How Kyrgyzstan’s new flag design serves as a litmus test for the health of its democracy.

On December 25th, 1991, Kyrgyzstan gained full independence, only a day before the wider Soviet Union of which it was a member state ceased to exist as a legal entity. The following year, on 3 March 1992, the nation adopted a flag characterised by a red field with a centrally positioned yellow sun containing a depiction of a tunduk, the opening found in the centre of the roof of a yurt. It was this design which suddenly came to the attention of Kyrgyz lawmakers in September 2023, and only a couple of months later in late November, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted to alter the design of the nation’s flag. Even to a close observer, the changes made can be difficult to spot, yet their political context, as well as the resistance and responses they have provoked, reveal a great deal about the health of Kyrgyzstan’s political system.     

The flag has retained its bold yellow and red colour scheme, with changes being made to the finer detail of the depictions of both the sun and the tunduk. Rather than being wavy, the sun’s rays have now been straightened, and appear to be detached from the central circle of the tunduk, which now features four slats crossing over four others, compared to three crossing over three as seen in the previous design. As a final adjustment, these slats now appear longer and more tightly compacted. 

According to the critics of the old flag, including President Sadyr Japarov, the central component resembled a sunflower, which in Kyrgyz culture symbolises ‘fickleness and servility’ and a willingness to change allegiances for the purpose of personal benefit. President Japarov summarised these notions in late 2023, saying that the Kyrgyz flag ‘looks like a sunflower; with this the country cannot rise from its knees.’ Given the political and economic realities facing Kyrgyzstan, specifically concerning economic dependency and the fragility of regional peace, it is easier to understand why President Japarov is so worried about the labels of ‘fickleness and servility’.

In 2023, the population of Kyrgyzstan stood at just a little over 6.7 million people while in the same year, over 1.5 million Kyrgyz citizens were working abroad. In 2022, personal remittances received by the Kyrgyz Republic stood at 27.9% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, a stark contrast to the global average, which for the same year stood at only 0.8% of GDP. Even within these statistics, there exists a deeper dependency on money sent from abroad. Of the volume of such remittances, it is estimated that the Russian Federation occupies a share of approximately 97%, and that up to one million adults from Kyrgyzstan work in Russia alone. This economic dependency, and the associated notion of servitude to external actors which it helps to conjure up, offer potential explanations for the regime’s anxieties about the old flag’s symbolism. While Kyrgyzstan faces unfavourable economic realities, the government’s attempt to remedy Kyrgyzstan’s standing targets symbolism over actual economic policies and simply rebrands the same legitimate concerns about Kyrgyzstan’s international reputation and economic dependency under a new banner.

The adoption of the new flag by Kyrgyz lawmakers sparked domestic backlash. One young man named Aftandil Zhorobekov was arrested and detained on December 8th  2023 after he called for protests against the change, while more opposition was expressed online. In a separate incident in January 2024, at a flag-raising ceremony featuring the new design, keen observers noticed a mistake in the design, namely that rays surrounding the central motif of the sun numbered only 39, rather than 40. Gulshayir Abdirasulova, a human rights activist, wrote on the 4th of January that the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), the successor to the KGB, began summoning people who had expressed discontent at the incident. In a further example, a prominent opposition figure named Temirlan Sultanbekov wrote online that a colleague of his had been pressured to delete a social media post on the flag ‘on pain of imprisonment and subsequent physical harm.’

The government’s response to such resistance helps to illustrate the tightening of state control which has taken place in recent years, against a backdrop of a longer cycle of authoritarian encroachment. Once referred to as being an ‘island of democracy’ in a 1999 book,  Kyrgyzstan’s democratic credentials do at least in theory seem more plausible when compared to its neighbours, having had six presidents in the time that Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have had two, and Tajikistan only one. In both 2005 and 2010, revolts over economic concerns took place alongside fraudulent parliamentary elections representing power grabs by presidential forces, with violence taking place in both the capital and other provincial cities. 

The rise to power of President Japarov in 2020 illustrates the regime’s increasingly autocratic nature. A disputed vote saw his release from prison by a support base suspected of being influenced by organised crime, his sentence was then overturned, before he gained rapid backing from local powerbrokers. Indeed, recent years have been characterised by both a shrinking of political platforms and an expansion of state control; Dr Aijan Sharshenova, a political analyst based in Bishkek, notes how pressure has increased on both political opponents and the media. The passing of legislation on the new flag design and subsequent government response to dissent is forming a new phase in this increasing abandonment of civil liberty. 

The enacting of legislation to alter the nation’s flag and the responses stirred up have overshadowed a series of further issues facing the state. Most notable among these is the ongoing border tensions between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There have been recent breakthroughs, such as successful talks between both governments in December 2023, with Kyrgyzstan granted access to facilities it operates on Tajik territory, and vice versa. The Kyrgyz government also announced that “topographic working groups agreed on 24.01 km of the Kyrgyz-Tajik state border.” In September 2022 however, clashes erupted between border troops of the two states. Kyrgyzstan saw 24 casualties and Tajikistan 30, with 136,000 evacuated by Kyrgyzstan from the conflict zone and a state of emergency declared. These deals remain therefore incredibly fragile, and a precedent for violence has already been set should agreements fall apart. As a result, Kyrgyz land could again become the target of destruction, albeit while represented by straight, rather than wavy rays. The potential for violence has been drowned out by menial alterations to the flag supposedly aimed at revitalising the country’s economic fortunes, which illustrates yet again the government’s reliance on symbolism as a quick fix to political problems rather than demonstrating legitimate concern.

Through a seemingly insignificant, almost unnoticeable alteration to the nation’s flag, the regime in Bishkek has logged a new chapter in the history of the Kyrgyz state. Recent events have illustrated a consistent placing of the state above the citizen. Without adequate attention paid to the structural realities faced by the Kyrgyz economy and its borders, no silver bullet to remedy the state’s ills will be found, and the sense of servitude the regime believes it faces could persist indefinitely. By pushing ahead with the changes to the flag, the Kyrgyz government has shown that sunflower-like fickleness indeed exists, but within its own ranks.

Image credits via and Shakiev N.T., Primov U.B., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (