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Playing the name game in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan has delayed its decision to name a mountain after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, but precedent says the bill will be pushed through…

It was announced today that the Jogorku Kengesh, the parliament of Central Asian coup capital Kyrgyzstan, has delayed the renaming of a 4,446-metre mountain in honour of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The image of a block of solid granite imposingly looking down on a newly-independent former Russian satellite seems a nice juxtaposition of Putin’s own PR campaign, and his vilification in the western press, so it will surely go through at a latter date.

When the postponed vote goes ahead, and if successful, Putin wouldn’t be the first Russian leader to be immortalised as a peak in the towering Tien Shan range – everyone’s favourite red-bearded revolutionary lends his name to Pik Lenina, Kyrgyzstan’s second-highest summit (the highest, temporarily at least, being known after his successor – Josef Stalin). Meanwhile, Russia’s first post-Soviet leader Boris Yeltsin has his own mountain overlooking Issyk-Kul, the alpine lake which represented the high-point of Soviet Nomenklatura holidaying. Even Santa Claus, like Yeltsin famed for his jolly demeanour, has his own mountain in the chain.

It was naming practises in Central Asia in general and Kyrgyzstan in particular which first attracted me to the region, and ended up with me living there. The tales of Turkmen despot Saparmurat Nyyazow are legendary – renaming himself Turkmenbashi (Father of all Turkmen) and the months of the year after members of his own family are well-known by most with any interest in the area, but there are plenty of trivia concerning Kyrgyzstan, too. Most boring among them is that it is one of only four countries in the world the name of which includes just one vowel, the most surprising thing about this fact being that it isn’t even the most depressingly backward of the four (that honour claimed by Chad).

The name Kyrgyzstan itself loosely comes from Kirkkyz a name meaning “Forty Maidens.” Local legend has it that following a battle just 40 girls were left to rebuild the nation. How they did that in a nomadic culture with what could only be described as a strong history in livestock desecration needs no further explanation.

Later, in the late 1990s, the Bishkek authorities once petitioned Bern to be allowed to officially call Kyrgyzstan “The Switzerland of Central Asia”, a moniker it briefly had plastered all over its airport and rivalled only in ludicrousness by countries such as North Korea and Congo putting the word Democratic in their titles.

That airport, Manas, currently hosts a U.S. “transit [military] centre” and until it again became more politically expedient to fellate Moscow rather than Washington, that airbase was called Ganci in honour of a 9/11 firefighter, its name change the first sign of a swing of allegiances at government decision-making level (although it still remains in the capital serving as a station for U.S. troops to jettison Olympic swimming pool-size amounts of kerosene over Kyrgyzstan’s few tracts of arable land, run over local staff with fuel trucks, and drunkenly fight with any local they can lay hands on of a Saturday night).

The competing Russian airbase, meanwhile, sits outside the nearby Chui valley town of Kant – which as the Kyrgyz language is written in the Cyrillic alphabet despite in no way being suited to it could be named either after prominent German epistemology fan Immanuel, or Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The capital itself also has its own unglamorous naming story – Bishkek, formally Pishpek, was given its name by Russian troops who established a garrison there in honour of what in official history is now known as a plunger, but was more likely named after what (forty?) local women used to satisfy themselves with while their husbands were off on the steppes or out in the mountains hunting.

Meanwhile, it was back at Issyk-Kul where I had my first job in Kyrgyzstan – where I was posted to get a story at a spot on the Barskoon River now locally known as Kyshtbaev beach. Several days earlier, a truck carrying cyanide for use in leeching gold capsized into the lake, spilling its load, poisoning half the lake’s fish, and threatening to kill off Kyrgyzstan’s nascent tourism industry to boot. In an early blueprint for Putin’s hardman photo shoots, the then deputy environment minister staged a press conference on a lakeside beach after the clear-up operations were complete, pledging the water was potable. Well he proved it was drinkable, but it cost him his life.

Something I was lucky to escape the country with myself after I named the then-Defence Minister something else in a later article, but that’s another story…

Leon Addie