Sunday, April 25, 2010

At a Bazaar Near You

Slideshow: At a Bazaar Near You

Above: cookies, laundry soap, and other wares attracting customers at a local market in northern Kyrgyzstan.

A Note About Censorship

By R.B. Moreno

A blog post from Google last week probably explains why I've had trouble updating my own blog as of late. More from Monday's Washington Post:
This morning, on their main blog, Google posted a little reminder to everyone about its view on censorship on the web. Specifically, they don't like it. And while we all know their take on China's demand for censorship by now, the search giant also offered up a new interesting little factoid: of the 100 countries around the world in which Google offers their services, some 25 at least partially block them ... They also link to a list from the Open Net Initiative which shows countries around the world known to censor some web content. All told, there are some 40 countries today that censor the web in some way, according to this data. This is up from just four countries in 2002, according to Google. This is all interesting, but it would be much more effective if Google would specifically name names of the countries doing the full or partial blocking of its services, as they have so vocally done with China.
Based on two recent visits to Internet cafes outside Bishkek, it seems that Kyrgyzstan, for the time being, numbers among Google's 25.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Back to Training

Slideshow: Back to Training

Above: RBM tastes his first kumis as well as other scenes from the resumption of training for Kyrgyzstan's newest Peace Corps volunteers. After relocating to a secure location for nearly a week following the overthrow of now-exiled president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, trainees are once again studying Kyrgyz or Russian and living with local families in the country's northernmost province.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Kyrgyzstan News Roundup

From UPI, "Bakiyev offers conditional resignation." An excerpt:
"I will go into retirement if security is guaranteed for me and my relatives," Bakiyev told reporters Tuesday.
From The Christian Science Monitor's blog, "Kyrgyzstan coup: Bakiyev inching closer to leaving the country." An excerpt:
for the moment, the fears of a possible civil war or a counter uprising against the interim government, which has promised fresh elections within six months, seems unlikely. The indicators coming out of Kyrgyzstan, at least today, are that a political accommodation between the interim government and Bakiyev is likely to be reached.
From the AP, "Kyrgyzstan interim leader says US base will stay." An excerpt:
Roza Otunbayeva said in an AP interview that the agreement allowing the Manas base will be automatically extended when the current one-year deal expires in July. She did not say how long the extension would last ... Otunbayeva also told the AP Tuesday that her government is offering security guarantees for deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his family if he steps down and leaves the country. Bakiyev fled the capital last week during an uprising that killed 83.

Monday, April 12, 2010

AP: Supporters of Kyrgyzstan's deposed president rally

JALAL-ABAD, Kyrgyzstan — Several thousand supporters of Kyrgyzstan's deposed president are rallying, in a test of his ability to resist opposition forces that drove him out of the capital last week.

Supporters of Kurmanbek Bakiyev are speaking at the square in Jalal-Abad and some of his brothers are mingling in the crowd. Bakiyev himself is expected to appear soon.

Tuesday's rally follows a smaller gathering of about 500 people in his home village the day before.

The self-declared interim government in the capital has threatened to arrest Bakiyev, who has warned that there will be bloodshed if they try.

The instability worries the West because a U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan is crucial in the military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

At Play in Kyrgyzstan

Above: painted sheep bones stand in for marbles and a Peace Corps trainee goes mano-a-mano with the local soccer talent in northern Kyrgyzstan.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

AP: Kyrgyz ponder whether to abandon Bakiyev

By Peter Leonard (AP)

JALAL-ABAD, Kyrgyzstan -- In the stronghold of Kyrgyzstan's deposed president, residents clustered on the streets Saturday, holding intense discussions on whether to follow the figures who claim to be the new government.

Some said deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev did a lot of good for the country and dismissed the complaints of the opposition members who drove him out, but many other appeared weary of the country's turmoil and were willing to support anyone who can bring them a measure of stability and comfort.

Bakiyev fled the capital, Bishkek, on Wednesday after a protest rally against corruption, rising utility bills and deteriorating human rights exploded into police gunfire and chaos that left at least 79 people dead and sparked protesters to storm government buildings. He was believed to be in his home Jalal-Abad region on Saturday.

"He built the economy. He built schools, roads and kindergartens. The protesters were just a minority," said Aizat Zupukharova, a health worker in Jalal-Abad.
But, she added, "People are afraid to come out."

"Bakiyev did some good things, but his family led him astray," said another resident, Sapar Usmonov, referring to widespread allegations that Bakiyev's relatives profited hugely and improperly from his nearly five years in office. The claims echo those made against Bakiyev's predecessor, Askar Akayev, who was driven out of office in protests in 2005.

