Back in the early 2000s, I was living in Moscow, and as any Western expat in Russia knows, once a year you have to take a little trip. You have to travel to a Russian consulate in a foreign city and hope and pray the consulate officer will take pity on you, issue you a new visa, and not make your life a living hell. Most Westerners I knew traveled to Finland or the Baltics – at least they could suffer against the backdrop of civilized Europe. I guess I wanted to be different; I went to Kyrgyzstan. I remember strolling off the plane in Bishkek alongside some US soldiers heading to the US’ Manas air base – installed in northern Kyrgyzstan shortly after 9/11 to aid the war in Afghanistan. I was wearing flip flops and shorts, and my friend Tom, a Peace Corp volunteer who’d come to pick me up, shook his head. “I can’t believe you wore flip flops to Kyrgyzstan!”
He took me first to the Russian consulate. I knew things weren’t going well when I confused the name of Bishkek’s main avenue “Prospekt Chui” with a Russian swear word. The consulate officer looked at me like I was crazy, and then let it be known that, unless I shelled out $1000, I’d be staying in Bishkek for a month – which I ended up doing.
So Tom and I jumped on a marshrutka – a crowded, sweaty commercial passenger van – to Lake Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s main tourist attraction. It’s the fourth largest lake in the world, and apparently Boris Yeltsin used to vacation there. On the way, we passed numerous billboards showing then-President Askar Akayev smiling paternally.
Akayev was considered a relatively liberal leader by Central Asia standards. He wasn’t an autocratic like his counterparts in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. Sure he stacked the government with family members and made a number of personally lucrative business deals, but hey, this was Central Asia.
Before getting to Issyk Kul, the marshrutka stopped at a convenient store. Tom and I took the opportunity to relieve ourselves out in the woods. When we walked back to the van, two Kyrgyz police officers stopped us. “What were you doing down there,” they asked, chuckling. “Come with us!” They brought us into a wooden shed with nothing but a rusty metal table. This must have functioned as the local police precinct, and it seemed the perfect place for two naïve Americans to get their butts kicked.
We got off with a $20 fine, and back on the marshrutka, Tom said, “Man, we were really lucky. They do whatever the f&@# they want out here!” “What do you mean they do whatever the f&@# they want out here?” I needed some clarification on this point. Then Tom told me a story I’d never forget.
“One day,” he said, “I was walking around outside Bishkek, when a Kyrgyz man galloped up to me on a horse. He took out a whip and started whipping me. I tried to run away, but he chased me around for over three hours. By the grace of god, I ran into a family on a picnic, or he would have kept on chasing me forever… Yeah, they do whatever the f&@# they want out here.”
Shortly after I left Kyrgyzstan, the so-called “Tulip Revolution” toppled Akayev and brought Kurmankbek Bakiyev to power. It was the last of a wave of US-backed uprisings that attempted to infuse post-Soviet republics with democratic values and western leanings.
And what did Bakiyev do? You guessed it: whatever the f&@# he wanted. He turned out to be even more authoritarian and crooked than Akayev. He played off the Americans against the Russians to get an increase in rent on Manas. He spread the funds – and key government posts – to his family and friends, and then sat back and watched as consumer energy prices rose and rose – the one issue everyday Kyrgyz really care about.
- Ivan Weiss