Sunday, March 27, 2005

The end of stability

What a surprise it was to open up the St. Paul Pioneer Press while riding the new light-rail train into Minneapolis last Monday. Among the 10 or so stories in the thin edition was a byline from Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Protestors had taken over the local government building and the airport I read.

Wow, was that the same place I'd flown out of three days before, I wondered. The signs of unrest were there, but I hadn't expected it to go so far, nor so quickly.

I recalled going to work on my last day there, Thursday, March 17th. The roads leading to the central square, where the central administration building is located, were blocked off, as they had been for may days already. Cars were lined up across the road, so that no vehicles could pass, and police stood nearby.

"Who would volunteer to put their car in the roadblock?" I asked our driver, Malan. "It would be the first thing to get smashed should anyone try to break through."

"The police officers use their own cars," he said.

Through the road, I could see people gathered near the Lenin statue, across from the central administration, as I had for the past several days. But from the distance, I couldn't see how many there were, or what they were doing. I felt the same feeling that I had all month - that there were underlying tensions, but htey were kept out of sight. So while I knew that some people were upset, the only information I got was from word of mouth. There was no news, no photos, and no debate.

In the meantime, life went on as usual. I went to work. Across the street from the roadblock, children crowded the stops of the drama theater, practicing a dance for the upcoming holiday of Navruz the Muslim new year, on March 21st.

That afternoon we got a phone call from a frightened employee in Kara-Suu. 'Meetings' had been going on daily at the central government building since the first round of elections on February 27th. I had been there and had seen a crowd of people, mostly men, and some in kalpaks (the traditional Kyrgyz hat) sitting peacefully outside the administration. Another group crowded aroudnt eh courtyard. From what I heard, they were demanding a recount or another election. The winning candidate won by a one percent margin and protestors claimed this candidate had paid people to vote for him, making the results unfair. On this day, the meeting had grown large enough to close off the central road. The market vendors were packing up early.

"What if they start fighting?" our employee asked.

We told them that if they felt unsafe, they could go home.

Later in the day, I was riding my bicycle along the willow-lined riverside road, back to the office. Near the office, a group of about 20 men and young boys on horseback congregated, blocking the road. They began to move in my direction and I got off my bike to let them pass, frightened by the powerful legs of the horses. Their riders looked poor, rural and determined.

They must be among the protestors, I thought. I had heard that almost all ofthe protestors came from rural areas. The city dwellers were surprisingly non-responsive.

"Why?" I asked Malan.

"First of all, the people in the city live relatively well. So they don't see a reason to complain. Whereas the rural living conditions are really poor. And second, the rural people are a bit stupid. The schools aren't good, they don't get educations, and it can be easy to convince them of something."

While heading to the airport that afternoon we passed protestors, again appearing rural, marching behind a banner down a central street. It was the first time I'd seen a protest in the open, not blocked off and hidden, and I felt proud of the people who were trying to take a stand, even though Malan thought they were being paid by opposition politicians.

"I heard that in Talas or somewhere in Chui region, protestors were surrounding the government building and the mayor came out and said "I'm with you!", Malan told me. "And he joined the opposition."

Was this mayor truly sympathizing with the people, or were the protests more influential than I believed based on the scant information I had access to?

That evening I had dinner at my friend Gulnara's home. She married in November and was four months pregnant. While Gulnara prepared ragu (a mixture of beef, potatoes, carrots and sauce that tasted a lot like beef stew) for dinner, her husband told me about his dreams for the future.
"I don't need to be rich," he said. "But I figure I need $600-700 a month to provide well for my family. And none of the government jobs pay anywhere near that. So I figure that I need to work for myself. I'll start small, but I build something over time."

He currently helps out a friend with his business and is preparing to start a business on his own. But he didn't want to release many details.

"I have two ideas," he said, "but not enough money to start both. So I'll need to choose one."
We talked about the protests in Osh and he seemed dismissive of them.

