WHEN GOD CREATED the world, the Kyrgyz tale goes, he divided it up and gave each part to a different race of people. But the Kyrgyz missed the whole process. They had been asleep and, when they awoke, everything had already been given out. So, taking pity on the somnolent Kyrgyz, God gave them the beautiful little piece of land he had reserved for himself.
Beyond celebrating the beauty of Kyrgyzstan’s mountainous landscape, this myth reveals an insecurity about autonomy and national land that pervades Kyrgyz history. This tiny Central Asian republic of 5.6 million has a past of perennial subjugation, having undergone the rule of the Russians and then Soviets from the north, embattlement by the Chinese to the east, and the rampages of the Mongol hordes.
Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan, one of the world’s poorest countries, has found itself in flux. Fourteen years of rule under Soviet physics professor Askar Akayev began with promises of creating a “Switzerland of Central Asia” but descended into authoritarianism, ending in the bloodless “Tulip Revolution” in 2005. He was replaced by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a former factory director who easily outstripped his predecessor in terms of brutality and corruption. Bakiyev, too, was ousted in an uprising in 2010 and fled to fellow dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus, though not before taking the lives of dozens of protesters and disappearing many of his political rivals.
A short walk down Prospekt Chuy, the tree-lined central avenue of capital Bishkek, reveals an ongoing internal battle between newfound independence and a Soviet legacy that cannot be discarded. A statue of an enormous horseman, the mythic warrior hero Manas, towers over the central square. Used everywhere as a galvanising symbol of Kyrgyz independence, here he is placed where once stood the then-ubiquitous soviet-era statue of Lenin. But Lenin has not gone far. A hop around the corner reveals the giant Soviet leader, gazing imperiously over the snowy foreground.
Out of the midst of the street bulges the discoloured monolith known as the “White House,” the seat of government that was ransacked in both revolutions. Wreaths of flowers adorn its shiny black fence, mourning the deaths of over 80 mostly peaceful revolutionaries at the hands of Bakiyev’s snipers. So desperate are the Kyrgyz to hold their young state to account that a recent parliamentary bill tried — and failed — to have the fence removed to facilitate further revolutions.
Since 2010, Kyrgyzstan has celebrated Central Asia’s first electoral transfer of power, the creation of a progressive constitution, and the installation of a government that misses no opportunity to underline how they are residing over the region’s first parliamentary democracy. A reasonably boisterous civil society has developed, the media is relatively free — although word is that journalists’ support is easily bought — and, uniquely for the region, the leader is not an autocrat. Politicians regularly talk of emulating Georgia’s post-Rose Revolution development; much to the confusion of many Kyrgyz, who, as watchers of Russian television, are attuned to the Kremlin narrative of Georgia as a landscape of chaotic tyranny.
The reality, though, is somewhat bleaker than authorities suggest, as any sense of optimism following the constitution’s adoption has evaporated. Instead of the clearing out of Soviet-era rulers seen in Georgia, there have been no attempts at genuine reform in Kyrgyzstan. Parliament remains overrun by venal bureaucrats who have clung on to mid-ranking posts through four presidents and two revolutions. People consider politicians little more than thieves, and the two revolutions are disparagingly referred to as “turnarounds” of the leading faces. In recent months, the parliament’s ex-Speaker has been arrested, the Mayor of Bishkek has resigned, and the Prime Minister and deputy Prime Minsters’ jobs placed under threat — all due to corruption charges. Rather than a welcome sign of corruption being purged, these pronouncements have been met wearily as the tip of a perceived iceberg.
Filled with frustration about the lack of opportunities and tangible progress, the young seize any chance of work abroad. The best go to America, London, or Dubai, others to risky employment in Afghanistan, and thousands upon thousands journey north to Russia. Skilled Kyrgyz surgeons work as waiters in Siberia, where they live in squalor and are treated with disdain, but where wages eclipse the roughly $200 per month they would earn as doctors at home. Members of the tiny remaining middle class are loathe to pay taxes; not because they disagree with the concept of spreading their comparative wealth but because they believe it will reach only the pockets of those in power, as they see no evidence of public spending. The economy is in real jeopardy, with the United States’s high-rent Manas air base set to close and the Canadian-run Kumtor gold mine facing the threat of nationalization.
While some remain optimistic that this political system will eventually come around, the general mood is one of bleak cynicism about a state that, if not actually regressing, lies worryingly stagnant. When asked in November how stable he considers the country, one leading Kyrgyz political scientist tells me it is so unpredictable that he can only be sure “there will not be another revolution before the spring.”
“In this country, it’s impossible to be both intelligent and healthy.”
