Chingiz Aitmatov is both Kyrghyz ambassador to NATO, the European Union and Belgium, and his country's greatest writer.
His books, including Jamila, Farewell, Gulsary!, The White Ship, Ascent of Mount Fuji and The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, have been translated into many languages and published to critical acclaim in Asia, Europe and North America. The winner of many literary prizes, national and international, he became an adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union's twilight years and a Kyrghyz diplomat when the Kyrghyz Republic gained independence.
How has the Kyrghyz Republic been affected by the conflict in Afghanistan?
The conflict in Afghanistan is not just a military conflict between two adversaries. More importantly, it is a clash between two different ways of thinking. Clearly, it is important to win the military struggle but, in the longer term, we need to find some way of reconciling two conflicting world perspectives. Events in Afghanistan have been a huge challenge for my country and other countries in the region. It is as if destiny were testing our resolve. At the very time that we are striving to promote freedom, democracy and human rights, to modernise our societies and raise the level of our economic development in the post-Soviet era, events right next door in Afghanistan have threatened to destroy everything we have achieved so far. Were Islamic fundamentalism to win, the clock would be turned back by many centuries. The religious extremism and fundamentalism that has arisen in Afghanistan is a barbaric force, a throwback to the feudalism of the Middle Ages. In other words, what we are seeing is a clash of civilisations, which was unavoidable.
The process of transformation to democracy and freedom in the countries of Central Asia has inevitably caused some economic and political suffering. But the reactionary forces in the region remained hidden, until they were stirred up by the chaos in Afghanistan. Kyrghyztan has also had to cope with two armed incursions, in 1999 and 2000. These were critical moments, but we overcame them with the help of Russia, which played quite a positive role in this context. Nevertheless, concerted efforts are needed to contain and destroy these reactionary, barbaric forces and the West and NATO have a decisive role to play in this respect.
What perception does the Kyrghyz Republic's predominantly Muslim population have of the conflict?
Everybody recognises that it was necessary to put an end to the terror of the Taliban and, generally, people understand the role the West and NATO are playing in the process of combating terrorism and establishing peace. There is a widespread perception that stability is essential for ensuring a good quality of life and promoting democracy, individual liberty and property rights.
However, I would like to address the religious factor that your question raises. Religion can benefit human life in terms of its influence on spiritual matters, morality and traditions. But what concerns us here is the situation where religion engages in the pursuit of political aims or power. It then ceases to be religion and becomes a reactionary force.
In this respect, we have been fortunate in Kyrghyztan. For historical reasons, Islam has not impacted as much on our people's consciousness as it has in other Central Asian countries, such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Kyrghyztan and Kazakhstan lie on the outskirts of the Islamic way of life. In our countries, religion has more to do with traditions and customs and our peoples tend to be moderately religious, avoiding fanaticism in our beliefs. This is our way.
When talking of religion, however, one important factor needs to be taken into account - namely that poverty can be fertile breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism. Afghanistan, which is a very poor country, is a prime example of this. The poorer the people, the stronger the religion. It is essential, as a first step towards promoting stability, that the international community looks at how to improve the social and economic situation in Afghanistan. Priority should be given to educating and enlightening young Afghans. If their only option is to attend religious schools, or madrasas , nothing will change. It is vital, therefore, that opportunities for civil education are actively promoted and subsidised.
How has the Kyrghyz Republic's relationship with NATO evolved during the past decade and how might it evolve in the future?
This question directly concerns the activities of our embassy. Kyrghyztan has been part of NATO's Partnership structures for many years now and we actively participate in the Partnership for Peace. Such cooperation is very timely. It takes place in many different fields including civil emergency planning, civil-military relations and defence policy, as well as consultations at the political and military level. The Partnership provides a useful platform for cooperation with other Partner countries, including Central Asian countries.
Considerable effort has been devoted to promoting a better understanding of NATO and the Partnership for Peace among our people and, in particular, the military establishment. In the past, NATO was seen as a real threat. But perceptions have changed over the years and old stereotypes have been overcome, allowing us to focus on developing active cooperation. It is not a coincidence that NATO, which was established in the 20th century, still exists in the 21st. We do not live in an ideal world, but in one that is full of contradictions and the risk of conflict. NATO is recognised by most people as being a powerful organisation, which has a key role in deterring and containing these dangers and, although it is a regional organisation, it is increasingly perceived as having a global significance. NATO is seen not only as a military organisation but as one with a political and human dimension as well. Its role is evolving, as it arms itself, not with weapons, but with new visions. I have no doubt that we will continue to cooperate on the issues we are working on currently in the framework of the Partnership, and that this work will be developed, as NATO continues to establish cooperation in a more global context.
How have the Kyrghyz armed forces benefited from the Partnership for Peace?
From the time we first joined, our armed forces have participated in almost all exercises that have taken place in the framework of the Partnership for Peace programme. It has been a good experience for our military personnel to see what kind of cooperation could be developed between NATO and Partner countries. Most importantly, they have realised that they are not too remote to be able to contribute to common security. Our military would like to do more and is trying to reach the standards widely accepted among NATO countries. Unfortunately, we don't have all the resources needed to improve our military and acquire new technologies. However, we are trying to build a more professional army, moving away from one that relies totally on conscripts. This has been an important development for us. Participation in the Partnership for Peace has helped give our forces a better and more realistic perception of NATO.
What role do you envisage for the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council?
The EAPC is playing a positive role in bringing the former Soviet republics back together and encouraging them to cooperate politically after independence. The Partnership structures are also helping to promote some integration at the military level. We should continue to build on this process of consolidation, integration and cooperation in the region.
Have you found much material at NATO to inspire future novels? Can we expect to see a future plot set in Brussels?
It is clear that my creative horizons have expanded and that my experiences could find some echo in my literary work, should I ever find time to write. Future books could very well reflect my changed perception of NATO in the post-Cold War era in some way and comment on the new role of NATO in the world. I suppose future characters could conceivably come to Brussels to be involved in NATO activities. Like me, they would probably come with preconceived ideas of NATO being a huge military, technological complex, located in an impressive building like the Pentagon or the defence ministry in Moscow, only to discover that it is a quite small, modest organisation, which is based on rationalism and the determination to take action when necessary.