- Perceived arrogance
- Immigration policy
- Domestic factors
Setting out one’s perception of a country as big and diverse as the US can take up several pages so I focus on three things that the United States symbolizes for me today. These are related but separate points.
First, it is a model of a working democracy. While it has some important weaknesses, the model has succeeded in ensuring rule of law and minimizing the arbitrary influence of individuals on the laws or their interpretation. It is also a model that puts an extraordinary emphasis on the individual as opposed to the state.
Second, the US is a society that has largely overcome very deep social traumas of the past, including slavery and racism. While such matters may not easily be wiped out and one still see the reflections of these issues around the country, the US has come a very long way towards ensuring the prevalence of the law and basic norms of civility.
Third, the US is the world’s major military, economic and political power, whose external engagement is overwhelmingly positive, but not free of controversy. Its international involvement is wide-ranging, from assistance, aid and cooperation to the imposition of its own will elsewhere. Importantly, the external involvement of the US is implemented under close scrutiny of the public and the US Congress, a key difference from many other countries.
In summary, I admire the achievements of US citizens in overcoming various forms of discrimination and implementing laws that both work and respect individuals. The negative aspects of my perceptions of the US stem from it being too powerful, despite the fact that the power is indeed used for the good of others as well.
The key source of influence for many is Russia – the main translator of world news to the information space in Central Asia
Where do my perceptions come from?
- Education. American professors teaching undergraduate courses in Kyrgyzstan are a huge influence, of course. They often demonstrate what it is to be a free citizen by their own example, including those who admire Noam Chomsky and teach his writings in the classroom.
- Personal experience. My travels to various parts of the US, including big cities in northeast, small towns in Mississippi, short trips and a year of undergraduate level studies (on US State Department funding).
- The stories of others. The stories of relatives or friends who had visited the US, and of US citizens I met in Kyrgyzstan, were especially important before I visited the US myself. Also included here are stories told in US movies and news etc.
Are my views shared widely in Kyrgyzstan?
No. These views are more likely to be shared by those who have similar political views, who speak English and who have experience of living in US or Europe.
The political elite in Kyrgyzstan is relatively diverse, but I will highlight some of the views common among them:
- The US is a powerful and evil empire, able and willing to impose its own rule in any country. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Kosovo are easily grouped together as evidence of this. Ukraine and the recent wave of ‘colour revolutions’ is seen as the ‘hand of Washington’. Russian media is often responsible for creating and reinforcing this perception.
- The US is anti-Russian. It still lives in the Cold War era and will never fall in love with Russia, as it did with Eastern Europe and the Baltics. This may be because of the Russian nuclear power or the rise of Russian power under Putin. This view also comes from Russian media.
- The US is an economic powerhouse. It is rich and can provide aid and assistance in many areas. This aid can be politically sensitive (support for NGOs, free elections), socially oriented (anti-AIDS etc.) or morally controversial (LGBT, gender). Nevertheless, the US has resources which some see as an opportunity for Kyrgyzstan, some as an opportunity for themselves, and some as a threat to the country.
- The US is a land of opportunity. It has the best education system, the richest companies, no corruption and excellent career opportunities. Living in the US, and becoming a US citizen, is a dream for many people since it provides a kind of stability, security and opportunity not available in Kyrgyzstan and its neighborhood.
The key source of influence for many is Russia – the main translator of world news to the information space in Central Asia. This influence comes in the shape of daily news from the state-owned Russian TV companies, Russian movies, as well as the thousands of people travelling to and from Russia. Thus, people who regularly travel to Europe and/or speak English well enough to read news in English, have a better chance of evading this influence.
How influential is the US in Kyrgyzstan?
While the US does have some influence, it does not exercise it very often. Rare examples include the US success in keeping the airbase near Bishkek, surviving several attempts by Kyrgyzstan to remove it. However, it is worth noting that once Russia increased its pressure on Kyrgyzstan over the airbase, the US could not do much to convince or reassure the country’s leadership.
The lack of visibility of US influence may be attributed to two things. First, there is little support in Kyrgyzstan for the US as a political or military actor and as a model of political and economic welfare. Liberal values are weak, to put it mildly. Second, the US does not seem to have serious imperatives to wield its influence. Put differently, there is a fundamental lack of serious American interest in Kyrgyzstan and the region.