Friday, January 14, 2005

The election wars begin

Shortly after I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, my boss told me, “There will be national elections in February and in the worst case scenario, there could be a civil war.” I don’t realistically foresee a civil war in the next month. But the first signs of organized discontent are manifesting themselves.

Individualized discontent is easy to come across. I see it every time someone fondly recalls how much better life was during the Soviet times and how terrible it is now in comparison.

While one can hear such complaints in Russia, they usually conclude with a more balanced opinion, recognizing that life was extremely difficult for several years, but now it’s getting better. The majority of Russians I spoke to had some hope for the future.

Here, people almost never end on a positive or even an equilibrium note. It’s pure nostalgia for the past. I hear it most often from middle-aged and older people. They are the ones who were thrown out of work, who are prevented from getting another job by ads that blatantly require applicants to be under 30, who flocked to the informal economy – the markets, services, and taxis – to make a living.

Yesterday, the day before President Akaev’s pre-election visit to Jalalabat, I was walking down Lenin Street with Farat, a young bank worker. Near the central government building, we saw a line of middle-aged and older people standing quietly along the road with picket signs.

“Wow, we’ve never seen that before,” Farat said. I thought he meant that he’d never seen a protest during Communist times. But he meant that he’d never seen a protest in his life.

The protestors wore strips of bright pink cloth, wrapped around their necks, or sticking out of vest pockets. The first man we approached was reluctant to talk and pointed out the leader. The more verbose leader told us that they were all politicians from the Jalalabat region, representing nine different parties. He complained that President Akaev put his cronies into regional offices and they prevented a fair election. They prevented candidates from running who could beat Akaev or his favored candidates.

“We want a fair election,” he told me.

“Do you think the election won’t be fair?”

“I know it won’t be fair. The chairman of the Kyrgyz Central Electoral Commission, Sulaiman Imanbaev, doesn’t work honestly. They’ve already put only their candidates on the list.”

As we walked away, I asked Farat if many people agree with the protestors. “Yes,” he said. “Probably most do, but people are afraid to say it.”

When I returned to the square from lunch, the protestors were gone. I was worried they’d been broken up, so I asked the photographers in the central square what happened to them.

“They’ve gone,” one said, while the other two stood to his side. “But they’ll be back. Tomorrow at 10 a.m. a lot of people will be gathering to protest. The head of the central electoral commission, Imanbaev, doesn’t work honestly and they want to tell Akaev to throw him out.”

These men, who make a living selling Polaroid shots of people in front of a monument represented a Kyrgyz kolpak hat and Kyrgyz mountains, stood to the side as the protestors picketed, but they seemed to eagerly support their cause. The intensity in the man’s face showed a certain pride in what the picketers were doing.

Today, as they promised, the numbers of picketers increased greatly. But again, it was a quiet, very hesitant type of protest. It is as though the protestors don’t know what to do with themselves or their signs. They are going against a humble culture in sticking themselves in the limelight and they are visibly uncomfortable.

The central square, where they had been yesterday, was blocked off. The streets around the government building were closed in anticipation of the President’s arrival and the protestors gathered on Lenin Street, about two blocks away.

When I first came by, there was a line of protestors with signs, like yesterdays but a little longer. Quite a few people stood nearby, on both signs of the street, gazing upon the happenings with expressions that seemed to say: I support what you’re doing, but I don’t have the guts to stand there myself. So I’ll watch and see how it goes.

The protestors rolled up their signs and stepped out of the middle of the street as the grey-blue uniformed police formed a line across the street and locked arms. Don’t ask me why. These were about the least intimidating protestors one could imagine – nervous and peaceful adults, clearly without much prior experience.

I was on my way to a meeting. When I returned, the police had dispersed, and a much larger crowd was standing in the middle of the street. They were at least 100 strong, and mostly without signs. They crowded around an old man with a pointed white beard, who was being interviewed for TV. Again, a sizeable group of people watched from the sidelines.

“Why are they congregated in the middle of the road?” I asked a man leaning against a fence on the sidewalk, clearly watching what was going on, but not getting involved himself.

“They want a change in government. They don’t want Akaev anymore.”

I then approached the group to take some photos and to see if I could learn any more. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before I was the center of a crowd of people, just like the old man being interviewed was.

One white-bearded man carrying a worn leather portfolio told me that he’d come to town from a village today. Just happening to come across the protest, he decided to participate. “We wanted to show Akaev that we’re dissatisified, to let him know our point of view. But he drove around that way and avoided us. He has set up a cordon between himself and his people and he doesn’t listen to what we have to say.”

One man from a newspaper stuck a tape recorder in front of my mouth and asked me, “Do you think Kyrgyzstan has a real democracy?”

Compared to other Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan has a relatively high level of freedom. Government is weak and social services very poor, but people do have the freedom to speak freely (at least amongst themselves, if they might still fear speaking critically in public) and there is a good amount of economic freedom. But given rampant corruption, inefficient tax collection, and poor government services, not to mention the recent maneuvering to prevent opposition candidates from running, people have little faith in the government or its possibilities for the future.

The man at the protest asked me to pass along to the world their request for a donor-sponsored local TV channel, where opposition groups could freely present their views.

A comment on this blog mentioned protests in Bishkek, so I did a little internet research to find out what was going on. I found two great sites, for anyone interested in keeping up on Central Asian news: and (they have news translated into English for those who don’t read Russian).

For the past several days, there were protests in Bishkek, over an opposition candidate, Rosa Otunbaeva, being prevented from running as an opposition candidate for parliament. Her application for candidacy had been approved, then hours later was rejected. She had served as the Kyrgyz ambassador to the UK and the US, as well as deputy special representative to the UN Secretary General. The electoral commission claimed that because she had been out of Kyrgyzstan for five years, she didn’t meet the residence requirement, which says that candidates can’t be out of the country for more than six months of a year.

Inspired by the Ukrainians, the protestors dressed in yellow. In response, a smaller group protested the protestors, saying they were advocating destabilizing the country.

I understand the argument for needing to live in Kyrgyzstan regularly in order to be in touch with the people. But I think it’s a cheap move to say that Kyrgyz ambassadors weren’t Kyrgyz residents, when they were working as employees of the Kyrgyz federal government. And as far as I understood, I thought embassies were technically considered part of that nation, which excludes them from certain taxes and laws in the country where they are located.

Of course, the cynic would say that the argument for being in touch with the Kyrgyz people is a pretty weak one, since the typical politician is seen as being in the game for self interest. I haven’t even been here six months, but in this time I’ve figured out that anyone with the people’s interests at heart would pretty quickly start working on improving health, education, and roads and issuing passports so people can work.

In the course of my research, I found out it’s true that the authorities in Osh haven’t issued passports in 18 months. I also found out that 200,000 passports mysteriously disappeared, found available on the black market for 200 euros.

Just this morning, as I was walking to work – past the young woman staring tiredly at the passerbys, trying to sell cups of coffee and fried rolls; past the old Russian man playing the accordion, his wife sitting next to him, wearing black Coke-bottle glasses, stacking and fingering each som as it was donated; past the pair of Uzbek women in headscarves, wearing matching calf-length sweaters with peacocks on the back – that what most impresses me about Jalalabat is the way in which people have adjusted themselves to uncertainty. People were thrown from a system in which they were guaranteed support for life into one in which nothing is guaranteed – not even a decent education or basic healthcare. Yet they’ve taken on their new roles, whether it’s as a fortune teller, a shoe shiner, or a carpet seller, with vigor.

And today, watching the hesitant protestors, I saw people trying on yet another new role. And I was impressed.

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