Creative Bishkek: Chihoon Jeong

I saw Bishkek as an unfilled lin­en can­vas; one that I wanted to paint on’.

Chi­hoon Jeong is a South Korean entre­pren­eur based in Bishkek, Kyrgyz­stan. His Korean chick­en res­taur­ant Chick­en Star has quickly estab­lished itself as a cre­at­ive hub in the city, with reg­u­lar cul­tur­al events and loc­al art on the walls (includ­ing works by Chi­hoon him­self). Recently, Jeong also launched Flask, a cof­fee shop on the AUCA cam­pus, which is play­ing a cent­ral role in the city’s cof­fee revolu­tion. Both Chick­en Star and Flask will be expand­ing to Almaty this year. Through his com­munity-centred, artist­ic­ally motiv­ated approach to ser­vice and busi­ness, Jeong has left an indelible mark in his short time in the Kyrgyz cap­it­al.

What led to you becom­ing an entre­pren­eur Kyrgyz­stan?

After com­plet­ing my master’s in Boston and work­ing as an artist for a short time, I was set to start a PhD in Manchester in philo­sophy and art. I wasn’t con­vinced that I wanted to be in the lib­rary for 5 years, how­ever, so I decided to start trav­el­ling to help guide my decision. Dur­ing this trip, I vis­ited my uncle, who has a busi­ness in Kyrgyz­stan. At this point I already felt that I had to do some­thing here. When I first went to Bishkek in Novem­ber 2014, I remem­ber think­ing how raw and organ­ic the city was – for example, there were amaz­ingly clean and fresh ingredi­ents but only very few decent din­ing res­taur­ants, so I real­ised that I wanted to cre­ate some­thing new there.

While liv­ing in the US, I was already inter­ested in dir­ect and sus­tain­able busi­ness – so I only went or res­taur­ants with loc­ally sourced ingredi­ents or cafés with loc­ally sourced milk. Des­pite lik­ing sus­tain­able busi­ness as a con­sumer, I nev­er thought about being an entre­pren­eur. Nev­er­the­less, I saw Bishkek as an unfilled lin­en can­vas; one that I wanted to paint on. As a res­ult, I went back to Korea and star­ted pre­par­a­tions for my new busi­ness, after telling my par­ents that I wouldn’t be return­ing to Eng­land to start my PhD. I decided with my uncle to start a Korean fried chick­en res­taur­ant – it had star­ted to become pop­u­lar around the world. Addi­tion­ally, Kyrgyz­stan is vir­tu­ally the per­fect loc­a­tion for a chick­en res­taur­ant, as it used to be the Soviet Union’s prin­cip­al chick­en sup­pli­er. Fur­ther­more, sun­flower oil is cheap­er than corn oil in Kyrgyz­stan because there are sun­flower seeds every­where – and so I thought that there are per­fect con­di­tions for a Korean chick­en res­taur­ant in Bishkek.

How dif­fi­cult was it to cre­ate Chick­en Star and organ­ise it in a per­son­al way?

It was very dif­fi­cult at the start. I didn’t have any loc­al con­nec­tions and the bur­eau­cracy involved in set­ting up the busi­ness was tough too. There were also lan­guage dif­fi­culties as I spoke neither Kyrgyz nor Rus­si­an and so I had to rely on my first man­ager for trans­la­tion. Indeed, apart from the man­ager, none of the 7 people I ori­gin­ally hired could speak much Eng­lish, so he had to trans­late everything while I was train­ing my staff and explain­ing everything to them.

Chick­en Star’s ‘Star Art Space’ (SAS)

It was a lot of fun though, as it was my first busi­ness and I hadn’t done any­thing like it before. I ori­gin­ally just thought ‘let’s do it’, which I think is the best approach, as I would have oth­er­wise wasted lots of time learn­ing about the leg­al sys­tem and how stuff works in the coun­try, rather than learn­ing by doing.

A key aspect for me from the very begin­ning was my view that it should be a people-centred busi­ness, with a strong focus on the team. I don’t want to give orders but rather expect every­one to be respons­ible and pro­act­ive. They should also not be afraid to make mis­takes. From the begin­ning my goal was for my staff to grow and so I helped them to expand their skills – I brought in Eng­lish teach­ers, for example.

I love the people, and espe­cially the young people, in Kyrgyz­stan – they are all super smart but sadly there is a lack of oppor­tun­it­ies for them. I am a for­eign­er, and I could have just gone to ‘do busi­ness’ but I wanted to con­trib­ute some­thing to soci­ety. As a res­ult, I focussed a lot on build­ing my team and a sys­tem, which required a lot of research before. I made sure to focus on team­build­ing in the first few weeks after hir­ing my staff – we spent hours every day talk­ing, clean­ing, shar­ing food and work­ing togeth­er – an import­ant part of this for me was instilling the cul­ture and philo­sophy that I wanted for the res­taur­ant in my staff mem­bers. It was prob­ably quite tough for them at the staff, as they weren’t used to this work­ing cul­ture, but most were really excited about it.

What is your vis­ion for Chick­en Star and Flask and how can you explain their suc­cess?

I have a clear vis­ion for both. Chick­en Star’s aim was to make the world more joy­ful than the day before – to keep grow­ing and keep devel­op­ing. Human con­flict and suf­fer­ing come from our rela­tion­ships, but so do our hap­pi­ness and joy, so it all depends how we handle our lives and rela­tion­ships. Chick­en Star is related to the Bishkek com­munity so there’s a goal of build­ing a good rela­tion­ship with the city – who­ever walks in should feel joy and should be treated well, even if they aren’t a cli­ent. This all forms my vis­ion of build­ing a sus­tain­able com­munity.

There are four aspects to Chick­en Star:

  1. Spe­cial – being spe­cial and cre­at­ing a unique atmo­sphere and treat­ing every­one in the same way – every indi­vidu­al is spe­cial and has their own beauty.
  2. Tasty – main­tain­ing the qual­ity of the food, always con­trolling the taste and mak­ing sure the stand­ard remains high.
  3. Artsy – the space is artist­ic. In my opin­ion, art inspires soci­ety and can help devel­op neigh­bour­hoods. I have exhib­i­tions every month and sup­port loc­al artists, includ­ing through 6‑month res­id­ency pro­grammes. This is a win-win, as I can sup­port their work and it can help make art more access­ible, while also provid­ing atmo­sphere and inspir­a­tion in the res­taur­ant.
  4. Respons­ible – without the com­munity, we can’t exist and make busi­ness, so we have done mul­tiple char­ity events. We’ve helped loc­al orphan­ages and donate reusable food waste to a loc­al com­munity organ­isa­tion, for example. We also try to recycle our trash and reuse as much as pos­sible.

My aim for Flask is sim­il­ar. Cof­fee is one of my pas­sions – I love how much one cup can change based on where the beans come from and then how you roast and brew them. There are also so many dif­fer­ent tastes – some are fruity, nutty, chocol­atey etc. There’s also no alco­hol and so you can share the joy of the amaz­ing taste of cof­fee with every­one – and it isn’t that expens­ive. On top of this, I want to spark innov­a­tion. When I launched Flask I did a pitch to the AUCA say­ing that I don’t just want to be there to make a busi­ness but that I want to con­trib­ute to the AUCA com­munity. We always cre­ate a new menu and only serve high qual­ity cof­fee, tea and food products.

We have also star­ted doing a lunch talk on Thursdays, where every­one is invited to come and share their stor­ies. I believe that inspir­a­tion and innov­a­tion does not just come from fam­ous entre­pren­eurs and sci­ent­ists but from every­one and so I try to cre­ate a dia­logue. This was per­fect for the AUCA com­munity, but I also want to expand to the city centre and oth­er cit­ies in Kyrgyz­stan – I want to inspire people to tell their stor­ies because every­one has their unique story and unique abil­ity to sur­prise people.

This is why Chick­en Star and Flask are dif­fer­ent from oth­er cafes and res­taur­ants – I always wanted them to be unique and to give some­thing to the com­munity in an innov­at­ive way and with great ser­vice. I really encour­age my team to be friends with our guests – nat­ur­ally they have to give a ser­vice as our cus­tom­ers are pay­ing but I want them to be friends as it cre­ates a bet­ter atmo­sphere.

Guests in Chick­en Star

What is Bishkek’s poten­tial and how can cre­at­ive-minded people help the city achieve these goals?

Bishkek has a huge poten­tial, espe­cially due to its free­dom of speech and cre­at­ive freedoms – this is why there are lots of artists here and why many Cent­ral Asi­an artists come here for their shows. As Kyrgyz­stan doesn’t have many nat­ur­al resources to rely on, art, cul­ture and start-ups should be respons­ible for driv­ing devel­op­ment in the coun­try. They cer­tainly have lots of poten­tial and people here often don’t real­ise that. Young people often tell me that they want to bring Star­bucks here, but I then tell them that I wish they could cre­ate some­thing like Star­bucks here and then take it to the world.

