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Across the Former Soviet Union Jews in Kyrgyzstan Not Threatened, but Some May Leave After Upheaval

March 31, 2005
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Members of the small Jewish community of Kyrgyzstan may emigrate in the wake of the revolution in this Central Asian nation, the community’s leader told JTA. “Many Jews are experiencing a burning desire to leave,” Dr. Boris Shapiro, head of the Jewish culture society Menorah, the leading secular community organization, told JTA on Tuesday in a telephone interview from the Kyrgyz capital city of Bishkek.

“No one has left yet, but there will be a wave of emigration,” he said.

He added that Jews are worried over possible economic consequences of the revolution that toppled President Askar Akayev last week. Another reason for concern is a rise in radical Islam that may slip into the vacuum created by political and economic turmoil.

Some five million people live in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic sandwiched between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and China. Following the nationwide protests and civil unrest, Israeli consular officers arrived to help evacuate the Jewish population if necessary.

“People were lining up, and the Israelis are still busy checking people’s papers,” Shapiro said. “No one got their visas yet. But people will start leaving soon; this is certain.”

Shapiro said there was no immediate threat to the community, though he admitted the situation in Bishkek was “terrifying” on March 24-25 when protesters took over main government buildings in the city and gangs used the chaos to loot stores, markets and businesses.

“The worst seems to be over now,” Shapiro said.

In Washington, the leader of a group that monitors Jewish life in the region said his group is working to ensure that the Jewish community is safe.

“Fortunately, the Jews haven’t been made a target and don’t feel threatened,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. “We’re working with the Americans and the Israelis to keep things that way.”

Kyrgyzstan is home to some 1,500 Jews, approximately one-fifth of the Jewish community’s size at its peak some 15 years ago, before the Soviet Union broke up and Jews started emigrating.

The modern Jewish presence in Kyrgyzstan is a relatively new phenomenon.

While the Jewish presence can be traced to the Middle Ages, the current, mostly Ashkenazi community traces its roots to Stalin-era exiles and World War II-era refugees and evacuees.

Shapiro’s story is typical. Now 74, he was born in Ukraine and settled in Kyrgyzstan some 50 years ago, looking for better educational and career opportunities.

Like in many other places on the outskirts of the Soviet empire, state-sponsored anti-Semitism was relatively weak in Kyrgyzstan, and Shapiro managed to build a good career in medicine after graduating from a medical college in Bishkek.

Shapiro made it to the post of deputy health-care minister in the last years of the Soviet Union. He later served in a similar position with Kyrgyzstan’s first post-Soviet government.

He added that many have regained their hopes for law and order now that Feliks Kulov, a longtime opposition politician and former national security minister who was sentenced to a prison term three years ago, is a key figure in the new government. Kulov was released from jail amid last week’s protests.

“He is a charismatic leader and he took the situation in his own hands. He knows how to go about it,” Shapiro said.

But Shapiro said the political situation is still tense, with opposition leaders focusing on redistributing the power they took from Akayev and his proteges.

Akayev, a university-trained mathematician and the nation’s leader since 1990, is a former liberal academic-turned-boss of the reform wing of the Communist party under Mikhail Gorbachev. Like many leaders in post-Soviet Central Asia, he extended his term in office and was widely accused by the opposition of authoritarianism, corruption and nepotism.

But Shapiro said the Jewish community felt safe during Akayev’s rule.

“Despite all the setbacks of his regime, he was an intellectual, and he always remembered that all his teachers were Jewish,” Shapiro said.

Like many of his countrymen, Shapiro believes there will be a period of uncertainty for Kyrgyzstan, and many Jews simply don’t want to test their luck during the difficult times ahead.

“We are a small and very poor country that lacks any energy resources of its own. It’s difficult to live here,” Shapiro said.

(JTA Foreign Editor Peter Ephross in New York contributed to this report.)

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