The leafy concrete of Bishkek’s Soviet-built center masks a hodgepodge of icy dirt roads, where walled villas stand a short drive away from ramshackle mud houses. The smiling faces of perpetually sunny afternoons are replaced by evening with tracksuited men loitering on unlit corners and swarms of silent stray dogs scavenging for their nightly sustenance.
In one dark backstreet, I find the dilapidated Khrushchev-era building that houses the head office of Citizens Against Corruption, one of Kyrgyzstan’s leading human rights organizations. A plump grandmother with gentle eyes, the organization’s director greets me at the door with a smile and limps painfully into her office. Tolekan Ismailova cannot remember how many times she was arrested at peaceful protests under autocrats Akayev and Bakiyev. When I ask what happened to her leg she breaks into a laugh.
“Oh, the police gave me this along the way,” she grins. “I recently bumped into an old schoolmate I hadn’t seen for years — she looked me up and down in horror, asking ‘What on earth happened to you?’ I told her that in this job and this country it’s impossible to be both intelligent and healthy!”
Ismailova laughs again, suggesting a mangled leg is a small price to pay for the causes for which she has fought. In 2008, her husband, independent journalist Asylbek Ismailov, died in mysterious circumstances shortly after publishing an article that she thinks was particularly unpalatable to the Bakiyev regime. I ask if her work has become easier since the 2010 uprising.
“Well, it has become easier but, you know, I have still spent the last year defending charges of extremism,” she says, explaining that plans to screen a film entitled I Am Gay and Muslim at a 2012 human rights film festival have landed her with accusations of inciting religious and interethnic hatred. The criminal case is still running in the Supreme Court.
“When they created a parliamentary system, it was like our dreams being fulfilled. We were so happy. But who came to run it? When we saw the reform process, we saw that the people who came to work there were criminals, criminals’ wives, rich families … there are 20 families who run Kyrgyzstan. Now it is their sons, daughters, nieces. Nothing has changed.”
Would she and other members of Citizens Against Corruption, which has a base of 67,000 — a considerable number in a country of 5.6 million — consider running for office?
“We’re thinking about it but we’ll see. It’s the young that need to run it — I’m already an old grandmother,” she says. “But something needs to change. I don’t need another revolution with 80 people dying; I just want to live normally.
“The hope is that there will be a new party that can somehow change the situation. All these old parties are the nomenklatura, they’re post-Soviet Soviets!”
“Leaving the indigent little country to fight for scraps between Russia and China.”
With a flailing economy, Kyrgyzstan finds itself increasingly dependent on Russia. Remittances sent home by mainly Russia-based migrant workers make up around 30 percent of GDP. Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom recently bought Kyrgyzgaz, the state gas regulator, for $1 and the promise to pay off considerable outstanding debts, leaving the country’s energy needs prey to Moscow’s fluctuating whims. In a move of questionable economic sense, President Atambayev’s administration has said it aims in the near future to sign up to Vladimir Putin’s empire-building Eurasian Union project, designed to rival the European Union.
The most conspicuous sign of renewed Kremlin dominance is the decision to close the US-run Manas Air Base. The source of a decade of controversy, the military base on the edge of Bishkek has been a key strategic point for the US-led war in Afghanistan. When the war started, Moscow hesitantly allowed the United States to have a base in Russia’s historical stomping ground but, as Russia-US relations deteriorated, the Bakiyev government found itself under increasing pressure to evict the Americans.
In 2009, Bakiyev seemingly gave in to the pressure and soon received a promise of $2 billion in Russian loans and $150 million in financial aid. Displaying brazen pluck for the leader of such a small country, he waited until the first batch of payments was made before double-crossing the northern superpower, announcing that he had renegotiated terms and the United States would keep its base, paying astronomically higher rent. Moscow responded with a virulent anti-Bakiyev television campaign, considered a significant factor in the dictator’s toppling.
The new government has attempted no such horseplay, ordering the United States to close its base by 2014 — a resounding geopolitical victory for the Kremlin. This will open a hole of around three to six percent in the national budget, previously provided by American rent and base-related payments. The Americans are expected to wash their hands of Kyrgyzstan when the base is closed, leaving the indigent little country to fight for scraps between Russia, the former imperial master looking to revive regional supremacy, and China, which wants to ensure stability next to its volatile Xinjiang province.