It will prob­ably take a long time for Bishkek to real­ise its poten­tial, how­ever. I also hope that devel­op­ment comes from with­in, rather than from big for­eign com­pan­ies that would take away oppor­tun­it­ies from loc­al people. I think it’s there­fore import­ant for people to see the future and not just the present, which will enable them to launch their own pro­jects. People in Kyrgyz­stan are thirsty, and I think it is import­ant for them to use this energy for good here rather than leav­ing the coun­try and not com­ing back. Of course, life and oppor­tun­it­ies are cur­rently bet­ter else­where but if we provide oppor­tun­it­ies for young people in Kyrgyz­stan, they will stay and will con­trib­ute them­selves to devel­op­ing the coun­try. As a res­ult, the coun­try really needs to focus on the human resources it has and should pay atten­tion to edu­ca­tion and seek to strengthen cer­tain areas, such as IT.

I think it’s really import­ant for there to be a focus on export­ing rather than import­ing in the coun­try. Import­ing ‘cool’ things is tem­por­ary – instead, the focus should be on improv­ing future poten­tial. This can be done by boost­ing Kyrgyzstan’s cur­rent strengths and look­ing for domest­ic solu­tions to its gaps. Cre­at­ive-minded people are cru­cial to any future devel­op­ment, but they need to make sure that they remain patient and have a clear out­look for the future. If they suc­ceed in this, I think Kyrgyz­stan will have a very pos­it­ive future.

How import­ant is the role of entre­pren­eur­ship in Bishkek?

There are a lot of young entre­pren­eurs in Kyrgyz­stan, includ­ing many people that I admire and respect, and I feel that I can learn a lot from them. I’m a part­ner of a group called Pro Art, which was star­ted by young entre­pren­eurs in Kyrgyz­stan. They cre­ated the group to help young stu­dents devel­op their edu­ca­tion and career, which in turn helps devel­op the coun­try and com­munity. They are all cre­at­ive entre­pren­eurs and when I talk to them I don’t feel any dif­fer­ence to the US. I just wish there were more people like them, as they do more for the com­munity than me. I just own a small res­taur­ant but since I’m a for­eign­er I get more atten­tion from the pop­u­la­tion, even though there are much more incred­ible entre­pren­eurs in Bishkek.

How do you ensure stand­ards and qual­ity in your pro­jects?

I give my team many freedoms but I’m very picky, I guess you could call me a per­fec­tion­ist. The most import­ant things are find­ing the right people, then train­ing them prop­erly and then put­ting them in the right pos­i­tion and con­tinu­ously giv­ing them a mis­sion and goals. It’s really import­ant to give free­dom and respons­ib­il­ity to your staff while ask­ing them to be pro­act­ive. For this to work, you have to make sure you clearly explain what your philo­sophy and vis­ion are, and you have to remind them reg­u­larly what they are.

Any final com­ments?

I remem­ber some­thing my fath­er told me when I was a child, 34 years ago in South Korea. He explained that the situ­ation in Korea was dif­fi­cult but that they were work­ing for the future and that their hard work would pay off in the next gen­er­a­tion. This is also import­ant for Kyrgyzstan’s stage of devel­op­ment. Work­ing towards the future may be slow and you might not be able to taste glory in your life­time, but you leave your leg­acy.

People are nat­ur­ally the most import­ant part of this pro­cess and so in my com­pany I want all the part­ners and staff to be suc­cess­ful because their suc­cess is my suc­cess. If they tell me that they got offered a job from anoth­er com­pany I tell them that I think that’s great. I may lose one of the best work­ers in my team, but it is what it is and I’m glad that they can pro­gress. There’s also the motiv­a­tion of being able to train new people which is fun and allows me to cre­ate the great rela­tion­ships with my team and the com­munity. If they really care about their people, com­munity and future, busi­nesses will solve prob­lems cre­at­ively and people will react pos­it­ively. A lot of people want to make money, which is under­stand­able. How­ever, if they shift their motiv­a­tion towards improv­ing their com­munity, they are much more likely to solve prob­lems, which is a much bet­ter out­come for every­one.

I hope there will be many more young entre­pren­eurs that are pas­sion­ate about the future. I always tell my team to not focus on com­pet­it­ors and to only think about our guests, as they’re the people we meet every day. We don’t meet our com­pet­it­ors and a lot of our people are spend­ing too much time on this. It is bet­ter to focus on our guests in the res­taur­ant, as I want to cre­ate a beau­ti­ful exper­i­ence for every­one that comes.

Re-Meet the Stans: How Post-Soviet countries in Central Asia are redefining their identities.

Although an extern­al observ­er still tends to label the five major coun­tries of Cent­ral Asi­a’s vast region (Kaza­kh­stan, Kyrgyz­stan, Tajikistan, Afgh­anistan, Turk­menistan, and Uzbek­istan) as ‘Post-Soviet’, it might just be the wrong prism to use.

The shift away from the ‘Post-Soviet’ and towards the long-hoped-for mod­ern­iz­a­tion, although not a rap­id or uncon­tro­ver­sial one, is seen as a pos­it­ive devel­op­ment by the coun­tries’ young­er gen­er­a­tion.

No one can deny the import­ance of Soviet eco­nom­ic devel­op­ments and our shared cul­ture,’ – says a Kaza­kh stu­dent, who gradu­ated this sum­mer and is cur­rently an assist­ant at a loc­al account­ing com­pany, – ‘and with my grand­par­ents still nos­tal­gic about the Soviet times, all of the young­er people are genu­inely look­ing for­ward.’

Cul­tur­al and polit­ic­al battles between the Stans’ Soviet legacies, and the grow­ing emphas­is on nation­al iden­tit­ies, have largely been won by the lat­ter.

Mod­ern Cen­ter of Dush­anbe, Tajikistan – from

This has been seen in the demo­graph­ic changes. As the Kaza­kh census shows, ‘the num­ber of Rus­si­ans is on the decline’ (Dr. Mer­lene Laruelle, 2018)[: the per­cent­age of Rus­si­ans in the total pop­u­la­tion has fallen from ’37% in 1989’ to ’20% in 209’. The major­ity of Kaza­kh cit­izens – the over­whelm­ing ’95%’ – now iden­ti­fies with their Pre-Soviet Muslim beliefs, mov­ing away from Rus­si­ans’ Chris­tian­ity or Soviet athe­ism.

In Tajikistan’s cap­it­al – Dush­anbe -, city plan­ners tear down the build­ings that once mani­fes­ted Soviet pres­ence in this trophy city.

In Uzbek­istan, 25 years of Karimov’s dic­tat­or­ship was char­ac­ter­ized by attempts to present all Rus­si­an and Soviet in the most neg­at­ive light, mov­ing towards his own per­son­al cult and nation­al­ism. The new Mirziyoyev’s reforms aim to reshape the infra­struc­ture and eco­nomy, try to pol­ish Tashkent’s repu­ta­tion and make the coun­try more com­pet­it­ive for invest­ment. The gen­er­al polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic trends show re-focus­ing on the future of the coun­try and build­ing on its Pre-Soviet cul­ture, not the Soviet one.

Nur-Astana Mosque in Astana, Kaza­kh­stan – from Wiki­pe­dia

While shar­ing the com­mon Soviet cul­ture, the five Stans are very dif­fer­ent. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s land has seen one of the old­est civil­iz­a­tions, but Kaza­kh and Kyrgyz cul­tures are that of nomads. Thus said, the eva­sion of the Soviet her­it­age can, to a cer­tain extent, allow the coun­tries’ his­tor­ic­al iden­tit­ies to prosper and enrich the glob­al under­stand­ing of their diverse cul­tur­al val­ues. How the Cent­ral Asi­an coun­tries’ dif­fer­ences are becom­ing more and more acknow­ledged is also emphas­ized in this art­icle (on the EU’s strategy? The one That Gera wrote?).

How­ever, it is not uncon­tro­ver­sial to sug­gest that all of these devel­op­ments are pos­it­ive: infra­struc­ture pro­jects in Tajikistan, for instance, lack prop­er city plan­ning and con­sid­er­a­tion for the import­ant Soviet era’s influ­ence on the region. One might ques­tion wheth­er it’s right to com­pletely wipe out such a huge and influ­en­tial part of the region’s his­tory as the Soviet era, which did determ­ine people’s lives and cul­tur­al aware­ness.

Moreover, ‘Post-Soviet-ness’ is still present in a few places: Rus­si­an is the most spoken lan­guage in both Almaty and Bishkek, while Stans still look up at Rus­sia for eco­nom­ic sup­port (Kyrgyz­stan, in par­tic­u­lar). Stans have a very long way to go.

Yurt, tra­di­tion­al form of hous­ing in Cent­ral Asia – from US Air Forces Cent­ral Com­mand

It is import­ant that coun­tries change to allow pro­gress, and cul­ture itself iss nev­er a stat­ic concept – it is always in flux. With the Stans’ aspir­a­tions often held down by the fact that their inde­pend­ence has been so short and tur­bu­lent, this vast land of moun­tains, grass­lands, and desert lying on Eurasia’s cross­roads, should attract more for­eign interest as import­ant play­ers with great poten­tial.

More import­antly, one might argue that Stans should no longer be defined by their ‘Post-Soviet-ness’, but by their dis­tinct iden­tit­ies.

