Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Six Days of Protests

November 6, 2006

On the seventh day of protests, people started to get worn out. I had lunch with an American friend who showed up pale, with bags under her eyes.

“I’m tired of the uncertainty,” she said, “Of having to pay attention every hour to what’s going on, to constantly checking the internet and not knowing what’s coming next. I can hear the shouting from my apartment. It never stops.”

After lunch, she and I walked to the square to see what was going on. Bakiyev had collected more people since the day before, including 3rd, 4th and 5th year students from the Kyrgyz Medical Academy, who claimed that classes were canceled and they were forced to come stand up for Bakiyev.

There was also a large group of opposition protestors, who had moved from in front of the White House to the Central Square. What was more disturbing were the rows of National Guard in riot gear, holding rectangular metal shields in front of them, forming rows on either side of the street, keeping the two rows of protestors apart. Plenty of soldiers still slept or lounged in the grass, drinking bottles of Tan, however those in the row seemed more alert than what I’d seen the day before.

It was very strange to walk in between the two protests, to be within the confines of these soldiers in riot gear and to see that despite the tension, free movement was still allowed. Plenty of people came down with the sole purpose of checking things out, since there is no other way of getting reliable news.

Reading the news on the internet, it seems like the President and the politicians are getting closer to a compromise on the new constitution. But to the protestors, it seems to be just an opportunity to try to get Bakiyev out of power. His supporters shouted – “Ba-ki-yev! Ku-lov!” repeatedly, as though at a high-school pep rally. A more impressive speaker spoke in Russian about the fact that Kyrgyz are united, and they will not be divided and thrown into conflict by the opposition.

One Western visitor, who came in town earlier this week, thinks the protests are great, that Kyrgyzstan is the only place in Central Asia where people are allowed to go on the street and say what they want, regardless of how stupid it might be.

But the locals, including our driver, Sergei, were getting tired.

“On the first days, I had some interest in what is going on,” he said. “But seven days is too much. And when I go down there, I see all these young people, under age 25. It would be a different story if there were mature people my age saying something intelligent. But these rural youth don’t even have anything in their heads to think with. They don’t even know how to say the word Constitution. They’ve never said it before in their lives. They have no idea what the difference is between a Presidential system and a Parliamentary democracy. But they are down there yelling this word, Constitution, that they don’t understand.”

He also said he could see a lot of potential criminals in the group – maybe such as the hard-faced men pictured below. “They are just waiting for when disorder will begin and they can have the opportunity to freely steal things.”

Several people I work with left their cars at home, not wanting to take a risk in case something happens. But more and more people are returning to their normal routines and the roads filled with cars yesterday.

“People just get used to things,” Sergei said. “This has now become a part of life.”

That’s true. Last week, we closed our office with lesser gatherings. Now no one questions working the whole day.

The fact that is that outside an area of a few blocks, there is no sound, indication of, or effect of the protests. Should one choose to, it’s possible to enter a cocoon and just pretend nothing is happening. I’ve been tempted to do that for a while, but the intrigue of what might happen and the recognition of a unique moment in Kyrgyz history draws me to the news sites and to the square.

However, for the first time yesterday, I did go to aerobics class. I had figured they’d be disrupted by the protests, but they weren’t. A sizeable class showed up, woman who were going to get their exercise no matter what was going on outside.

I emerged into the dark evening and could hear the speakers’ voices over the loudspeaker. Do they never get tired of talking? Can people remain riled up for so long? Don’t the people down there have headaches by now? Not to mention the poor people with apartments located there.

Luckily, my apartment is out of the sound range. So I returned home to quiet, no news, and the ability to unwind. Only to wake up once again wondering if anything fundamental had changed in my surroundings.

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