"That kind of stuff happens after elections in every democracy," he said.

"There are protests, yes, but what is strange here is the fact that they are hidden. They don't appear in the news and no one really knows what is going on. There are real tensions in Osh."

"So, how did your boyfriend like Kyrgyzstan?" he quickly changed the subject. I'm interested to find out how he is handling the transition.

Monday, March 14, 2005

The elections end

Yesterday the run-off elections were held. Any area in which one candidate failed to get more than 50 percent of the vote held a run-off election. This was the case for 2/3 of all elections.

I can’t really tell how people are feeling because I’m not getting much news. The central square in Osh was blocked off by trucks yet again today. I heard rumors that ongoing protests in Uzgen (a town two hours away) were causing the central market to be closed. Before I went to Bishkek, I heard that people had taken over government building in Jalalabat and Uzgen in protest. And I knew that regular “meetings” were being held in Kara-Suu. I went there and saw one myself – many people sitting peacefully outside of the court and government administration building. Many of them wore traditional Kyrgyz kalpaks.

In KaraSuu, apparently, one candidate won by a one percent margin. And opposition supporters claim that the winning candidate went around at the last minute and offered money and gifts for people to vote for him. So they think it wasn’t fair.

I also heard last week that they’d declared a state of emergency in Jalalabat and were thinking of declaring one in Osh. The five-point instability rating of Kyrgyzstan, set by international organizations, rose from a low of 0 up to 1.

It’s almost indescribable how strange it is to be in a place with clear tensions, but no news about them. It’s as though things are going on, but they are hidden from sight and sound. Even when the locals talk about what’s going on, it’s always what they heard. When I asked if anything was covered on the news or in the papers, they say no. No wonder when I happened through a pre-election protest in Jalalabat, one of the protestors asked me to spread their desire for an independent TV channel where they could speak freely.

Also late last week, I saw the first definite sign that President Akaev is going to try to stay in power. There were posters plastered on the walls of an office building, announcing that he is collecting signatures to stay in office until 2010. His final legal term is up this fall. But suspiciously, billboards of his face started appearing all over the country this past fall, a strange action for a lame duck. Today I saw the freakiest thing of all. I was sitting at an outdoor café having lunch when I saw a man on horseback going down the central market street. Horses definitely appear in Osh, but it’s not that often I see someone trotting down a busy street, so it caught my attention.

It looked as though the man had some type of board attached to his back. At first I wondered if it was for his posture. Then I thought it was a mirror and admired his creative way of transporting it. Only as he went by did I see that it was a square portrait of President Akaev. I wondered how much the President’s supporters needed to pay to get someone to go down the street on a horse with an oil painting of the President on his back. Probably not much. I liked the President even less than before.

The March rains have begun, the grass is already green, and I’m waiting eagerly for the trees to spring to life.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

A trip to the city

I just spent the past few days in Bishkek, my first trip to the capital in about three months. Wow, it really felt like a cosmopolitan mecca, and I felt like a bit of a country bumpkin seeing the big lights. I took in the sights and sounds as if I was entering a new world. When we drove from the airport to the city center, I was struck by the smooth road and the rarified colors of the fields, trees and snow-capped mountains under a giant, overpowering sky.

Downtown, I was impressed by what seemed like such orderly traffic. It was only about seven months ago that I first moved to Bishkek and found the traffic frightening. Either it has improved since then, or it’s just so wonderful compared to Osh that now it seems incredibly orderly and civilized. Cars actually stop at lights and I can cross the street without fear. There are lots of shiny, new-looking cars, and similar numbers of shiny, new shops, cafes, and service centers.

I enjoyed all kinds of little treats – from having a TV, to white toilet paper, to a shower with hot water and a toilet both connected to my room. No need for trips outside until I actually wanted to go outside.

We had dinner at the Cowboy Café, where we ate steaks, salads and pizzas and drank milkshakes and cocktails at Western prices, served by waiters in cowboy hats who did line dances throughout the evening.