Creative Bishkek: Aida Sulova

Cre­at­ive Bishkek: Aida Sulova is the second inter­view of the series intro­du­cing the lives and work of tal­en­ted and cre­at­ive people from Bishkek, who are help­ing to estab­lish Kyrgyzstan’s cap­it­al as the region’s cul­tur­al hub

Kyrgyz artist and curator, Aida Sulova, developed Bishkek’s leading art centre: Asanbay.

She has helped pro­duce pub­lic art in the Kyrgyz cap­it­al and been involved in art edu­ca­tion in the city. She is cur­rently work­ing in New York.

How did Asan­bay ori­gin­ally get cre­ated and what have the early chal­lenges been?

I returned to Bishkek after fin­ish­ing my under­gradu­ate degree in New York and soon after I star­ted work­ing for Henry Myer­berg, HMA2 Archi­tects, who is the archi­tect of the new cam­pus of the  Amer­ic­an Uni­ver­sity of Cent­ral Asia (AUCA), in Bishkek. While at the AUCA, I was engaged in a pub­lic art pro­gramme with loc­al cur­at­ors and artists, in this time we pro­duced a num­ber of pieces and had an exhib­i­tion cur­ated by Ulan Dja­p­arov. This was how my engage­ment and col­lab­or­a­tion with loc­al artists star­ted. Not long after this, I was approached by loc­al entre­pren­eurs and investors in the devel­op­ment and res­taur­ant busi­ness who showed me a 1800 square metre space, which they inten­ded to use for a brew­ery busi­ness with a dance space. My pro­pos­al was to found a flex­ible multi-pur­pose place which can trans­form its space and resources for vari­ous events. The main activ­ity of the Cen­ter are a strong art and edu­ca­tion pro­grams that are sup­por­ted by side com­mer­cial activ­it­ies such as a res­taur­ant and event hall. This was the ori­gin­al idea for cre­ation of multi-dis­cip­lin­ary Asan­bay, which now has event spaces, a gal­lery and a Geor­gi­an res­taur­ant.

Bishkek’s lead­ing art centre, Asan­bay, developed by Aida Sulova

The mis­sion of the cen­ter is to be a flex­ible space for art, edu­ca­tion, and enter­tain­ment pro­grams for com­munit­ies to enrich their cul­tur­al life. How­ever, not every­one reacted enthu­si­ast­ic­ally after we opened Asan­bay. Some people, for example, accused me of com­mer­cial­ising art by mak­ing it too access­ible and by serving food and drink in an art space. After I explained to them that most museums in the world work like this, and have an addi­tion­al entrance fee, they star­ted to listen, so I think it’s mainly a cul­tur­al thing. People need to under­stand that due to the cost of pro­duc­tion and rent, it is only pos­sible to have free exhib­i­tions along­side these com­mer­cial activ­it­ies.


Asan­bay is but one of Bishkek’s many excit­ing new cre­at­ive pro­jects – do you think the cul­ture of the city is chan­ging and where do you see the city head­ing?

There’s been a dra­mat­ic change in the last couple years and I see it as largely pos­it­ive. There is a real thirst and strife for a bet­ter life and the civil com­munity has become much stronger in recent years. There are now lots of people who are launch­ing their own cre­at­ive pro­jects and the city’s start-up cul­ture is improv­ing. There is now even spec­u­la­tion that Bishkek is becom­ing the Ber­lin of Cent­ral Asia. My only con­cern here is that there is no cent­ral vis­ion or mis­sion, so I hope the young­er gen­er­a­tion will be able to provide this. I really hope that edu­ca­tion and cul­ture are seen as pri­or­it­ies – cul­ture is so under­es­tim­ated in my opin­ion and I think it is really import­ant for people to under­stand that it is an effect­ive tool to bring social changes.

I think col­lab­or­at­ive ini­ti­at­ives are extremely vital – and not just from artists, but also from busi­nesses, the gov­ern­ment and the cre­at­ive com­munity. I’ve already seen the chal­lenges involved in these ini­ti­at­ives at the Asan­bay centre, as people often have con­flict­ing interests and ideas. Nev­er­the­less, as Asan­bay shows, such col­lab­or­a­tions can pro­duce very pos­it­ive res­ults. I’m also happy that there are more ini­ti­at­ives like co-work­ing spaces, urb­an talks, research labs, etc. and that people in cul­ture are start­ing to bring inter­na­tion­al artists, cur­at­ors, and art man­agers to the city. Cul­tur­al exchanges such as these are ground­break­ing and so I think the city is head­ing in the right dir­ec­tion, all things con­sidered.


How dif­fer­ent is the pro­cess of being an artist in Cent­ral Asia com­pared to Europe or the United States?

The con­tem­por­ary art scene is strong in Bishkek and I can see the thirst that artists in the scene pos­sess. Artists there are con­stantly pro­du­cing art and the fact that there isn’t fund­ing and sup­port isn’t really an obstacle for them. An artist in Kyrgyz­stan is an artist, where­as an artist in the States is an artist, man­ager, cur­at­or, spe­cial­ist and PR man­ager – as such, artists in New York have much more know­ledge about the art mar­ket and they are more exper­i­enced in pro­mot­ing them­selves. I think this is about sur­viv­al though – the con­text in Kyrgyz­stan is dif­fer­ent as artists there are less focused on per­son­al pro­mo­tion. It is prob­ably more genu­ine in Kyrgyz­stan and their mes­sage is stronger. I have tried to pro­mote some Cent­ral Asi­an artists by mak­ing web­sites for them – not every­one under­stands the value in this though.


Do you think Cent­ral Asi­an artists will soon start to have this broad­er defined set of attrib­utes?

Sur­pris­ingly, it is the older gen­er­a­tion in Cent­ral Asia that have star­ted to get involved online and espe­cially on Face­book. There are now artist groups like the Cent­ral Asi­an pavil­ion of con­tem­por­ary art – this shows that there has been a shift. Young­er artists have increas­ingly star­ted to self-pro­mote on Ins­tagram also. This is of course largely about eco­nom­ics and it is gen­er­a­tion­al. What makes Cent­ral Asi­an con­tem­por­ary art dif­fer­ent from the rest of the world is that artists in the region are not forced to come up with an issue because the issues are already all over – social issues, per­son­al issues, gender issues. The artists there truly reflect openly and freely and this is chan­nelled in their art. Most of the work I see at Art Basel and the Venice Bien­nale, for example, strikes me as lack­ing sub­stance or a strong idea, which I don’t often find in Cent­ral Asi­an con­tem­por­ary art.

Have you per­son­ally cur­ated any Cent­ral Asi­an artists to show them to a broad­er audi­ence?

I have a found­a­tion called “Kachan?” (trans­lated from Kyrgyz as “When?”) and through this I man­aged to bring a few Cent­ral Asi­an artists to Wash­ing­ton a couple years ago. In Wash­ing­ton, there is little cul­tur­al know­ledge of Kyrgyz­stan and so I wanted to dis­play the works of two pro­voc­at­ive artists from the region – one was about the revolu­tion and was called the ‘Kin­emat­ics of Protest’ by Eugene Boikov, while the oth­er was called ‘Peres­troika’ by Shailo Djek­shen­baev . This was the start of my cul­tur­al exchange pro­gramme.


What oth­er pro­jects have you been work­ing on recently?

A few years ago, I did quite a few urb­an art pro­jects on the street – as I didn’t go to art school and am not trained I prefer these kinds of pro­jects to more clas­sic­al gal­lery pieces. One of my major pro­jects was about how people react to sur­prises on the street and in the city envir­on­ment, an idea which is known as hijack­ing the space. For example, I dec­or­ated trash cans and bus stops in Bishkek as a response to the city’s garbage prob­lem.

Urb­an pro­jects: dec­or­ated trash can in Bishkek

I’m also cur­rently work­ing for an archi­tec­tur­al firm, help­ing on pro­jects in both Kaza­kh­stan and in the States, which I have been doing for a little while. Recently, I have star­ted work­ing on a pro­ject to change the role of lib­rar­ies in Bishkek, which I see as really import­ant. The lib­rary has changed its role and has become more of a com­munity centre. As a res­ult, lib­rar­i­ans can become more like cur­at­ors and event organ­isers – people who provide more know­ledge than just giv­ing out books. I find this espe­cially import­ant as Bishkek’s lib­rar­ies are empty cur­rently, even though they could be used by new star­tups, for example, who cur­rently rent expens­ive stu­di­os in order to be more like Sil­ic­on Val­ley star­tups. I’m con­vinced the role of lib­rar­ies can be enlarged and they can be used to cre­ate a stronger and hap­pi­er com­munity.

Urb­an pro­jects: dec­or­ated bus stop in Bishkek

Have your pro­jects been par­tic­u­larly inspired by any cit­ies you’ve lived in or vis­ited?

Of course my pro­jects have been inspired by places I’ve vis­ited but I do think that most of my ideas are fairly uni­ver­sal, rather than geo­graph­ic­ally bound. People will say that I copied the idea of Asan­bay, but every large city has an art centre with activ­it­ies. The concept behind Asan­bay was nat­ur­ally also influ­enced by exper­i­ences I have had in New York, Ber­lin and Tbil­isi.