This is not the only calamity threatening Kyrgyzstan’s feeble $6.5 billion economy. Its sole powerhouse — the Kumtor gold mine, run by Toronto-based Centerra Gold — faces the possibility of a potentially ruinous nationalization. In a good year, the mine, located deep in the Tien Shan mountains at an altitude of 4,000 meters, makes up nearly 12 percent of GDP. But its operations are in real jeopardy, as lawmakers looking to twist the knife in a struggling government have politicized its ownership structure with populist resource-nationalist rhetoric. They are threatening a practically unviable nationalization if Kyrgyzstan cannot gain majority ownership. Meanwhile, there are widespread, and unproven, allegations from all levels of society about corruption in the running of the mine.
Kumtor has faced vehement protests, widely believed to be orchestrated by gangsters attempting to extort Centerra. The protesters allege that the mine is causing environmental damage — a plausible notion, but unproven by any credible report. In October, tensions reached a head when rioters set cars on fire and briefly kidnapped the regional governor; some reports say he was doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight.
When I ask locals in the swirling, snowy climes of the northeastern Issyk Kul region what they really think of the mine, I discover that Kumtor has become a bogeyman for any unusual environmental occurrence in the area. Serving tea in his freezing wooden house, an aging shepherd insists that work in the mine has caused snowfall in the area to halve over recent years. As lightning flashes over the night sky and thunder fills our ears in a snow-covered back street in the town of Karakol, a 25-year-old professional tells me, in all seriousness, that the lightning is due to Kumtor.
“They burnt them all. Everyone fled to Uzbekistan.”
Kyrgyzstan is a divided country. The conservative, ethnically mixed south is regarded haughtily by those who have traditionally run the country from the cosmopolitan, Russified north. Northern mothers ban their daughters from marrying the supposedly sly southerners. Those in the south bristle with resentment at what they regard as neglect from their northern rulers. The only southern president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was ousted from power by protesters in the north. The leaders of the largest southerners’ party, Ata-Jurt, have been seemingly systematically picked off with corruption charges, which some cannot help but see as selective justice in a country where almost every politician is alleged to be crooked.
The backstreets of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city and the largest in the south, bear the scars and irreparable damage of what locals refer to as “the war.” In June 2010, Kyrgyz nationalist insecurities were unleashed on this town of around 300,000, resulting in over 400 people killed and entire areas burned to the ground, after simmering tensions between local Kyrgyz and a large ethnic Uzbek minority burst into violence, rape, and destruction.
No one really knows exactly what happened that night. The ethnic Kyrgyz blame the Uzbeks for what they see as a botched attempt to secede, taking advantage of the weak post-revolution interim government to join next-door Uzbekistan. Uzbeks believe that long-held Kyrgyz resentment of their prosperity simply erupted after a brawl in the town center. Around three quarters of those who died are believed to be ethnic Uzbeks. Rumors abound that the conflict was, for instance, a premeditated ethnic cleansing, or a disturbance organized to facilitate the passage of a massive quantity of Afghan drugs through the southern border.
A taxi takes me into the mahallas, the predominantly Uzbek areas where rugged, hastily built new homes serve only to highlight the crumbling, torched walls of their abandoned neighbors. A shiny new school gleams incongruously over the winding mess of rundown, metal-roofed bungalows. Middle-aged men and women stand listlessly in doorways and on street corners, some trying to peddle meager pieces of fruit. As we bump along a dirt road, my ethnic Uzbek driver gestures, speaking in broken Russian.
“Look, they burnt that one and that one. That one, too. They burnt them all. Everyone fled to Uzbekistan.”
He stops the car and we get out to inspect a ruin. He is a small, kindly man with a round, wizened face and a lost look in his eyes. Since “the war,” life has changed completely for Uzbeks, he says. He never used to be a taxi driver; shortly after the violence, he lost the job he had been doing for decades when all the Uzbeks were kicked out of the business he worked for.
I ask if life as an Uzbek taxi driver carries any difficulties.
“There are some but I cope. We all cope. I’m getting old, what else am I going to do?”
We drive on and he points out sparkling new shops on sites that he says used to be owned by Uzbeks but were destroyed in the violence, then rebuilt and given to Kyrgyz.
“They only burnt the Uzbek shops,” he laments. “They left the Kyrgyz ones alone.”
“Watch out because they’re likely to be following you.”
Osh is thought to be older than Rome. In 3,000 years, this Silk Road market town has seen its share of suffering, but the city moves on and people learn to live with each other again. Everyone I speak to says that on a personal level ethnic relations are now normalized. Each bears their own grievances but they do not hold this against the community at large. Relations between the Uzbeks and authorities, however, are still tense. Official rhetoric blames their alleged separatism for the conflict, while human rights activists say the courts and police have discriminated nefariously against the Uzbek community.