The interim rulers say they have offered Bakiyev safe passage out of the country if he steps down, but he has made no public sign of capitulation. That stalemate leaves Kyrgyzstan's near-term stability in doubt, a strategic worry for the West because of the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan that is a key element in the international military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The base provides refueling flights for warplanes over Afghanistan and is an important transit point for troops. U.S. Central Command spokesman Maj. John Redfield said that although normal flight operations at the base were resumed Friday, military passenger flights were being temporarily diverted.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday spoke with Kyrgyzstan's interim leader to convey U.S. support and discuss the importance of the U.S. air base.

Clinton telephoned Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and onetime Bakiyev ally who heads the interim government, to offer humanitarian aid and to discuss the need for stability in the region, the U.S. State Department said.

Otunbayeva reaffirmed the country would abide by previous agreements to help the U.S. seek stability in nearby Afghanistan. Clinton will send Assistant Secretary Robert Blake to Kyrgyzstan to follow up on the discussion.

Kyrgyzstan's society is strongly clannish, but there are few overt signs that Bakiyev's fellow southerners would coalesce into support for him against the self-declared opposition interim government even though they think well of him.

In taking power on Thursday, the interim leaders said they controlled four of Kyrgyzstan's seven regions. By Saturday they claimed to have expanded their control throughout the country.

"We control the entire country, that's for sure," Otunbayeva said. "We have our representatives in the south. There are some places where there are outbursts organized by Bakiyev's minions and hirelings, but on the whole we are in control."

Jalal-Abad is on the southern side of the soaring mountain massifs that divide Kyrgyzstan into often-rival sections. Usmonov expressed fatigue with such jockeying for power.

"It doesn't matter where the president comes from — he just has to be a fitting man," he said.

Across the mountains in the capital, hundreds of people gathered in one of Kyrgyzstan's most prestigious cemeteries for the burial of some of those who died Wednesday. The interments tacitly conferred national hero status on the dead.

"For the sake of the future, for the power of the people, young people gave their lives," Otunbayeva said at the Ata-Beit cemetery. "The people who came into power five years ago on the wave of revolution turned out to be criminals."

"We won't let Bakiyev come back; the people won't let him back into Bishkek," vowed mourner Mehlis Usubakanov.

Otunbayeva said Friday the base agreement will be continued at least for the near future. Opposition figures in the past have said they wanted to close the U.S. base, located at the international airport serving the capital.

Russia, which also maintains a military base in Kyrgyzstan, had pushed Bakiyev's government to evict the U.S. military. But after announcing that American forces would have to leave the Manas base, Kyrgyzstan agreed to allow them to stay after the U.S. raised the annual rent to about $63 million from $17 million.

Associated Press Writers Yuras Karmanau in Bishkek and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Kyrgyzstan News Roundup (Updated)

From Reuters, "Kyrgyzstan buries its dead, U.S. halts troop flights." An excerpt:
Kyrgyzstan on Saturday buried several of those killed in the overthrow of the government, while security concerns prompted the U.S. military to halt troop flights from its base in the Central Asian state. About 3,000 mourners gathered on the edge of the Kyrgyz capital at a mass funeral to commemorate at least 78 people who died in protests on Wednesday, during which government troops opened fire on demonstrators outside the presidential building ... Mourners carried coffins draped in the red-and-yellow Kyrgyz national flag and clutched portraits of the dead at a memorial complex built in honour of the victims of mass executions ordered by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in the 1930s.
From the Times, an editorial: "Name That Revolution." An excerpt:
Kyrgyzstan may seem a world away. For better, and too often worse, Washington has become a very interested player. The American military installation at the Manas airport outside the capital of Bishkek is a critical transit and support center for United States operations in Afghanistan. As many as 30,000 military personnel pass through the base monthly, runways are crowded with C-17 cargo planes and KC-135 refueling tankers.
From The Atlantic's blog, "Kyrgyzstan: Scenes from the Turmoil." An excerpt:
Though the violence that claimed dozens of lives appears to be largely over, looting remains a concern and the politics are still in flux: Opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva has seized control of the government; but Bakiyev, hiding in the southern city of Jalalabad, has yet to formally concede office.
From The New Republic, "The seven biggest questions facing the country, post-upheaval." An excerpt:
Some observers were quick to compare this week's events to movements in other former Soviet states (the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia) that ousted corrupt regimes and ushered in democracy. But one factor in particular separates this upheaval from the so-called "color revolutions": the use of force.
From NPR, an interview with a Central Asia watcher: "Kyrgyzstan: A Primer." An excerpt:
the income from exports is not sufficient, obviously, to maintain the economy of the whole country, which is one of the reasons why youve had a lot of migrant laborers going from Kyrgyzstan to Russia, which makes Russia a very important partner of whatever government is going to be in power, because this is a major source the source of about 20 percent of the country's GDP comes from remittances.
And the latest on RBM:
We are safe and sound somewhere in Kyrgyzstan -- more so as of [Friday]. Let's just say the hot buffet and portable toilets are appreciated, even if they come a little early into our service.

