Kyrgyz Daze

The Kyrgyz Republic is again in turmoil. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled on Wednesday after violence claimed scores of lives. Like the “Tulip” revolution that toppled President Askar Akeyev in 2005, this one started in Talas, the northwestern most state, and then spread to Bishkek, the country capitol. In 2005, Akeyev avoided the mob by a hair. It seems as if a similar thing happened to Bakiyev.

For an American, I share a rare intimacy with the Kyrgyz Republic. From September 2004 to November 2006, I was one 7 of foreigners (and three Americans) living in Talas City, the capitol of Talas, where I worked as a PeaceCorps volunteer. I socialized with all the politically active young people–they helped forge my love for cheap vodka in 50 gram increments–so there’s a high probability I know many of the primary participants. According to news reports, many members of the “opposition” in Talas City were detained. I pray for my friends. People get boiled in that part of the world.

I use quotation marks around “opposition” because a singular grouping is misleading. Talas, where these revolutions started, and Bishkek, where they finished, are like apples and oranges. The people of Talas are stereotyped as prideful. We say, “don’t mess with Texas”; the Kyrgyz say, “never fight a guy from Talas.” They are also stereotyped as backwards, because Talas is largely rural and isolated by steep mountains on all sides. Bishkek , on the other hand, is just like every other capitol mega-city in the developing world: bloated with immigration from the countryside, and riddled with crime.

The distinction is important because these revolutions easily change for the worse as they cross the mountains from Talas to the capitol. Shortly after the February 2005 parliamentary elections, the men of Talas started gathering in front of the local executive office building, and they waited. I could see them from my bedroom window. They were non violent. Many of them were my friends. It was an altogether different vibe in Bishkek. There, the proceedings were organized by regional crime bosses. They bussed in thousands.  A lot of alcohol was consumed, and looting was widespread, although there were few casualties. I hope the impetus wasn’t similarly corrupted this time around, but I suspect it was.

In any case, the prognosis is bleak. In the Kyrgyz Republic, the state is just one more player in the black market, so it doesn’t matter who’s in charge. Everyone knows it: There is even a saying, to the effect of “corruption is a way of life.” One of my most enduring memories, unfortunately, is the languid flip of the wrist with which cops beckoned motorists to the side of the road for a bribe. What struck me was the sense of routine. You slipped your money into your passport, handed it over, received the passport, and drove on. Rinse, wash, repeat.

When it isn’t outright extortion, it’s the soft corruption of nepotism and prejudice. Generally speaking, the magnitude of the abuse increases in lockstep with the legal power accorded to the perpetrator by the state.

If only the Brits had won the Great Game! In India, the British Empire left democracy. In the Kyrgyz Republic, the Soviet Union left a corruptocracy.