On a more per­son­al note, leav­ing to study in New York had a major impact on my out­look and per­son­al­ity. I like the fact that I was able to express myself the way I wanted there, which hadn’t been the case before. In that sense, I was able to fol­low my own Amer­ic­an dream. Nev­er­the­less, I always felt that I wanted to return to Bishkek, in order to help devel­op the city. The inter­na­tion­al exper­i­ences I gathered before return­ing were cru­cial in know­ing how to enact pos­it­ive changes there.

Urb­an pro­jects: hijack­ing the space

Any final com­ments about Bishkek’s future and its cre­at­ive scene?

When I talk about my coun­try, I don’t want to talk about it in black and white terms – it’s cool and it’s doing well but some­times it gets the wrong lead­ers – I am how­ever hope­ful for the future and think we’ll see more pos­it­ive changes soon.

Creative Bishkek: Maksat Sydykov

Cre­at­ive Bishkek: Mak­sat Sydykov is the first inter­view of the series intro­du­cing the lives and work of tal­en­ted and cre­at­ive people from Bishkek, who are help­ing to estab­lish Kyrgyzstan’s cap­it­al as the region’s cul­tur­al hub

I am trying to bring the world here’ – Maksat Sydykov reflects on his role in the world of contemporary Kyrgyz ballet.

Mak­sat Sydykov

Mak­sat Sydykov is a Kyrgyz cho­reo­graph­er based in Bishkek, who has per­formed in bal­lets for many of the world’s lead­ing com­pan­ies. He is cur­rently also the head of the Kyrgyz pub­lic found­a­tion Pro Art, which sup­ports art and cul­ture in Cent­ral Asia, espe­cially in Kyrgyz­stan. While at Pro Art, Sydykov has been respons­ible for put­ting on sev­er­al ambi­tious pro­duc­tions, such as Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev and The Nutcrack­er by Tchaikovsky.

Since Pro Art’s launch in 2016, the found­a­tion has invited many of the world’s lead­ing cho­reo­graph­ers to the Kyrgyz cap­it­al. Due to fin­an­cial lim­it­a­tions, many young Kyrgyz dan­cers are unable to travel, and so Sydykov set out to ‘bring the world to Kyrgyz­stan’. After many years of exper­i­ence study­ing and work­ing in the UK at the Eng­lish Nation­al Bal­let and Europe, Sydykov decided to return to his nat­ive land to ensure that Kyrgyzstan’s next gen­er­a­tion of artists would stamp their mark on the world map. 

Romeo and Juliet staged by Pro Art

How was your exper­i­ence study­ing in Lon­don and how has it affected your career and later cre­at­ive pro­jects?

Study­ing in Lon­don was a great exper­i­ence. The city really opened my eyes to a lot of things, which was in large part to its being alive 24 hours a day. It is a fant­ast­ic cul­tur­al hub and I was for­tu­nate to see a lot of great premi­eres, shows and museums. Lon­don showed me the size of the world and how much is going on and it def­in­itely allowed me to become more cre­at­ive and open as a res­ult. This has def­in­itely influ­enced my career and sub­sequent pro­jects.

Thanks to my exper­i­ence study­ing in Lon­don and work­ing in Europe, I have been able to col­lab­or­ate with many crazy and cre­at­ive people, which has espe­cially been the case in Ger­many. I was nev­er afraid to try new things and try to meet new people and this has also been bene­fi­cial to me, through col­lab­or­a­tion with many dif­fer­ent people you can cre­ate some­thing amaz­ing.

Mak­sat Sydykov in Lon­don

This has inspired me with my aspir­a­tion for Bishkek. I hope that my city will turn into a small Cent­ral Asi­an Ber­lin. Ber­lin isn’t a beau­ti­ful city but the people make it spe­cial: they provide it its spir­it and atmo­sphere and are the reas­on why so many people have fallen in love with the city. A sim­il­ar phe­nomen­on exists in Bar­celona and Por­tugal, where artists have helped cre­ate cre­at­ive hubs. Hope­fully one day more people will start to cre­at­ive small cre­at­ive spaces in Bishkek and will spark a cre­at­ive shift in the city – this is why I believe artists and cre­at­ives are so import­ant to cit­ies.

What do you see as the fun­da­ment­al dif­fer­ences in cre­at­ive edu­ca­tion in Cent­ral Asia and Europe and what do you see as Kyrgyzstan’s poten­tial in this area?

The Eng­lish sys­tem is very open and teach­ers in the UK tend to give their pupils max­im­um free­dom to exper­i­ment. The focus is on guid­ing pupils while leav­ing them their free­dom. In Kyrgyz­stan, there is an older sys­tem where a teach­er tells you what to do and guides you with­in cer­tain rules, which leaves pupils with less free­dom. One of my motiv­a­tions in return­ing to Kyrgyz­stan was to try to encour­age young dan­cers to go bey­ond this strict sys­tem and to try some­thing new.

Mak­sat Sydykov in a con­tem­por­ary bal­let piece

I want to bring cho­reo­graph­ers to the coun­try that can get young artists to exper­i­ence a dif­fer­ent approach. This has been slightly tricky at times as some of the young dan­cers are very young – only 16 or 17 – and are often, as is com­mon in Kyrgyz­stan, some­what shy and con­ser­vat­ive. The artists are very tal­en­ted and driv­en, how­ever, and thanks to the inter­net and the region’s inter­na­tion­al­isa­tion, people in the region have star­ted to become a bit more open, as they can see what’s going on in oth­er coun­tries.

I do how­ever think that Kyrgyz young people could do with more inter­na­tion­al exper­i­ences and a more open mind­set. Sadly, due to the region’s eco­nom­ic situ­ation this is not pos­sible as many people can­not afford to travel. As a res­ult, I am try­ing to bring the world here.

Nutcrack­er staged by Pro Art

Will Pro Art con­tin­ue to focus on Bishkek or are you look­ing to expand into oth­er areas?

We will just stay in Bishkek for now. It is a young found­a­tion and so we should focus on turn­ing it into a suc­cess here for now. If the pro­gramme goes well, I think we can and should look into expand­ing, though. I would like to move it into Uzbek­istan, for example, which has an even more con­ser­vat­ive cul­ture than here. The focus for now is on Bishkek though.

How do you fund the found­a­tion?

I stage bal­lets in dif­fer­ent parts of the world and get paid for them. I then use this money to help fund the pro­jects here. I also some­times get sup­port from friends. Sadly, sup­port­ing the arts is not so com­mon in Cent­ral Asia, unlike in the United States or Europe, and so it can be a struggle some­times, but we get by.

What suc­cess has the found­a­tion had so far?

We have staged a lot of pro­duc­tions already and have always used dan­cers from the big bal­let school in Bishkek, which has around 400 stu­dents. We always try to work with people that want to be artists in the future, to help fur­ther their careers and provide fin­an­cial sup­port. We have staged some more clas­sic pro­duc­tions, like Romeo and Juliet and the Nutcrack­er, as well as more con­tem­por­ary pieces. Sadly we have had dif­fi­culties rais­ing money for the pro­ject at times, such as when our ambi­tious char­ity gala, for which we invited 14 of the world’s best dan­cers, was unable to raise any money for future pro­duc­tions. The Swiss embassy really helped a few years ago and thanks to their fund­ing we were able to fund future pro­duc­tions.

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, staged by Pro Art

In gen­er­al, is there a lot of sup­port for what you are doing?

I think so, yes. People like what we are doing but we can’t always ask sup­port­ers for money and so we need to work towards becom­ing self-sus­tain­able. That’s why we always try to rein­vest the money we get from tick­et sales into new pro­duc­tions. It will take a few years for major pro­duc­tions to be fin­an­cially viable and so I want Pro Art to work and I want it to be sus­tain­able. I want more fin­an­cial sup­port for the pro­ject but it is work­ing well so far.

How much of an impact has your strategy of ‘bring­ing the world to Bishkek’ had?

It has been cru­cial. I am cur­rently the only mod­ern cho­reo­graph­er in the city and mod­ern dance does not really exist in Kyrgyz­stan. I am also the only Kyrgyz, as far as I’m aware, that has worked in big inter­na­tion­al com­pan­ies, such as the Deutsche Oper, and so nobody else has the required know-how here. It is thus also dif­fi­cult to form loc­al part­ner­ships with oth­er groups, and so most of our loc­al col­lab­or­a­tions have been with loc­al design­ers, cos­tume makers and com­posers, rather than oth­er dance groups.

It was a slight shock for the dan­cers, as well as the audi­ence, when I star­ted to intro­duce con­tem­por­ary dance into the rep­er­toire. In the Soviet Uni­on, the pri­or­ity was always clas­sic­al bal­let and there was nev­er any exper­i­ment­al dance, a leg­acy that has car­ried on. As a res­ult, it was a chal­lenge for dan­cers ini­tially, as you have to move dif­fer­ently in mod­ern and con­tem­por­ary dance. A good case in point was when I invited cho­reo­graph­ers from New York, Switzer­land and Ger­many for a per­form­ance. Their cre­ativ­ity and free­dom in the stu­dio shocked the dan­cers ini­tially. The dan­cers were taught to listen to the music and to use objects to really go into the piece – they were all trained dan­cers but had nev­er done any­thing com­par­able. The effect was remark­able, espe­cially men­tally. Their level improved by 200% after and it has also enabled them to become bet­ter clas­sic­al dan­cers, fun­nily enough.

