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CyberChaikhana’s Kyrgyzstan Chapter: “Bloody Blooms”

Written by on Friday, 10 September 2010
CyberChaikhana, Kyrgyzstan, Politics and Society
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Photograph by Flickr user chillhiro (CC-usage).

Photograph by Flickr user chillhiro (CC-usage).

Next up we’ve got the Kyrgyzstan chapter, alternatively entitled, “Bloody Blooms” or “Wait for the Wheel”. This chapter was among the most difficult to write, as circumstances in Kyrgyzstan are so fluid at the moment that Ben and I feared being rendered out of date by the time the book is published. So, we decided to focus on precisely that, and what meaning all the instability has for this young nation.

Bloody Blooms or: Wait for the Wheel

The tulip, rising from the murk, its blossoms spread in full bloom, symbolizes many things for the people of Kyrgyzstan – camaraderie, unity, renewal. Once, only a few years ago, it also meant the hope of revolution. Today: folly, disappointment, and rage.

Originally a symbol of the new year holiday Nowruz, the tulip increasingly is increasingly used by bloggers as a dark parody of Kyrgyzstan, representing a vicious wheel of events:

The whole sad mess―Akaev’s overthrow in 2005, Bakiev’s ouster in 2010, and the whole sad mess of violent rioting and protest after Bakiev’s fall make protests and clashes like what took place today seem more and more likely in Kyrgyzstan’s political future. The past five years, and especially the past several months send a fairly clear message to elites: get a mob and grab some power.

There are numerous incentives for elites not part of the (slowly… poorly…) developing new political order to take a shot to assert themselves and fairly few consequences for taking a shot (especially in the provinces). And the consequences are frightening.

Nathan

blood tulip, bloom of instability
like the seasons you ritually revolt
turn the sun, from autocratic winter
to democratic spring and back again
all these fires, these gunshots, these wounds
history cringes at the whiff of your aroma
you sully your precious petals
and for what? pride, pride, pride

Rubaiyat

When did this wheel begin to turn, and is its course a downward spiral?  These are the questions bloggers have been asking themselves over the last five years.  Some, like neweurasia’s Yulia, writing in 2006, search for answers in the past:

Tchaikovsky in Bishkek—19 August, 1991. “Swan Lake” was being played everywhere on radio and TV, replacing all programs and newscasts. Back then, everyone knew that too much classical music on the airwaves was a bad sign. Tchaikovsky in particular always meant the death of a leader. But now he signified the death of the Soviet Union.

The political turmoil ensuing in Moscow echoed in Kyrgyzstan. Here an attempt was made to depose Askar Akaev, the young, new, and very promising president of our small country.

Akaev had originally believed in reforming the Soviet Union to allow for more sovereignty among the member republics, not disbanding it. In this way, he actually reflected the will of the people: a referendum in 1991 revealed that 88.7% of the electorate wanted a “renewed federation.”

Independence was not what we wanted, but it’s what we got. Fifteen years later, we still don’t know whether there’s a reason for Kyrgyzstan to celebrate.

Akaev implemented liberal economic reforms on a scale never before seen. The first results were promising: in 1992, we joined the World Bank, in 1993, the new national currency was introduced, and in 1998, we joined the World Bank. Our independent media and civil society were called “vibrant,” and our nation an “island of democracy.”

But we were really sinking. Impoverishment continued and got worse. Every year, the number of people living under the international poverty line has grown steadily – by 2000, it was reported as high as 40%. Akaev’s government proved unable to handle it, and people became nostalgic for Soviet times, when we had access to a vast market.

Not only economic ties were broken, though. Thousands of personal lives were affected by the Soviet collapse. Families were divided.  The Russians in our country left in a wave, crippling our industry. We survived on foreign donations, money which our leaders seemed more interesting in keeping for themselves.

So, today marks 15 years since 19 August, 1991. For whom is “Swan Lake” playing now?

