Police in Kyrgyzstan pressures exiled anti-war Russians to keep quiet

Kyrgyzstan's president Sadyr Japarov with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Screenshot from the President KR YouTube channel.

Exiled Russian nationals in Bishkek are facing mounting pressure over their public anti-war stance. Kyrgyzstan's government is ready to appease the Kremlin, its main political and economic partner.

On March 23, Russian exiles living in Bishkek shut down the public center Krasnaya Krysha (Red Roof) that they opened last year after relocating to Kyrgyzstan. Its founders shared that they did so under “the palette of influences of law enforcement agencies,” implying intimidation and harassment techniques employed against them by the local police, security services, and tax office.

This announcement came 15 days after the center reported facing pressure from law-enforcement bodies. On March 8, it detailed how “over the past week, new extremely unpleasant incidents have happened to” individuals affiliated with Krasnaya Krysha. Bakyt Rysbekov, the Director of the National Center for the Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, visited Krasnaya Krysha on March 9. He encouraged the center to record any further cases of pressure and “seek legal protection from the National Center.”

The optimism was short-lived, however. The main reason for the persecution of Krasnaya Krysha’s affiliates is a public display of their anti-war stance. In 2022, Kyrgyzstan received tens of thousands of Russian nationals, who fled their homes after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The pressure to shut down the organization and silence its members is a sign of Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on Russia, which became ever more apparent since the start of the war in Ukraine.

A place for arts, crafts and public activism

In February 2023, Krasnaya Krysha became synonymous with the local authorities’ unease and irritation around the activism of exiled Russian nationals in Kyrgyzstan. It was established by a couple from Saint Petersburg, Ilya and Yulia Kuleshov, who moved to Bishkek last spring. Its Instagram account states that it's a place for “crafts and creativity, activism, and discussion of social problems.”

It is the anti-war stance of its founders and affiliates that brought the center in conflict with the Kyrgyz authorities. The activities of Krasnaya Krysha affiliates on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine put the organization in limelight and drew heightened attention from the police and Kyrgyz security services (the GKNB).

On February 24, 2023, dozens of blue and yellow ribbons were tied to lampposts on Kyiv street in Bishkek. The police classified it as an unauthorized action in support of Ukraine and detained five foreigners. Yulia Kuleshova later shared on Krasnaya Krysha’s Instagram that she was one of the five detained foreigners. The incident ended with the police holding “a conversation to prevent provocations on their part, aimed at drawing Kyrgyzstan into a conflict between states.” The perpetrators paid fines in the amount of KGS 5,500 (USD 63) for violating Article 431 of the Code of Offenses, which regulates foreign citizens’ stay, labor activity and travel in Kyrgyzstan.

On the same day, a group of people went to a park in central Bishkek for a flower laying ceremony. The plan to hold this activity was announced on Krasnaya Krysha’s Instagram account on 21 February. Five people were arrested by GKNB agents immediately after they laid flowers. “They abruptly changed their tone, pressed the IDs to my  face, barked ‘GKNB,'” shared Yulia Kuleshova. The GKNB agents had previously introduced themselves as park administration employees, who came to observe the ceremony. All of them were released on the same day, after paying fines for violating the same Article 431, routinely applied against politically active Russian nationals.

Photo from the flower laying ceremony on 24 February, posted on Krasnaya Krysha's Instagram.

On March 7, the police in Bishkek arbitrarily detained and interrogated a group of Russian nationals. They were taken to a police station, interrogated about Krasnaya Krysha and shown dossiers on the center and people linked with it. On March 9, the Bishkek police department explained that the incident involved six Russian citizens, who were fined due to their violation of the same Article 431. The police statement insisted that the goal was to explain to the foreigners “the procedure for staying on the territory of Kyrgyzstan,” including carrying “responsibility for actions aimed at inciting racial, ethnic, national, religious or interregional hatred.”

The difficult task of simultaneously sitting on two chairs 

The war in Ukraine presented Bishkek with the challenging task of navigating Russia’s demands for explicit support of its invasion and the risks of falling under Western sanctions.

On February 26, 2022, the Kremlin released a readout of the call between Putin and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sadyr Japarov. It stated that Japarov blamed Ukrainians for starting the conflict by failing to abide by the terms of the 2014 Minsk peace agreement. Japarov’s own office neither confirmed nor denied this account of the conversation. It simply noted that the two presidents “exchanged opinions on international and regional security issues, including the situation unfolding around Ukraine.” The president’s spokesman also insisted that Bishkek favored negotiations as a way to prevent further death and destruction.

Kyrgyzstan’s dependency on Russia as its biggest economic and security partner is the reason it has not yet taken a categorical stance on the war. Russia is Kyrgyzstan’s main security guarantor. It operates the Kant military air base near the capital Bishkek, and Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia’s analogue of NATO. Russia is also a primary destination country for hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyzstani migrants. In 2022 alone, 223.4 thousand migrants went to Russia from Kyrgyzstan. Remittances make up around 31 percent of the country’s GDP, and 98 percent of them are sent back home by migrants working in Russia.

In this context, the local law enforcement’s pressure on Krasnaya Krysha and it shutting down was only a matter of time. The last time the police detained Krasnaya Krysha affiliates on March 7, it warned them that they were “working closely with the Russian embassy [in Bishkek]” that allegedly requested to deport everyone who hung colored ribbons. On March 23, the center’s founders explained shutting it down with the Ministry of Interior representative’s threat that read:

“Any more violations, and we will immediately send you out of Kyrgyzstan.”

In a parallel development, the GKNB has warned the media against providing a platform to Russian nationals critical of the Kremlin. On March 9, it summoned Makanbai kyzy Gulmira, journalist from the 24.kg news agency, in relation to her video interview with two Russian nationals who moved to Bishkek in September last year. One of them was Buda Munkhoev from Buryatia, one of Russia’s autonomous republics. In the interview, he talked about how Buryats informally started discussing aspirations for the region’s independence from Russia after the start of the war. A Russian national filed a complaint regarding this video material. The video below carries the interview.

Even since the West introduced sanctions against Russia, the Kremlin has been exploiting Kyrgyzstan’s dependency and vulnerability in its schemes to circumvent them. Now facing the growing risk of falling under sanctions for helping Russia to bypass them, the political leadership in Kyrgyzstan find themselves in a rapidly worsening dreadful and delicate situation. Very soon Krasnaya Krysha may turn into the least of their problems.

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