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.

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