Yulia

Others, like neweurasia’s Irene and Yalessa, see a lack of principles as the cause of Kyrgyzstan’s problems:

Tips for winning an election—Today on the bus I had a chance conversation with a fellow traveler.  It turns out that in the 2005 presidential election, he ran a polling station in Shakhtinsk.  Word for word, my companion told me six of the easiest ways to get the desired results in any election.

First things first, have the local mayor drop in to see all the managers of the polling station to make clear that if they want their prosperity to continue, then the polls need to turn out a certain way.

Second, have the chairman of the local electoral commission have an “educational outreach” meeting with his fellow commission-members to explore the many different types of voting that are possible, like voting on behalf of all your friends and family, voting at home (especially for your grandparents), or if you’re being particularly recalcitrant, then a gentle reminder from some very big men about which party is acting in your best interest.

Third, [I need this translated: Пригласить на избирательный участок руководителя (зам.акима или просто начальника для большинства голосующих). Особенно действенно, если речь идет о закрытом, специализированном участке.]

Fourth, bring your friends from other districts to vote in yours. (Note: you can do this even after you’ve already voted on their behalf, and vice versa.)

Fifth, in the event that the results still aren’t working out, then the polling station team should just fill out whatever vote sheets they have left over on behalf of everyone who didn’t show up, living or dead. Just make sure the international observers don’t see you (but if you’re lucky, they probably won’t care anyway).

And sixth, when counting the votes, make sure it’s done quickly, quietly, and out of sight from those observers.  Voila!  You’ve now won an election, fair, square, and democratically.

Irene

Learning to cook—The Americans have a saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for the whole day, teach him to fish and you feed him for life.” You could say the same for democracy.

Revolution is like eating soup in a cozy café. It remains for a long time in our memory, but we don’t actually know the recipe for making that soup, or for that matter, how to cook.

Democracy is knowledge of both the recipe and the technique. Not only that, but just as every recipe needs to be adapted to the available ingredients, democracy needs to be adapted to the particularities of the nation.

But in all cases, democracy must always be a system for everyone, not just a specific group.  In Kyrgyzstan, not only do our politicians forget this, but so do the people.  The first manipulate state apparatuses to their personal gain, the second squat on any public property they can find, grabbing it for themselves.

In other words, democracy must mean respect for institutions and finding more sustainable and long-term ways of dealing with injustice. We need a new principle-centric strategy for the country, of which the collective welfare must be paramount.  Only that way can we finally have real democracy.

Yalessa

Did the success of 2005 habituate the people of Kyrgyzstan into a dangerous ritual of revolution? The year 2006 was marked by almost constant and often violent demonstrations. These eventually had a peaceful crescendo during seven days in November. However, in the days prior, bloggers like Yulia feared that the temptation of uprising was about to lead to more blood-letting:

A new Kyrgyz holiday—As we approach 2 November, the date which the opposition has set for the start of an indefinite rally in Bishkek against the Bakiev administration, fear is crawling everywhere.

Businesses remember the riots after last year and so they’re thinking of staying closed. The city authorities are organizing a citizens’ militia to keep order, a tactic that had been used in revolution. According to Channel NTS, 100 vigilantes have already signed up.

The opposition’s leaders say they’ll keep the rally peaceful, but whether that’s true is another question. At a recent press conference, they put on a martial air, but contradicted themselves: Edil Baisalov has promised that it will be like a holiday, but if that’s so, then why is Almazbek Atambaev saying that the police will join the opposition?

Speaking of police, yesterday they organized their own demonstration, but their chief, Moldomusa Kongantiev, hastened to make it clear that these were in no way connected with the events planned for 2 November. I really hope they’re all being honest.

Yulia

But alongside habituation, the following young student blogger argues that the biggest problem of all may be generational:

Out with the old, in with the new—I’m bothered about the unstable situation in the Kyrgyz Republic. People have been habituated to make mass meeting after 24 March, 2005 in order to solve problems. When faced by even a simple problem, they immediately go to the White House and demand a solution.