While the garbage bins are still overflowing, I saw a rat, and I unfortunately saw people walk by a dead man on the street, I saw many more internet cafes. It’s really neat to be in a place where development in a three month period is so clearly seen. And it feels good to know that I’m playing a role in that development, however small it may be.

I was able to visit my friend Zhenya and catch up with her. Her son Algubek was outside rollerblading with the little girl who lives across the hallway. Zhenya recently finished her degree and she got a job as a salesperson at the Dordoi market, a giant wholesale market, where many of the consumer goods sold at markets throughout the country originate.

She stands in an iron container and sells jeans from 8:30 until 3, receiving 100 som ($2.50 per day). She was unhappy about the pay, because after paying 20 som for transportation and 10 for tea and a snack, she only cleared 70 som ($1.75) a day.

She’s currently in a trial period and is hoping that once that ends, the owner will start giving her 10 som per pair of jeans she sells. If he did, she estimates she could earn 200 to 300 som a day, which she’d be satisfied with.

“It’s so cold there,” she complained. I’m surrounded by iron on all sides, the ground is cold, and no sunshine comes through. So I have to wear several layers of clothes. I used to go to the market that way, but it was shameful to get on the marshrutka and have everyone look at me, as though wondering if I’d just come from the far north. So I started leaving my clothes in the container.”

She said that the owner of the container has four others as well, currently valued at about $35,000 a piece. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve noticed a tendency among especially wealthy and successful merchants to pay their workers very low wages, often between 700 and 1500 som a month (about $17-33). Up to 2000 or 2500 is about the maximum they pay. Salaries end up being an extremely small portion of their expenses and it seems that for many of them, paying their workers more would be an almost inconsequential expense. But for some reason, they don’t seem to feel the obligation to do so.

Runoff elections were held today, with about two thirds of the candidates from the primary elections having to run again, not having received over 50% of the vote. The President’s daughter, Bermet Akayeva, was among those going back to the polls. Despite the fact that the government prevented a prominent opposition leader, Roza Ozumbaeva, from running against her, she still didn’t get 50% of the vote. However, in a different region, the President’s son did win a seat in the first round. Bermet’s campaign posters were posted all over Bishkek. She is young, fresh-faced, dressed in a black suit coat and a white blouse, and looks like someone I could have had as a classmate in graduate school. It’s unfortunate to think of her as part of the machinations of power that are seen as corrupt.

I returned to Osh on a very frightening Air Kyrgyzstan flight. We boarded by climbing into the belly of the plane. When we landed, we hit the ground at an angle and I could have sworn we would roll. When my local colleague said he no longer wanted to fly anymore after that, wanting to be like David Beckham, at least I knew my fear wasn’t an overreaction. I think I’m going to try to stick with the better airline from now on, even though the schedules won’t offer as much choice.

It was raining in both Bishkek and Osh today. That means that greenery should soon appear, welcoming in spring with full force.

Shavkat is out of town. He left for a ten-day “vacation” in the mountains.

“He’s tired of us,” Nigora said.

I asked if she ever took a vacation.

“Not more than two days,” she said. Without me, everything here goes to chaos. No one can find a fork, no one can eat. Sometimes I’ve gone away, but after two days, Shavkat always comes and gets me, telling me I have to come back because they can’t manage without me.”

I asked if it was quiet without him.

“No, just the opposite,” she said. “He sometimes scolds the children to be quiet. But when he’s not here, I let them do what they what. So for them it’s also like a vacation.” She laughed.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

International Women's Day

Today was an official holiday, so we had the day off of work. Yesterday, people at work congratulated each other. I brought cakes to our employees and I received flowers from my coworkers and some of our partners. All together, I received nine red carnations and three beautiful red roses – more flowers than I’ve ever before received in one day. I could get used to this holiday. Flower vendors could as well. Walking past the flower vendors, I heard a local girl ask, “This flower was 50 som yesterday and today it’s 100?”