In a more upmarket part of town, I meet with two human rights lawyers, who did not wish to be named for the sake of their safety. They show me a file with the latest sentencing figures from the 2010 conflict. In Osh, Jalalabad, and the nearby area, 107 people have been charged with murder during the unrest; of these 96 are Uzbeks. How can this be right, when the majority killed are believed to be Uzbeks?
“The government’s official position is that the Kyrgyz who took part in the pogrom came from outside the city. They then all ran away and they say they cannot find them,” one of the lawyers says. “Our opinion is that they have no desire to find them. If they wanted to, it would be possible.”
They tell me about an example of the numerous alleged human rights abuses against ethnic Uzbeks.
“Six people are being tried and two of them are terribly ill. The doctors have openly stated that they are dying. But they still sit there — in the fourth year without sentencing, even though by law here they can only be imprisoned for a year and two months without being sentenced. They are going to die, but they are still there, in their fourth year in prison.
“I’m not even going to talk about evidence. The fact is that they have been in prison for four years and they are still unable to sentence them. That says enough on its own,” one lawyer says.
They take out more files, producing a generic case report from Russia. It is 94 pages long and sentences a man to two years in prison. They then show an official Kyrgyz court report of only three sides of A4 paper, handing a man a 25-year life sentence. They don’t seem to notice the irony of dreaming of courts as fair as Russia’s.
One says his main fear is that isolated, jobless young Uzbeks are turning to Islamic extremism.
“These are just young people who have made a mistake and are still making mistakes. The government just needs to work with them and they can be turned around. Instead they put them in jail. If a man is a radical and is put in jail for eight years, he’s not going to come out full of joy, is he? He’s going to become even more extreme.”
As I leave the office, they warn that a year ago a Western researcher who had been interviewing people about these issues was detained by the security services and had his materials confiscated. After considerable international pressure, he eventually managed to leave to Europe and was tried in absentia for inciting interethnic violence.
“Don’t worry, you’ll probably be fine,” I am told. “But watch out because they’re likely to be following you.”
“A black eye glows beneath an eyebrow that had been burst open.”
I meet Nigora Khaidarova and her sister-in-law, Sada, in a kitsch, Western-style burger joint on Osh’s main street. I cannot guess how old they are, for their faces, which hint at past beauty, have been aged by grief.
Dilmurat Khaidarov, Nigora’s husband and Sada’s brother, is one of the six Uzbek men who have been awaiting sentencing for three and a half years. Nigora sits almost in silence, her features contorted with sorrow. She speaks little Russian, so Sada does the talking. When “the war” broke out, Sada and her family fled to the border with Uzbekistan. She begged her brother to escape with her.
“But he refused. He kept saying, ‘I am a man, I must defend my home and my neighbors’ homes,’” she says.
Dozens of witnesses of varying nationalities and ethnicities say they saw Dilmurat and other friends and neighbors close off the road to their neighborhood to stop the attackers’ path of destruction, his lawyer told me. In doing so, they saved the lives of dozens of residents, most of whom were Kyrgyz.
But shortly after the violence ended, Dilmurat was arrested and charged with organizing and participating in mass disorder and partaking in three murders. He was held in pretrial detention where he says police beat his head and kidneys with rubber truncheons, ramming paper clips under his fingernails with his face smothered by a plastic bag. This allegedly went on for three days. Sada says he has lost hearing in one ear after it was beaten until it streamed with blood, and, a year later, he continued to suffer kidney problems. In the face of all this, Dilmurat still refused to sign a confession.
Nigora furtively passes a photograph under the table. It is a grainy close-up of Dilmurat’s face, taken a long while after the torture but still bearing angry blue bruises. A black eye glows beneath an eyebrow that had been burst open. She insists that I keep the photo, so I slip it into the back of a book in my pocket.
“The court has sent the case back six times for further research because there is no evidence against him. They can’t convict him for lack of evidence but they also can’t let him out because the family of the deceased will cause a scandal. They want money from us. They have demanded that we sell our homes to pay them compensation, but they have already received money from the government,” Sada says.
“The most horrible thing is that most of the people who died were Uzbeks but it is we who are being punished.”
They show me more photos, of how their houses were damaged in the violence. Nigora points out a CCTV camera behind me and insists I hold the pictures at an angle from which they cannot be seen. There seems nothing incriminating in these harrowing shots of smashed windows and bullet holes but I play along. I ask if they are scared that we are being watched.
“I am not scared of anything anymore,” is Sada’s defiant reply.
“It will be the beginning of the end of the current government.”
Melisbek Myrzakmatov, until recently Osh’s mayor, is a man who divides opinion. For the Kyrgyz in Osh, he is a hero. They speak of him as a “good, trustworthy man.” “He has rebuilt our city,” I am told time and again.