My suggestion is that our nation must find smart and young men instead of the existing leaders. Nowadays, leaders are too old, the majority of them born during communism, so their ideas about democracy are quite different. They’re sometimes quite confused; maybe they mix communism with democracy.

I respect that generation, but I’d prefer to see them in charge of a communist republic, not a democratic republic, because the features of the latter are very different.

Janat

Janat’s post also indicates a deeper problem, more thoroughly articulated by one of her classmates:

Kyrgyz dreams—There is an anecdote about the Kyrgyz nation. When God decided to distribute the earth among humanity, every nation stood in line and waited. To the Russian was given the largest piece, because hs were the earliest on the queue. After them, the American, the Canadian, the Indian, the Chinese, and so on. Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz slept. When he went to God, there wasn’t even a square meter left. God didn’t know what to do, so He gave the Kyrgyz a piece of His own residence. This room is Kyrgyzstan, a paradise – the unique Issyk-Kul lake, the mountains, and so on.

That’s how our nation began. But since our independence, our dream has decayed. Our leaders don’t know what to do anymore, except be corrupt. Today, we cannot change the situation simply by changing the presidential form of government to a parliamentary one (or for that matter, even to a monarchy!) It’s really about leadership, which needs to be fair, strong, and disciplined.

Chyngyz

At the time this book is being written, already a second revolution after Chyngyz penned these remarks, the new government of Kyrgyzstan is attempting that very switch from presidentialism to parliamentarism. The question, then, is whether the switch will succeed.

A potential answer: if the tulip is a symbol from Kyrgyzstan’s past, perhaps modern technology can predict its future and show the way toward stability. At least, that’s what neweurasia’s Nils thinks.

Hyped up prophecy—As an economist I have written about the adoption of new information technologies in the past.  Now living in Kyrgyzstan, I find it stunning how some of the economic theories common in marketing and communications research, particularly Hype Cycle Theory, can also be applied to the political events we have witnessed over the past several years.

Hype Cycle Theory was developed in 1995 by the information-technology research and advisory firm Gartner to explain how technological innovations gain popularity and evolve from fads into institutions. It’s a simple theory with wide applicability. If adapted carefully, it should be useful to predict the future of Otunbaeva’s new government.

The theory states that every new technology will usually move through five phases: a “visibility trigger” that first gets it public attention; ballooning enthusiasm that eventually results in a “peak of inflated expectations”; then a subsequent decline, called the “trough of disillusionment”. This is the most critical moment.

If the technology survives the trough, it re-emerges upon a “slope of enlightenment”, in which its more devoted users refine and expand its capabilities, eventually reaching a more sustainable peak, the “plateau of productivity”. This is essentially a revival, and in some cases, can actually be steady and self-reinforcing.

In retrospect, one can see that many companies and consumers abandon products well before the plateau (and hence, maximized profitability) because unmet expectations lead to negative press, bad sales predictions, and disappointment among management and users.  So, the keys to long-term survival and success are commitment, endurance, and the willingness to tinker—or, as the Germans say, Sitzfleisch.

Now, substitute “technology” for “government” and “owners” and “users” for “the people” and “the politicians”. Kyrgyzstan’s two uprisings in 2005 and 2010, which brought Bakiev to power and then kicked him out, respectively, can be understood as obeying the same pattern as new technology.

Although the extent to which the uprisings were actually “user-generated” is debatable, let’s follow the less controversial view that they were primarily the owners making their anger felt.  The excitement engendered by grassroots revolution quickly develops into over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations, all of which are doomed to collapse, if for no other reason than the new government simply cannot meet all the demands placed upon it.

