take place in the next 5 to 10 years and billions of soms would not be spent. But Ikromov has a point.
There are a number of problems facing the country. From an energy crisis that is set to get worse in the coming winter months, to corruption and growing authoritarianism from Japarov’s administration. But the government’s priorities seem to lie elsewhere. And generating a debate on the issue of a flag change is always a good smokescreen to hide the country’s real problems. Whether that was the real intention behind the measure is another question.
Japarov’s ‘New Kyrgyzstan’
Although the initiative officially emanated from the parliament, it is hard to imagine it did not count with the president’s blessing before it was proposed. Japarov already said that he wants to build a “New Krygyzstan”, adopting the term from his Uzbek and Kazakh counterparts. A “New Kyrgyzstan” tailored to him.
Under his mandate, the country adopted a new constitution in 2021 (dubbed Khanstitution given the powers given to the president) and is gradually gaining more and more attributions. The latest has to do with allowing the president to overturn decisions from the Constitutional Court on vague moral grounds. And to this one must add the pressure on independent media suffered by RFE/RL’s Azattyk and, more recently, Kloop.
Japarov is looking to leave his mark in the country. There is a Kyrgyz Republic before he came to power and, if things continue to go this way, there will be a different one once he is gone. And that includes the flag, a symbolic change that has less of an impact on people’s lives than the ones noted above but that is a good indication of where the country is headed.