But many Uzbek faces darken when I mention his name. When pressed, they hesitantly agree with the consensus that he is a good manager and has helped rebuild infrastructure after the unrest. It is clear that they do not like him, though no one wants to say so openly. “We would never go to him for help — he wouldn’t do anything for us,” is the closest I hear to their true feelings.
Appointed under President Bakiyev, Myrzakmatov has shown impressive staying power. He disowned Bakiyev shortly after the 2010 revolution and has since become the major political player in the south, appealing to nationalist sensibilities with fiery pro-ethnic Kyrgyz rhetoric. His role in “the war” is unclear but unsubstantiated rumors accuse him of active involvement in the unrest. Other persistent whispers question — with no forthcoming evidence — his role in the murky world of drug trafficking, as enormous quantities of heroin come north through Osh from Afghanistan. Myrzakmatov denies all this as attempts to blacken his character.
He is deeply mistrusted in the north, where the authorities have tried to unseat him on multiple occasions. Shortly after my visit in November, he seemingly took a final step too far by actively supporting antigovernment protests. He was fired and then, in January, lost a subsequent election, which he says was fraudulent. Thousands of angry protesters took to the streets after the vote, leaving Myrzakmatov in a position of real power. He called off the protests for 15 days until January 30 when warmer weather will kick in, at which point analysts worry that the south could face devastating unrest, such is his popularity and ability to galvanize demonstrators with a potent mixture of charisma and, allegedly, bribery.
“After 15 days we will begin a new struggle,” he said, according to Vechernii Bishkek newspaper. “It will be the beginning of the end of the current government.” Even before he was fired, experts had begun noting that his nationalist rhetoric had softened considerably, with some speculating that he was slowly aligning himself for a run at the presidency.
“The most important people in Kyrgyzstan should be the Kyrgyz.”
During my stay in Osh, Myrzakmatov’s press people tell me that he is in the hospital and unavailable for interview. They do not say what is wrong with him. I am told to wait until tomorrow and then tomorrow, until, after five days, time forces me to settle for a meeting with his influential Press Chief Kamil Sydykov. As I wait inside the drab 1960s-era City Hall to see Sydykov, I see two thuggish men swagger into Myrzakmatov’s personal office.
Speaking in his smoke-filled office, Sydykov insists that Uzbeks are completely equal in Osh and that they have the same opportunities as Kyrgyz, despite consensus on the ground being that they struggle to get jobs other than baking flatbread or driving taxis. He reiterates the mayor’s belief that “the most important people in Kyrgyzstan should be the Kyrgyz” but tries, scribbling a convoluted diagram, to explain that this is not discrimination but means that “we, the Kyrgyz, must take responsibility to make sure they feel at home on our land.”
He is shockingly ignorant about “the war,” claiming “two or three hundred people died.” This is an astonishing gaffe; carelessly glossing over the deaths of over one hundred people. When I point this out, his face betrays a flicker of irritation and embarrassment.
“Ok, four hundred — whatever. Maybe I was a hundred or so off.”
Sydykov continues, contrary to the findings of almost every international investigation, to insist that most of the people who died were Kyrgyz and dismisses Uzbek suffering as “damage to their homes, financial damage.” He then, somewhat bafflingly, starts implying that if four hundred people were killed in London, my home city, nobody would bat an eyelid.
I turn to the question of rule of law. Without directly acknowledging the plight of the Uzbeks in the city courts, Sydykov says that they receive a lot of complaints from residents about unfair treatment but says “sadly, the courts, police, prosecutor’s office, and special services are not under the mayor’s jurisdiction.” He adds that it is President Atambayev’s party which manages these institutions. It is a well rehearsed line that is regularly trotted out to foreign dignitaries but northern experts scoff at the notion that Myrzakmatov, the most powerful man in the south, has no influence over law enforcement here. Some say he actively controls the police.
“Peace in the whole world.”
After our meeting, I take a taxi out of town to the airport and come across a Myrzakmatov-built monument on the very edge of the city. A giant statue shows Manas sitting astride a steed and surveying the foreground, a subservient tiger walking in front of him. The symbolism is not subtle: the Kyrgyz national hero guards the gates of this city, and it is the Kyrgyz who run it.
Similar statues on other perimeters of Osh reinforce this sentiment; most perniciously, the enormous bell built to commemorate those who died in “the war.” Its inscription reads “Peace in the whole world” in Kyrgyz, Russian, and English — but not Uzbek. It is a cruel, antagonistic reminder of that people’s place as second-rate citizens.
I fly away from the ancient city plagued by bitter thoughts. The photograph of Dilmurat Khaidarov’s battered face haunts me from the back of my book.