Consequently, the initially unified opposition and public support fragments as demands and actual prospects begin to part ways.  Political initiatives become met by counter-initiatives and the situation becomes even more complex. As with technology, the critical moment comes when matters descend into the trough (the sad events in Osh and Jalalabad this past June lead me to believe that Kyrgyzstan has entered that phase with the Otunbaeva-led interim government)t.  At this point, a new government has mainly two options:

(a) The Autocratic Option: they can decide to regulate the hype cycle by tightening security measures, consolidating political activity in preapproved hands, and suppressing all competing initiatives.  This was the option chosen by Bakiev after bloody protests in Bishkek in 2006.

The danger of this option is patently obvious, at least to outside observers: the owners may and probably will retaliate, as they did in 2010.  The likelihood is almost certain if idealistic or opportunistic users, unafraid of destabilization in the pursuit of radical reform or personal gain, can tap into the owners’ rage.

(b) The Democratic Option: they can decide to accept the hype cycle by addressing the owners’ disillusionment, while doing rear-guard actions to co-opt or offset dangerous users.  This has been the option so far chosen by Otunbaeva.

However, this option is likely to meet strong opposition from those who stand to lose from it.  For example, right now many fingers are pointing at Bakiev’s network as the culprits behind June’s tragic ethnic clashes.  The key for Otunbaeva’s government, then, as with a new technology, will be Sitzfleisch.

The results of October’s parliamentary elections could therefore prove key for the interim government’s own emotional makeup.  If results are bad, or worse, if the elections get delayed for one reason or another, will Otunbaeva and her allies have sufficient Sitzfleisch to persist with the Democratic Option, or will they teeter toward the autocratic option?

Whatever happens, barring an explosion in the trough—which was just risked in Osh—the interim government is headed, one way or another, toward the slope.  At stake will be the quality of that slope, especially in its degree of transparency and accessibility in the eyes of the owners.

The ultimate goal has to be a truly sustainable and just plateau of productivity, which I and I think every right-minded observer associates with political stability, honoring democratic values, and the real existence of viable long-term development opportunities for all citizens of Kyrgyzstan.

Nils

As an example of the kind of fervor that Nils finds so dangerous to Kyrgyzstan’s stability, consider this post by a blogger for Thinking-East.net, written during the uprising of 2005:

The ecstasy of triumph—Beginning this post yesterday, I never suspected that I would be writing these final lines in an office in Istanbul, while my Kyrgyz compatriots are writing history on the streets of Bishkek.  Emotions overflow in me at this monumental moment. It grows hard to check the tears that trickle down my face as I feverishly click the refresh button of my browser for updated online news from Ala-Too Square, where the Kyrgyz people are gathered. I am happy to see my people united in this critical time of change.  I am passionate at the sight of my brothers’ and sisters’ blood, shed for the sake of this change.  But, most of all, I am hopeful at the prospect of a brighter future for my country.  The timing of the uprisings, following the ancient holiday of Nowruz, is highly symbolic, too.  This holiday has signified the New Year and change for both nomadic and settled tribes of the region for thousands of years.

Kyrgyzstan has been traditionally viewed as the most tranquil and peaceful nation in Central Asia, indisposed to changing the current developments and forcing out the ruling regime.  Yet, however radical or unexpected Akaev’s ouster may seem, it stands in line with the velvet revolutions of the former Soviet Union, and in greater scale, conforms with the flow of history: sooner of later, discontented nations overthrow their repressive authorities.  The fixed elections were, perhaps, the final straw for the long-suffering Kyrgyzstanis. Whatever the circumstances behind the latest events in Kyrgyzstan, now that Kyrgyz people persist and manage to express their will, they may proudly consider their nation the most democratic in all of Central Asia.

Chyngyz

Everywhere we look in Kyrgyzstan, we find circles. Downward spirals, hype cycles, the bloom and wilt of tulips—it seems that Kyrgyzstan is strapped to a wheel, and only time will tell how long it will spin.

light like fingertips
settling upon these hurting streets
stained by screaming, sobbing blood

this town of tulips
where firmament and freedom meets
yearns for the parting of peace’s bud

sunrise, leaven our eclipse
we are tired of history’s dark beats
and await our coruscation from pain’s mud

Rubaiyat

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