Romeo and Juliet staged by Pro Art

Do you know many oth­er people that have spent many years abroad that have then gone back to launch their own pro­jects in Bishkek?

Not many unfor­tu­nately. Most people that leave Kyrgyz­stan want to stay abroad and don’t want to return. I do love meet­ing the rare excep­tions, how­ever. If you return to Kyrgyz­stan you tend to do so because of pas­sion rather than money, due to the country’s tricky fin­an­cial situ­ation.

My par­ents always ask me why I come back for example. I had a good salary and the free­dom to travel every­where and I worked hard for many years to get to that level. I didn’t come back to Kyrgyz­stan for the money but rather to do some­thing good for my coun­try and the coun­try of my ancest­ors. I want to help it devel­op. I want my chil­dren to be in a pros­per­ous, nice, friendly and open coun­try and I feel that it is partly my respons­ib­il­ity to cre­ate this future Kyrgyz­stan for the next gen­er­a­tion and I wish oth­er Kyrgyz would think about it in the same way.

Romeo and Juliet staged by Pro Art

Is there a brain drain away from Kyrgyz­stan? How could this situ­ation be improved?

Cer­tainly. In Kyrgyz­stan there is not an equi­val­ent of the Kaza­kh Bolashak pro­gramme, where stu­dents receive fund­ing to study abroad on the con­di­tion that they return to the coun­try for five years after. This could be a good pro­gramme for my coun­try also – if you want pros­per­ous, cre­at­ive and driv­en youth they should explore the world and learn abroad and then return and share this inform­a­tion with every­one else.

Luck­ily I do feel that the coun­try is becom­ing more inter­na­tion­al – more people have star­ted to come and the coun­try is becom­ing more open. The youth here is hungry, people want to learn and become part of the glob­al soci­ety. This is in large part thanks to the inter­net – they want to see what the world is like in oth­er coun­tries and are now also glob­al cit­izens and want to see what hap­pens else­where. 

Mak­sat Sydykov in a con­tem­por­ary bal­let piece

There is also always a dif­fer­ence between urb­an and rur­al areas and so I want Pro Art to start to expand into rur­al areas, as they are often neg­lected. Then youth can also see what hap­pens in cit­ies. In gen­er­al, I have a pos­it­ive out­look for youth in the coun­try though. I work a lot with them and have noticed that they don’t need a lot and are happy – I just think that they need to choose a good pro­fes­sion and focus their atten­tion on this.

How easy is it to run cre­at­ive pro­jects in Bishkek?

I don’t see many bar­ri­ers. There is a very open youth cul­ture, young people just need to get involved in pro­jects – once they get involved in pro­jects they can fol­low their own dream. This approach has been suc­cess­ful at Chick­en Star, a loc­al Bishkek res­taur­ant, where the youth are encour­aged to launch their own pro­jects after Chi­hoon, the own­er, has trained them. This is why he is so pop­u­lar, as he helps a lot of people devel­op through a kind of employ­ee edu­ca­tion­al pro­gramme. People in Cent­ral Asia need an envir­on­ment like Chihoon’s.

*answers have been lightly edited for read­ab­il­ity

The new recommendation

On the 5th of Decem­ber, the Euras­i­an Coun­cil of For­eign Affairs (ECFA) pub­lished the recom­mend­a­tion for EU’s new strategy on Cent­ral Asia at the annu­al meet­ing in Cliveden House. As a stu­dent from Cent­ral Asia, I was extremely excited to be invited to the meet­ing as a part of the Cent­ral Asia For­um (CAF) del­eg­a­tion and to be one of the first few to get to know the poten­tial roadmap of the future EU-Cent­ral Asia rela­tion­ships.

The press con­fer­ence was presen­ted by ECFA Advis­ory Coun­cil Chair Dr Ben­ita Fer­rero-Wald­ner, Former For­eign Min­is­ter and Cham­ber Pres­id­ent of the Itali­an Coun­cil of state Mr Franco Frat­tini, the EU Spe­cial Rep­res­ent­at­ive for Cent­ral Asia H.E. Ambas­sad­or Peter Buri­an and the Man­aging Dir­ect­or of Rus­sia and Cent­ral Asia at EBRD Ms Nat­alia Khan­jen­kova. Deputy Min­is­ter of For­eign Affairs of Kaza­kh­stan Mr Roman Vassi­len­ko also con­trib­uted towards the dis­cus­sion.

Dr Fer­rero-Wald­ner sum­mar­ised the main points of the newly pub­lished ana­lys­is: more focus on the ‘soft power’, the reduc­tion of the num­ber of pri­or­it­ies and the res­ults-driv­en, more prag­mat­ic approach – com­bat­ing traf­fick­ing, ter­ror­ism and tack­ling the chal­lenges of water and energy.

Mr Frat­tini noted that the recom­mend­a­tion is to learn from the past and step away from the ‘Christ­mas tree approach’, when too many goals are set, and the focus is widely dis­persed res­ult­ing in the low vis­ib­il­ity of the EU in Cent­ral Asia. Mr Frat­tini also poin­ted at the Euro­centric ‘Teach and Preach’ approach that  “ in some cases made our inter­locutors quite reluct­ant to fully engage in an open cooper­a­tion with European insti­tu­tions”. The recom­mend­a­tion is that the new approach should be more prag­mat­ic, state-by-state with great vis­ib­il­ity to ordin­ary people.

From the left to the right: R. Vassi­len­ko, N. Khan­jen­kova, P. Buri­an, B. Fer­rero-Wald­ner, F. Frat­tini – photo from Jibek Nur

Peter Buri­an reit­er­ated the need for the reduc­tion of the num­ber of pri­or­it­ies and poin­ted towards the main object­ives– secur­ity and sus­tain­ab­il­ity. He also raised thepoint that there should be great­er syn­ergy with Rus­sia and China as influ­en­tial act­ors in the region.

The rep­res­ent­at­ive of Kaza­kh­stan, Mr Roman Vassi­len­ko­ex­pressed the enthu­si­asm about the future part­ner­ship and the desire for more ambi­tious plans. The region­al pro­jects, he stated, arewel­comed, espe­cially on main­tain­ing the rule of law, edu­ca­tion, private enter­prises.

Rep­res­ent­ing the EBRD,which holds great interest in Cent­ral Asia, Ms Nat­alia Khan­jen­kovastressed the import­ance of the EU sup­port for the invest­ment espe­cially in private sec­tor devel­op­ment and edu­ca­tion or ‘capa­city build­ing’.  The devel­op­ment pro­jects, MsKhan­jen­kova out­lined, will also bene­fit from the great­er con­nectiv­ity of coun­tries in the region as well as from the great­er con­nectiv­ity of for­eign investors. She expressed pos­it­ive expect­a­tions for investors syn­ergy. Com­ing from the invest­ment for­um in Beijing, she claimed that the Chinese investors are open for the cooper­a­tion.

Over­all, the report is the res­ult of the eval­u­ation of the pre­vi­ous 2007 strategy which was very broad. The recom­mend­a­tion seems to primar­ily focus on the devel­op­ment approach which could be great for the cooper­a­tion as Cent­ral Asia nations greatly wel­come this tra­ject­ory of the EU sup­port. The devel­op­ment pro­jects, as the recom­mend­a­tion urges, should be in a great­er cooper­a­tion with Rus­sia and China, without the ‘unne­ces­sary com­pet­iton’.  After all the com­mon goal is to increase sta­bil­ity and secur­ity in the com­ing future of the region.




Central Asia Between Eastern Europe and the Developing Asia: Academic Invisibility from a World Systems Theoretical Point of View

World sys­tems the­ory (WST) dates back to Immanuel Wall­er­stein, who developed his under­stand­ing on world power rela­tions by build­ing on Marx­ist con­cepts of cap­it­al­ist world sys­tem and on the core-peri­phery mod­els of depend­ency the­or­ies.

WST sug­gests the divi­sion of the world (of any­thing) to cent­ral, peri­pher­al and semi-peri­pher­al agents. While most ana­lysts used WST to the descrip­tion of eco­nom­ic or polit­ic­al inequal­it­ies, I have suc­cess­fully adop­ted WST as a fram­ing tool for the descrip­tion of glob­al aca­dem­ic odds in many of my former ana­lyses. In this short post I will argue that, in terms of aca­dem­ic con­tri­bu­tion, Cent­ral Asia (CA) is a typ­ic­al peri­pher­al region of the world sys­tem of glob­al academy which has been impacted between semi-peri­pher­al world regions like East­ern Europe and the Devel­op­ing Asia.  I will use both his­tor­ic­al and empir­ic­al argu­ment­a­tion to show that CA is almost invis­ible in the map of glob­al sci­ence, and, which is a bad job, its min­im­al con­tri­bu­tion con­sists of mainly fake-inter­n­al­isa­tion.

Obser­vat­ory of Ulugh Beg ruler and astro­nomer in Samarkand

His­tor­ic­ally, from an aca­dem­ic point of view, the most import­ant fact about CA is that it con­sists of the former Soviet repub­lics of Kaza­kh­stan, Kyrgyz­stan, Tajikistan, Turk­menistan, and Uzbek­istan, so it was part of the East­ern Bloc dur­ing the Cold War. The most obvi­ous con­sequences of this fact are, from our point of view, that 1) teach­ing and learn­ing of Eng­lish as the lin­gua franca of inter­na­tion­al sci­ence was con­train­dic­ated and, in some cases, even impossible; 2) the region was almost her­met­ic­ally excluded from inter­na­tion­al aca­dem­ic asso­ci­ations; 3) it was very hard to reach West­ern aca­dem­ic lit­er­at­ure, not to men­tion expens­ive West­ern peri­od­ic­als; and 4) the eco­no­met­ric indices includ­ing state fund on schol­ar­ship were way too low as con­tras­ted with those of the Glob­al North. As a res­ult, for almost 40 years, it was very hard or even impossible to keep up with West­ern or inter­na­tion­al stand­ards of research, meth­od­o­logy and pub­lic­a­tion habits. So it is not at all sur­pris­ing that after the end of the Cold War, all regions of the former Soviet Bloc found them­selves as peri­pher­al agents of glob­al academy, and – sadly, with the con­sent and even the act­ive oper­a­tion of the West – this sub­or­dained pos­i­tion hardly changed since then.

Al-Far­abi Kaza­kh Nation­al Uni­ver­sity ranked as 10th best uni­ver­sity in Emer­ging Europe and Cent­ral Asia by QS World Rank­ings 2018

Kaza­kh­stan, that is, the biggest and aca­dem­ic­ally most suc­cess­ful coun­try of CA was placed ninety-ninth among 144 coun­tries in terms of qual­ity of sci­entif­ic research insti­tu­tions in 2014, while the oth­er three coun­tries, Uzbek­istan, Kyrgyz­stan and Turk­menistan, had even worse pos­i­tions. The Kaza­kh Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion and Sci­ence tried to raise the level of aca­dem­ic qual­ity by a rel­at­ively stricter pub­lic­a­tion require­ment for Kaza­kh PhD stu­dents and fac­ulty mem­bers, but, as we will see soon, these attempts have not res­ul­ted in ser­i­ous incline in terms of aca­dem­ic out­put. Table 1 shows that if we con­sider the total sum of aca­dem­ic art­icles, CA trails after not just the devel­op­ing Asia but after East­ern Europe and even some Afric­an coun­tries.  Since we are dis­cuss­ing on glob­al sci­ence, we con­sidered only Scopus-indexed art­icles. Scopus (with Scim­ago) is the most widely used inter­na­tion­al data­base for the com­par­is­on of aca­dem­ic per­form­ance, and it is more inclus­ive than ClarivateAnalytics’s Web of Sci­ence.

RegionCoun­tryDoc­u­ments (Scopus)Citation/documentH‑index
Cent­ral AsiaKaza­kh­stan19,4443.6181
Devel­op­ing AsiaChina5,133,9247.64712
North Korea74616.6455
Developed AsiaJapan2,539,44115.38920
South Korea1,004,04212.25576
Hong Kong263,60219.06479
AfricaSouth Africa241,58712.94391
East­ern EuropeRus­si­an Fed­er­a­tion956,0257.07503
The CoreUS11,036,24324.252077
The Neth­er­lands886,13525.58893

Table 1 World regions in sci­ence and their aca­dem­ic out­put. H‑index refer to the num­ber of art­icles with at least a giv­en num­ber of cita­tions so, for example, H‑index 81 means that the coun­try has 81 art­icles in Scopus with at least 81 cita­tions.

Our empir­ic­al data clearly show that even a small East­ern European coun­try like Hun­gary has almost 5 times stronger inter­na­tion­al con­tri­bu­tion than the whole CA region, and semi-peri­pher­al coun­tries of the devel­op­ing Asia like Malay­sia or Indone­sia have even bet­ter per­form­ance. As a mat­ter of fact, even the sci­en­tific­ally abso­lutely insig­ni­fic­ant North Korea has more than 2 times more Scopus-indexed art­icles than Turk­menistan. The most suc­cess­ful coun­try of the region, Kaza­kh­stan, has the same aca­dem­ic out­put that the extremely poor Ethiopia. The abyss that divides CA to the core regions is unut­ter­able: the small West­ern coun­try, the Neth­er­lands has more than 25 times big­ger sci­ence out­put than the whole CA region.

As a sum­mar­isa­tion of this present post I would con­clude that, from an aca­dem­ic point of view, CA could be con­ceived as a rel­at­ively unnotice­able peri­pher­al region of the world sys­tem of glob­al sci­ence and it seems like it hasn’t yet recog­nised that in order to brake out from the peri­phery it should get to the centre by pub­lish­ing in core journ­als. I hope that the data provided here could help CA schol­ars and their ment­ors con­front­ing these facts and they will try to set out more suc­cess­ful strategies in order to raise the vis­ib­il­ity of this very import­ant and pre­cious region of the world.

An optimist about Central Asia – and for good reason

Suma Chakra­barti is pres­id­ent of the European Bank for Recon­struc­tion and Devel­op­ment

Pres­id­ent of the European Bank for Recon­struc­tion and Devel­op­ment (image source: EBRD)

I am, by tem­pera­ment and out­look on life, an optim­ist. That makes me a strong enthu­si­ast for all the dif­fer­ent regions where the EBRD works.

I am, how­ever, par­tic­u­larly excited about the future of Cent­ral Asia – and not just because I was recently in Beijing for a region­al invest­ment for­um which we organ­ised there and which attrac­ted hun­dreds of seni­or busi­ness exec­ut­ives and poli­cy­makers.

Today, Cent­ral Asia really is one of our world’s most dynam­ic regions. This year, for example, we expect its eco­nom­ies to grow at an over­all rate of 4.6 per­cent. That’s the highest growth in 2018 of any of the regions where we oper­ate.

But my optim­ism is based not so much on fore­casts of what is likely as on the sub­stan­tial achieve­ments we have already achieved on the ground.

The EBRD and our part­ners take con­sid­er­able pride in our record in Cent­ral Asia. We have been act­ive in Kaza­kh­stan, Kyrgyz­stan Tajikistan, Turk­menistan and Uzbek­istan ever since they gained their post-Soviet inde­pend­ence, and in Mon­go­lia from 2006.

We are the largest single investor there – with the cumu­lat­ive sum now stand­ing at US$ 14 bil­lion. Our loc­al know­ledge is pro­found and, I would argue, without equal – which gives me even more cause for optim­ism about the future.

At the same time, stand back from the here and now for a moment and you can see how quickly the momentum for still more change is build­ing.

Giv­en its loc­a­tion, the region has always been cent­ral to the world’s geo­graphy. But for much of the last cen­tury – and indeed fur­ther back in his­tory – it was a land apart, one largely isol­ated and cut off from the glob­al eco­nomy.

Its status today is quite dif­fer­ent. Cent­ral Asia is assum­ing, once again, its ancient role as the bridge join­ing Europe with East Asia. A new Silk Road is tak­ing shape before our very eyes, one con­sist­ing of trade routes which are, of course, not so much new as redis­covered. And thanks to these new trade routes, the region will be bet­ter con­nec­ted to and integ­rated with oth­er regions than ever before.

This Cent­ral Asia will, I am con­vinced, be cent­ral not just in geo­graph­ic terms but to glob­al pro­spects for eco­nom­ic growth as well.

For now we at the EBRD are hav­ing major impact across sec­tors and bor­ders there: strength­en­ing fin­an­cial sys­tems; pion­eer­ing renew­ables; pro­mot­ing energy effi­ciency; mod­ern­ising infra­struc­ture; boost­ing small busi­nesses and advan­cing the cause of eco­nom­ic inclu­sion.

Note that none of this activ­ity is in the ‘tra­di­tion­al’ sphere of car­bon energy-based and nat­ur­al resources. Instead, Cent­ral Asia is the region where we are rolling out some of our most innov­at­ive products, ser­vices and ini­ti­at­ives.

They include: fin­an­cing wind and sol­ar power in Kaza­kh­stan and Mon­go­lia; provid­ing cred­it lines and empower­ing female entre­pren­eurs in Tajikistan; enhan­cing access to health care in Kyrgyz­stan; help­ing SMEs in Turk­menistan and pilot­ing a Cul­tur­al Her­it­age pro­gramme in Uzbek­istan to pro­mote sus­tain­able tour­ism.

To sum up, the oppor­tun­it­ies to be involved in the suc­cess story that is Cent­ral Asia have, to my mind, nev­er looked more attract­ive. I would thus urge any­one with a taste for adven­ture, optim­ist or not, to ‘Go East’.

A Thousand and one nights at the crossroads of the universe

Baghdad – A City of the Silk Road

By the river of Tigris, home of the myth­ic­al mer­chant and sail­or Sin­bad, Bagh­dad was at the heart of a com­plex net­work of trade routes and mar­kets: the Silk Road. This is rep­res­en­ted in the vari­ous sources and des­tin­a­tions of the trade activ­ity of the city includ­ing China, India, Ceylon, Japan, Korea, Rus­sia, Sicily, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Samarkand, Egypt, East­ern Africa, Yemen, Hejaz. But how this met­ro­pol­is emerged from the sand of desert to be one of the cap­it­als of the Silk Road in the medi­ev­al age?

The city of Bagh­dad between 150 and 300 AH (767 and 912 AD) from Muhammadan­ism

Ambition of the Abbasids

The his­tory of Bagh­dad (also known as Mad­in­at al-Salam, the City of Peace or Round City) starts with an assas­sin­a­tion and ends with the down­fall of the Assas­sins.

After Omar, the Great had been assas­sin­ated by a slave, one dyn­asty rose to power from the escal­at­ing con­flict: the Umayy­ads. As they gained most of their sup­port from Syr­ia, they moved the cap­it­al of the Caliphate from  Med­ina, the Islam­ic reli­gious centre, to Dam­as­cus. The House of Abbas, oppos­ing the Umayy­ads, retired to Per­sia to wait for the right time to over­throw the Umayy­ad rule.

This moment has arrived with Abu Abbas Abdul­lah who foun­ded the Abbasid dyn­asty as the ruler of the Caliphate. His suc­cessor in power was his broth­er, Jafar Abdul­lah al-Mansur, who exten­ded the rule of the empire to Per­sia, Meso­pot­amia, Ara­bia and Syr­ia. To rep­res­ent the tri­umph of his dyn­asty, he wanted to cre­ate a new cap­it­al, close to his Per­sian allies some­where at the heart of his empire.

As he sailed down the Tigris to find the per­fect place, he was advised of the most suit­able loc­a­tion by Nestor­i­an monks, who had lived there earli­er than Muslims. Abund­ance of water and the pos­sib­il­ity of con­trol over stra­tegic and trade routes of Tigris determ­ined the loc­a­tion of the new cap­it­al: it was estab­lished on the coast of Tigris at the point where it is the closest to the Euphrates, the oth­er main river of Meso­pot­amia. These two rivers linked the city to north with upper-Syr­ia and Asia Minor, and south with the Gulf of Basra and fur­ther to India. It faced east towards the Ira­ni­an plat­eau and Cent­ral Asia. There­fore, it is not sur­pris­ing that accord­ing to ninth-cen­tury Arab geo­graph­er and his­tor­i­an Yaqubi, author of The Book of Coun­tries, the pos­i­tion of Bagh­dad on the Tigris close to the Euphrates gave it the poten­tial to be “the cross­roads of the uni­verse”.

Suq-al-Ghazal Min­aret in 1911, the old­est min­aret in Bagh­dad from MidEast Image

It is the ambi­tion of the Abbasids which erec­ted Baghdad’s towers and walls and temp­ted mer­chants and adven­tur­ers to its bazaars and ports. This is the city from which myth­ic­al hero Sin­bad set sail and where some of the tales of A Thou­sand and One Nights takes place. But how did the scene of Ara­bi­an Nights look like?

Inside the circle of flames

Reflect­ing Per­sian and Sas­ani­an urb­an design, the city was built in a circle sur­roun­ded by walls. Con­struc­tion works star­ted on 30 July 762 as roy­al astro­nomers pre­dicted this day as the most favour­able for build­ing work to begin. Mansur super­vised the whole pro­ced­ure rig­or­ously: to ensure the most pre­cise work he placed cot­ton balls soaked in naph­tha along the lay­out on the ground and set alight to mark the pos­i­tion of double out­er walls. Being around a circle three miles in dia­met­er, it was con­sti­tuted by two-hun­dred-pound blocks of stones in a height of 90 feet and width of 40 feet. As Yaqubi men­tions, 100,000 work­ers got involved in the con­struc­tion pro­cess.

The round design was unique in that time and it proved to be effect­ive: four equidistant gates led to the city centre through straight roads. The four gates are: Khor­asan Gate to the north-east, Sham (Syr­i­an) Gate to the north-west, Basra Gate to the south-east and Kufa Gate to the south-west. Kufa and Basra opened at the Sar­at Canal, a key part of water­ways that drained the waters of Euphrates into the Tigris. Sham Gate led to the main road to Anbar, and across the desert to Syr­ia. Khor­asan was close to the Tigris and ensured the con­nec­tion with boats on the rivers.

The main roads start­ing from the four gates lead­ing to the city centre were con­nec­ted with arcades crowded by shops and stands of mer­chants from all along the Silk Roads. How­ever, the heart of the city was a roy­al pre­serve with the Great Mosque and the caliph’s Golden Gate Palace an expres­sion of the uni­on between tem­por­al and spir­itu­al author­ity. Only the caliph had author­ity to ride with­in this area. His palace rose above the build­ings with its emer­ald-col­oured dome in 130 feet high, nick­named ‘The Green Dome’.

Buniya Mosque in Bagh­dad in 1973

As the city expan­ded with bazaars and shops set­tling out­side the walls, Al-Karkh dis­trict was formed at the south. The prosper­ing city reached its zenith in the eighth and ninth cen­tury where poets, schol­ars, philo­soph­ers, theo­lo­gians, engin­eers and mer­chants raised the intel­lec­tu­al and eco­nom­ic of the city. Wealth poured from every corner of the world to its mar­ket and build­ings, erec­ted high above the desert and the waters of Tigris. Its lib­rary had the largest repos­it­ory of books which later could be the ground of the great achieve­ments of Arab­ic and European sci­ence.

Court­yard of Mus­tansir­iya madrasa, an insti­tu­tion of high­er edu­ca­tion, estab­lished by Al-Mus­tansir in 1227

Hülegü and the end of an era

In the tenth cen­tury, caliph Mu’tasim moved the centre of the empire from Bagh­dad to Samarra, and the once cent­ral­ised empire began to demol­ish. Bagh­dad has nev­er reached that status it had under the early-Abbasids.
It was 1257 when the greatest polit­ic­al event first reached Bagh­dad – the Mon­gols. In Septem­ber, Mon­gol Hülegü Khan sent an ulti­mat­um to the caliph bid­ding him to sur­render him­self and demol­ish the out­er walls of the cap­it­al. As the caliph rejec­ted, the Mon­gol con­quer­or set forth to pun­ish the city. He arrived to Bagh­dad in Janu­ary 1258 and defeated the city in a month, which fell to the Mon­gols. Bagh­dad faced massive destruc­tion of its build­ings and mas­sacre killing 800,000 of its inhab­it­ants.

This is how the medi­ev­al glory of Bagh­dad passed away. It later suffered from Tam­er­lane and the war of two nomad­ic Turkic clans, the Black Sheep and the White Sheep. From 1534, after hun­dreds of years of Otto­man rule, the city became able to devel­op rap­idly again in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, but that is anoth­er story.

A celebration of history and culture: the World Nomad Games

Nomad­ic cul­ture leaves a deep and col­our­ful imprint on Euras­i­an his­tory. Nomad­ic empires first arose as shad­ow empires in response to the cent­ral­isa­tion of China accord­ing to one of the main aca­dem­ic debates.

On the east­ern side of the steppe, neces­sity forced the nomads into cre­at­ing a cent­rally-admin­istered Mon­go­lia to con­duct poten­tially viol­ent busi­ness with China in order to main­tain their exist­ence. They did not have the capa­city to fight China head-on as their exist­ence was built around their mobil­ity in small num­bers – entirely dis­tinct from the sedent­ary cit­ies of the Chinese empire. Nomad­ic groups aimed to pre­serve their mobile life­styles, yet not in conquered lands. They adop­ted an imper­i­al-style admin­is­tra­tion sys­tem where they ruled indir­ectly through boy­ars or Rus­si­an noble­men col­lect­ing taxes for them.

Some argue that the arrival of the Mon­gol Empire con­trib­uted to the emer­gence and con­struc­tion of the European nation state. In con­trast, to the west of the steppe, nomads made a liv­ing not by viol­ent nego­ti­ations but by dom­in­at­ing the trad­ing net­work. These groups cre­ated the polit­ic­al frame­work for the Silk Route through policies provid­ing secur­ity to the cara­vans cross­ing Euras­ia, ensur­ing the smooth work­ing of the trade net­work that poten­tially con­trib­uted to European unity.

The World Nomad Games thrives to revive, pre­serve and devel­op this unique his­tory and eth­no­cul­tur­al par­tic­u­lar­it­ies of the nomad­ic civil­isa­tion in order to foster more tol­er­ant and open rela­tion­ships between people in the age of glob­al­isa­tion and amidst the polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic region­al trans­form­a­tions.

Turk­menistan’s per­form­ance at the open­ing cere­mony of the II World Nomad Games

Every two years, begin­ning from 2014, the Games take place in the lakeside town of Chol­pon-Ata, in the Issyk-Kul province of Kyrgyz­stan, although the host­ing loc­a­tion is set to change for future games. This year, ath­letes from 74 coun­tries par­ti­cip­ated in 37 tra­di­tion­al nomad games, involving horse games, wrest­ling, mar­tial arts, arch­ery, hunt­ing and intel­lec­tu­al games. The zeinth of strength and show­man­ship is found in horse game of Kok Boru (some­times known as Buzkashi). The game is described as a fusion between rugby and polo, with two teams com­pet­ing to throw a head­less car­cass of a goat into a goal at each end of the field. Tra­di­tion­ally the win­ner would take the car­cass home and cook it up in a feast.