I woke up this morning to the sound of the rooster crowing, my dinner calling me to get up and get ready to eat it. Nigora was in the shower room, doing laundry. Dressed in old clothes, she was sweaty and looked tired.

“Shouldn’t Shavkat be doing the laundry today?” I asked.

“I got up early,” she said, “and quietly went to do it while everyone was still asleep. Shavkat might not do it the way I’d want him to. He’s really good about doing things when I ask, but he’s not able to offer to take over something.”

A little while later, Shavkat called me out to kill the rooster. They’d shown me how it was done last time they killed a chicken and I said I’d try it the next time. They dig a small hole in the dirt of their courtyard, tie the chickens legs together, step on the chicken legs and wings, hold the beak, and then slice the neck over the hole so that the blood runs out.

“Nigora also wants to kill a chicken, but I told her she couldn’t,” Shavkat said.

“Why not?”

“Because Muslim women aren’t allowed to. Nor are Muslim children under 13. So Faruh can’t kill either. He has to wait until he gets a bit bigger.”

So he was making an exclusion for me as a non-Muslim woman. This was my chance to show him that women were just as competent as men, to make a statement of equality. And what did I do? Failed.

I had thought they were going to do everything and I was just going to cut the neck. But they first instructed me to step on the feet and wings, which I did.

“Here, now grab the face like this,” Shavkat said.

It was going to be hard enough to stay steady on a squiggling chicken. I was supposed to grab the face as well, where if I got nervous and lost my grip it could bite me and spew blood everywhere? No thanks.

“No way,” I said.

“OK, I’ll do that and you just stand there and cut the neck,” he said. He pulled the neck back and I saw the thick feathered skin, pulsing with life. I couldn’t break into that.

“No, I don’t want to do that either. Maybe next time. I’ll just stand here.”

All three sons were watching and laughing. When the chicken began to flutter, I lost my hold on its wings. At that point, I gave up any semblance of responsibility at all and stepped away, leaving the job to him.

He stepped on the chicken, gripped the head, and sliced the throat. I know that he dislikes doing it himself. And Lutfulo also admits being afraid, refusing to participate.

“See, I grip the head like these and it doesn’t see anything at all.”

Not seeing one’s throat being sliced doesn’t mean that one doesn’t feel it.

“It’s not so bad,” Shavkat said. “You just have to get yourself psychologically ready.”

I have no ideological problems with humans consuming animals and I felt it was an important life skill to be able to kill a chicken should the need ever arise. But I guess I’d had too good of an oatmeal breakfast this morning. I just wasn’t hungry enough to get myself over the psychological barrier of not wanting to kill.

I didn’t stick around to see the life seep out of the chicken.

Shortly afterwards, we all gathered in Shavkat’s Niva to visit Souleymane mountain and the museum there. But when we got there, we found the mountain surrounded by military in fatigues and red berets. The roads were closed and we weren’t allowed access. Shavkat asked a soldier what was going on, but they ignored him. So I approached another one and pulled my stupid foreigner act, which almost always gets an answer. This one only spoke Kyrgyz, but when Shavkat came up, he explained that there was some general in town.

“I hope it’s a female general,” I said.

“No, women don’t get to that level here,” Shavkat said. I thought it was unfortunate if some guy visiting Osh prevented women and their families from enjoying their local landmark on their holiday.

So instead we went to Navoie park, named after an Uzbek poet from the 14th or 15th century. The weather was definitively springlike, with winter seeming to have disappeared suddenly and for good last week. The air was fresh and sunny, cool and comfortable.

The path stretches out along a pathway near the river. We descended from the main street down the hill. When we paused to look at what a bookseller had on display, Shavkat said, “Nigora has lots of free time. She’s able to read books.” As though he doesn’t have any free time.

He works only sporadically in the winter and just took the next month off for vacation.

“What will you do in the next month?” I asked.

