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Letter from Bishkek


In a typically wry observation about revolutionaries, Joseph Conrad warns the observer not to be so attached to the romantic incendiaries, the “narrow-minded fanatics” who capture the headlines when the revolution breaks. The real test is who comes to power when the dust settles and order is reestablished, when “hopes [are] grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured—that is the definition of revolutionary success.” Conrad would not be surprised by the latest developments in the Kyrgyz Republic, where a revolution broke out in early April, and the unrelenting struggle for power continues.

The streets of Bishkek are gripped with a dark foreboding, broken by brief glimmers of hope. There is a solid expectation that the elections to be held on October 10 will be free, fair, and democratic—the first in the history of the nation, or even the region, to genuinely warrant those labels. There is a vague hope these elections will produce a new, stable government, one that will break from the prior norm of democrats coming to power and quickly turning into authoritarian wannabes. Few will go so far as to call that an expectation, however. “We are witnessing the process of ‘lumpenizatsiya,’” one former president of the Kyrgyz bar, who had been aggressively critical of each of the prior governments, told me. When I asked what he meant by this curiously Marxist coinage, he explained, “It’s the process whereby the reins of government are seized by waves of people who are progressively less educated, less capable, and more brutish. Threats and intimidation take the place of moral suasion and law. Clan loyalties take the place of a sense of duty to the state.” In other words, a Hobbesian vision of the state in meltdown.

In a series of meetings in the former offices of parliament, now used as the headquarters of the government, I quickly got a sense of what he meant. Waiting for an appointment, I listened to one senior member of the government speaking in heated, animated terms with another—the topic, it turned out, was whether one man’s follower would be appointed as the principal of a secondary school in a remote village, replacing a career educator. “I already took his payment,” one said. “But he doesn’t know how to run a school,” came the rejoinder. Similar conversations, picked up in telephone intercepts, surfaced in YouTube segments (sometimes with polished English subtitles) that reverberated around the country. The nation’s civil-service postings seemed to be for sale to the highest bidder.

But one friend told me, “Look at the bright side: this petty corruption seems largely driven by democracy!” There’s no doubt about that. More than fifty parties have registered for the October elections, and all are scrambling now for campaign cash. In Kyrgyzstan, just as in other Western democracies, campaign cash is key to advertising, media coverage, name recognition, and electoral success.
A walk in Bishkek’s streets shows that campaign cash is suddenly in ready supply. Massive posters with the taglines of the major new parties can be found at every street corner. Many of the parties have handsome, well-appointed offices and professional staffs. The National Democratic Institute has set up training courses for party organization and campaign management, with former U.S. senator Tom Daschle as a star attraction at some of them. Locals are mystified at the outpouring. The country’s economy has been shattered by revolution and instability—restaurants are empty and rumors of food shortages sweep the city. Everyone is anxious and suffering—only those out on the campaign trail seem to have no shortage of cash.


I’ve tracked every Kyrgyz parliamentary and presidential election since 1992, but I can’t recall one like this. There is an unmistakable flavor of aggressive nationalism hovering over the entire political dialogue. The country is portrayed as the home of its principal ethnic group, the Kyrgyz. Minorities, who shortly after the country’s separation from the Soviet Union, in 1993, formed 44 percent of the population, seem to be in the crosshairs. That’s particularly the case for the 14.4 percent who are Uzbeks, mostly concentrated in the south. Following a week of bitter clashes in the southern city of Osh and adjoining areas in early June that left possibly as many as two thousand dead and left hundreds of thousands without a roof, interethnic tension is a consistent theme of electoral politics. Political candidates outdo one another with promises of cracking down on the Uzbeks.

By all measures, the new government, headed by career diplomat Roza Otunbayeva, exercises little authority over the nation’s south. Deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev held sway there, and people close to him were appointed to key positions throughout the region. Officially the south is the poor cousin to the nation’s north—income levels there are modest and conditions bleak by comparison. However, the south has a flourishing off-the-books economy, driven heavily by the narcotics trade. It has in recent years also featured intense competition between criminal bands struggling for turf control. There is a broad agreement in Kyrgyzstan today that the violent eruption in Osh was carefully instigated—no one believes the line so often repeated in Western media about “long-simmering interethnic hatred” between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Yet there is no agreement about who did the instigating, and there is agreement that the conflict is far from finished.

Osh mayor Melis Myrzakmatov is the man in the focus right now. He loudly proclaims his independence and his resolve to deal with the region’s “Uzbek problem.” He barely disguises his preferred resolution: Uzbeks should find another place to live. When President Otunbayeva summoned Myrzakmatov to Bishkek last week, demanding his resignation, the feisty mayor refused to step down and returned to Osh. The new government’s impotence was exhibited for all to see.

Taabyldy Egemberdiev, a Kyrgyz entrepreneur who mass-markets traditional Kyrgyz beverages like the wheat-based shoro, is proud of his Kyrgyz heritage and indeed built a fortune by exploiting it. But he is sickened by the overheated nationalistic rhetoric that drives current Kyrgyz politics. “When you Americans picked Barack Obama as your president, you rose above ethnic divides,” he told me. “It was a wonderful moment for the whole world. I only hope that we Kyrgyz will find our own way out of the false path of ethnic hatred.”

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