Er Ern­ish, anoth­er Kyrgyz sport, sees two ath­letes wrestle on horse­back seek­ing to dis­mount their oppon­ent. Wrest­ling is the most rep­res­en­ted sport at the Games with fif­teen dif­fer­ent types on offer from the par­ti­cip­at­ing coun­tries, includ­ing Alyh, or belt wrest­ling, where the par­ti­cipants throw the oppon­ent on the ground by grabbing their belt around their waist.

Par­ti­cipants do not only com­pete in eth­no­s­ports but also in every­day activ­it­ies of nomads, such as yurt build­ing, hunt­ing with a golden eagle (Burkut Saluu), fal­conry (Dal­ba Oynotuu), dog racing, and hunt­ing (Taigan Jary­sh).

Kaza­kh ath­lete with his golden eagle

While Chol­pon-Ata hosts the sports games, the cul­tur­al base is the town of Kyrchyn Jail­oo in the moun­tains, dis­play­ing per­form­ances of Kyrgyz cus­toms, enter­tain­ment and games and those of the par­ti­cip­at­ing coun­tries. These eth­no­cul­tur­al shows intro­duce the dances, fash­ion, bazaars, and music of the nomads – embra­cing their ori­gin­al­ity and diversity. In the extens­ive yurt camp set up both by the offi­cial organ­isers and loc­al Kyrgyz fam­il­ies as accom­mod­a­tion, guests can exper­i­ence Cent­ral Asi­an hos­pit­al­ity, tra­di­tion­al cuisine, horse tax­is, and hot air bal­loon rides in the moun­tains.

Nomad­ic yurt vil­lage at the Games

Unsur­pris­ingly, the 2018 World Nomad Games were won by Kyrgyz­stan, with Kaza­kh­stan in second, and Rus­sia on the third place. At the clos­ing cere­mony, Kyrgyz­stan cere­mo­ni­ally handed a ves­sel of gla­cial water ‑the totem of the Games sym­bol­ising sim­ul­tan­eously both life and the dif­fi­culty of find­ing fresh water – and the book of great win­ners to Tur­key, who will host the next Games in 2020.

The World Nomad Games were broad­cas­ted all over the world in over 60 coun­tries, the sports, tra­di­tions, cul­tures and lives of nomads reached hun­dreds of mil­lions of people. With such an extens­ive cel­eb­ra­tion of the nomad­ic cul­ture and his­tory the com­ment­at­or of the second Games was right: ‘If Genghis Khan were alive, he would be here’.

Walking in forgotten lands: conservation in Kyrgyzstan

The rur­al climbs of Kyrgyz­stan are legendary. They are also under threat. Brett Wilson has been work­ing as part of an inter­na­tion­al effort to secure the future of Cent­ral Asia’s unique nat­ive flora.

One of many stun­ning views encountered in Kyrgyzstan’s Sary-Chelek Bio­sphere Reserve.

Cent­ral Asia was once the focus of trade across the world. The Silk Road ran from China across into Europe span­ning the moun­tains and val­leys of Asia’s cent­ral region. How­ever, as this region became absorbed into the USSR, its links to the West­ern world were broken and the trans­fer of know­ledge regard­ing this region’s biod­iversity was, unfor­tu­nately, lim­ited due to rising ten­sions between coun­tries. Today, after the break­up of the Soviet Uni­on and the inde­pend­ence of coun­tries such as Kyrgyz­stan and Kaza­kh­stan, the sci­entif­ic and envir­on­ment­al depart­ments of these coun­tries are grow­ing and the amaz­ing spe­cies diversity that these areas hold is becom­ing appar­ent.

I worked in the Repub­lic of Kyrgyz­stan in one of the biod­iversity hot­spots of the world, the wal­nut-fruit forest. These forests are thought to be the ori­gin of an incred­ible vari­ety of fruits and nuts such as apples, pears, apricots, wal­nuts, and pista­chio nuts as well as a range of flowers includ­ing tulips. Due to the his­tory of these coun­tries, little research has been car­ried out in these forests espe­cially with regard to some of the more Endangered spe­cies. The land­scapes where these spe­cies are found are heav­ily util­ised by the loc­al human pop­u­la­tion. The resources gathered from these forests have helped sup­port loc­al com­munit­ies for thou­sands of years and con­tin­ue to be an excep­tion­ally import­ant part of loc­al cul­ture and life.

Farm­ing and forest are nev­er far apart in the Kyrgyz land­scape. 

The forest eco­sys­tem, how­ever, is under pres­sure due to over­har­vest­ing of resources and excess­ive live­stock graz­ing with­in the forest land­scape. This is greatly lim­it­ing the regen­er­a­tion capa­city of the forest and may mean that these areas are not sus­tained for future gen­er­a­tions. As the loc­al pop­u­la­tions con­tin­ue to increase, this prob­lem also escal­ates. The remain­ing hab­it­at frag­ments are becom­ing more dam­aged and pop­u­la­tions of many fruits and nuts are declin­ing dra­mat­ic­ally. Numer­ous spe­cies loc­ated in these forests have been iden­ti­fied as threatened and in need of urgent con­ser­va­tion action. How­ever, lim­ited inform­a­tion on these forest sys­tems and the spe­cies with­in greatly inhib­its the tar­get­ing and there­fore the effect­ive­ness of any action planned.

I stud­ied the apple spe­cies Malus niedzwet­zky­ana, already on the Endangered list, with the hope of redu­cing the know­ledge gaps sur­round­ing threats to this spe­cies and its eco­logy. The apple is unique as it has a red pig­ment which per­meates through its leaves, flowers and fruit leav­ing red-tinged leaves, a deep red fruit from its skin through to its flesh, and pink flowers. This red pig­ment is a type of antho­cy­an­in which has been shown to have bene­fi­cial health prop­er­ties, with anti-inflam­mat­ory and anti-vir­al being two of the most sig­ni­fic­ant. Its unique genet­ic makeup high­lights it as a crit­ic­al spe­cies to pro­tect as it has import­ant poten­tial use in devel­op­ing new apple vari­et­ies.

The red fruit of the Niedzwetzky’s apple tree. The unique pig­ment­a­tion of this spe­cies makes it iden­ti­fi­able against oth­er apple spe­cies.

Work­ing with Fauna and Flora Inter­na­tion­al and Imper­i­al Col­lege Lon­don, I col­lec­ted data in four forest frag­ments that were known to be strong­holds of the wal­nut-fruit forest eco­sys­tem and where loc­al com­munit­ies were will­ing to provide sup­port to con­ser­va­tion prac­tices. Dur­ing my trip, I loc­ated around 150 indi­vidu­als [the largest data­set known glob­ally] and recor­ded the extent of threats from live­stock graz­ing and fire­wood col­lec­tion across these areas. I also explored the basic eco­logy of the spe­cies and developed a spe­cies dis­tri­bu­tion mod­el to invest­ig­ate his­tor­ic­al forest cov­er and try to devel­op evid­ence for past hab­it­at loss.

By gath­er­ing this inform­a­tion, I have been able to con­trib­ute to the pro­tec­tion of an icon­ic Cent­ral Asi­an land­scape and change the fate of one of its more unique spe­cies.

My research high­lighted that all forest frag­ments were greatly affected by humans.  How­ever, in the sites of Sary-Chelek Bio­sphere Reserve and Kara-Alma Forestry Unit, there was poten­tial to strengthen excep­tion­ally stressed pop­u­la­tions through sap­ling plant­ing pro­jects. I iden­ti­fied south-west slopes with rel­at­ively open can­opy as good areas to plant sap­lings. Using the spe­cies dis­tri­bu­tion mod­el, I provided evid­ence that the his­tor­ic­al range of this spe­cies was much lar­ger than its cur­rent range, high­light­ing the effect of hab­it­at loss. This affects not only Malus niedzwet­zky­ana but the whole com­munity found in the wal­nut-fruit forests.

By gath­er­ing this inform­a­tion, I have been able to con­trib­ute to the pro­tec­tion of an icon­ic Cent­ral Asi­an land­scape and change the fate of one of its more unique spe­cies. This work is crit­ic­al in design­ing the con­ser­va­tion actions that will pro­tect this spe­cies in the future and the com­munity in which it grows. To have been able to explore a scarcely known corner of the world, walk­ing through the forests where few have been before, was a truly remark­able exper­i­ence. The con­trast of Rus­si­an and Turk­ish influ­ences along­side the unique tra­di­tions of the region make this a ver­it­able cul­tur­al melt­ing pot. This region, hid­den from the world I grew up in, is full of incred­ible people, excit­ing nature, and won­der­ful oppor­tun­it­ies, a land which I hope the rest of the world will come to appre­ci­ate as I have done.

Brett Wilson car­ried out his research with the sup­port of Fauna and Flora Inter­na­tion­al, The Roy­al Botan­ic Gar­dens, Kew, and Imper­i­al Col­lege Lon­don, with fund­ing from the Glob­al Trees Cam­paign. His interests lie in tree con­ser­va­tion research and he is cur­rently an intern at Botan­ic Gar­dens Con­ser­va­tion Inter­na­tion­al where he works on pro­tect­ing tree spe­cies world­wide.

All pho­to­graphy by the author.