“Play sports and get ready for the summer,” he said. “I’ll run at the stadium every day, maybe with Faruh, I’ll train, and maybe I’ll go to the mountains.”

“He’s going to focus on his health to get himself ready for summer,” Nigora said. “He’s going to stop smoking and drinking.”

We walked past the fountain that won’t be turned on until the summer and descended the stairs to the small Aeroflot plane parked there. We descended some more stairs and Shavkat hurried ahead.

“They have a shooting range here,” he said. And it found it quickly, pressing his way to the front of the boys congregated there and buying 50 shots. Nigora wasn’t interested in trying it, but I gave it two shots, aiming at some targets. But with bullet holes all over the place and several people shooting at once, I couldn’t tell where my shots ended up.

We followed the crowd through the park, trying basket throwing games, darts, and table tennis. There was a swing ride, shashlik stands, and ice cream vendors. Unlike Russia, where people eat ice cream year round, ice cream is a seasonal commodity here. This is the first time I’ve really seen people eating ice cream. And its sudden appearance was another sign that it really is spring.

Shavkat told us what a great shooter he was and how he’s an incredible table tennis player. He did win on the basket throw, receiving 5 som for his one som investment. But he lost on the darts. And he also lost when he bet the woman running the table tennis tables that he could beat her. She won 21 to 16 and collected an additional 10 rubles as a result.

As we headed back to get shashlik at a café, Shavkat stopped again at the dart stand. “I’m going to win a prize,” he said, referring to the colorful and cheap stuffed animals, probably made in China. When he handed over five som for five darts, Nigora seemed to become anxious at the waste of money. “We’re going to lose all our change here,” she said. “Let’s come back after you’ve practiced.”

“Yes, I need to practice,” he said, after he lost again. “That woman plays table tennis every day and I haven’t practiced in eight or nine years. She has plenty of weak sides. I’m going to practice between now and the May holidays and I’ll come back and win all the prizes.”

“Let’s spend May first in nature,” Habib suggested.

“No, we should come here and win all the prizes. Then we can spend May 9th in nature,” Shavkat replied.

After all the games, we had grilled meat and samsi at a local café. Then we headed home for the men to prepare dinner. It might not seem like a big deal for the men of the family to prepare a meal one time in 365 days. But from what I heard from local women, plenty of men get out of that task even on Women’s Day. The fact that Shavkat and his sons volunteered was nice in comparison with the typical local man.

Nigora hovered around, helping and instructing them, until they finally forced her to rest for a little bit. They made a nice meal – the rooster with potatoes and cabbage, along with a fruit salad, which I had taught them to make earlier in the year.

During the meal we watched the news, which was more like an essay than a newscast, extolling the success of the Kyrgyzstan elections, their fairness and transparency.

“They are just praising themselves,” Nigora said.

That broadcast was followed by information about women in office. A report compared the number of women in Parliament in Kyrgyzstan (I think it said 11 percent) with women in Europe (much higher), then interviewed people on the streets of Bishkek, most of whom supported having more women in office.

“Women, women, women. All they talk about is women. They don’t understand that women here are stupid,” Shavkat said.

It was such a nasty comment and so heartfelt that I was too shocked to even respond. Only after a long pause was I able to say to Nigora, “We hire our employees based on a logic and analytical test. And at least half of those who pass the test are females. So he’s wrong. Women here are not stupid.”

“He’s just jealous of us,” she said, “and that’s why he says those things.”

The movie Titantic was showing on TV that evening. But I didn’t want to overstay my welcome in the family’s single room, so I returned to my room.

I had failed to demonstrate my ability to kill my dinner and I knew that whatever day it was, Shavkat still believed that women are dumber than men and belong beneath them. I don’t feel as though I’ve done anything special by being a woman. It was just an accident of birth that made me this way. But nevertheless, it’s still nice to receive flowers and to be appreciated once per year, whatever the underlying reason might be.