On a more somber note, the staff here is thinking of people across the country grieving loved ones lost in this week's violence. I understand many of the mourners came together in Bishkek [Friday] in a show of solidarity.
Update (April 12, 2010) -- From the Times, "Fugitive Kyrgyz President Warns of Bloodshed." An excerpt:
The president of this strategically important country, who was forced from the capital last week by rioting protesters, returned to public view on Monday, holding a rally with supporters and declaring that if the interim government that supplanted him sought his arrest, “there will be blood.”
And from the BBC, a look back: "Protests and bloodshed in Bishkek." An excerpt:
The number of protesters, mainly young working men, grew rapidly and by the time they arrived in the capital's main square they were in their thousands.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

More from an Undisclosed Location

By R.B. Moreno

I woke to news this morning from my shortwave radio that opposition protesters took control of the Kyrgyz government late yesterday, likely at the same time footage of the unrest began filling TV airwaves. The BBC reported that the power vacuum has prompted looting and sporadic violence across the country, and it aired an interview with a woman attempting to restore order: Roza Otunbayeva, a former Soviet representative to the UN who played a role in the 2005 Tulip Revolution that swept Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power. Otunbayeva said the opposition has dissolved the parliament, leaving her in charge for six months until a new constitution can be established. Facing arrest, Bakiyev, meanwhile, has fled the capital for yet another undisclosed location. All told, by day's end, at least 70 people were reported killed amidst a chain of events whose horizon remains hazy.

Aside from alarming TV pictures of empty store shelves in Bishkek, life feels little changed in my own corner of Kyrgyzstan. (The city where I'm training can't be named here for security reasons.) Peace Corps language lessons continued without interruption today, save for hurried conversations about politics over tea. It was hard, I must say, to concentrate on memorizing Kyrgyz prepositions with a revolution underway. The Tyiok family (a pseudonym) with whom I'm staying seems worried about last night's events, but by daybreak Ms. Tyiok had returned to her job at a hospital and the clerk at a grocery store where I buy crackers greeted four American visitors with her usual smile.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The View from an Undisclosed Location

By R.B. Moreno

Two weeks in this corner of Central Asia feels somehow like a small eternity. Since my last post, as part of Peace Corps training, I've joined a family of sheep herders who drive a Soviet-era Lada and graze a herd of koň along railroad tracks bisecting a small city in northern Kyrgyzstan. (It can't be named here for security reasons.) The family, whom I'll call the Tyioks, consists of two grandparents, both in their 50s, three daughters (one of whom just earned her driver's license), a teenage son apparently handy with diesel engines, and two grandchildren who carry around the decks of playing cards I brought from Americaдan like religious totems.

At the bazaar

Each day of training, which runs six days a week, begins with wedges of homemade bread (нaн), green tea (чaň), and two eggs over-easy (жуmуptka) served up by Ms. Tyiok. By eight o'clock I've walked a half-mile down a road facing the soaring Tian-Shen mountain range and arrived at a tutor's house. Here three other Peace Corps trainees and I receive language lessons in a dining room kept just above freezing by a small stove. This home and others nearby remind me of Guatemala City: low bungalows ringed with high fences and snarling dogs, pit toilets, and laundry swaying in the breeze. (Just now, despite the cold, I met an elaborately-patterned frog on the path to my own outhouse.)

A night visitor

We lunch with one of our four host families, and each mother seems intent on outdoing the last in plying her guests with food. In this part of the country, Kyrgyz cooking leans heavily on potatoes, onions, rice, pasta, mutton, and, thankfully, for the Tyiok household, cabbage and carrot salads. In the afternoon we take walks to local attractions: the bazaar, the gymnasium, a river promenade lined with trash, a group of boys tossing painted sheep bones that stand in for marbles. Just before dusk I run laps along the railroad track, with bearded Mr. Tyiok waving encouragement to the crazy American in shorts. By night, with great patience and gesticulation, this bear of a man toils at my Kyrgyz vocabulary with help from the television and his daughters, who arm themselves with flashcards.

A stroll along the river

Amidst this generosity, the past week has brought reminders that Kyrgyzstan can be a restive place. Hikes in energy prices spurred protests and government censorship of the media just prior to my arrival in late March, and today a similar scene played out in downtown Bishkek. Internet service was unavailable for much of the day along with most TV channels after clashes in a northern province left scores of police wounded, according to news reports. The BBC described protesters overturning cars in the capital city, tear gas being fired, and lines of troops guarding government buildings.

Then, after dinner, my vocabulary lesson was interrupted by a barrage of TV gunfire. Two Kyrgyz channels began replaying unedited footage from the earlier in the day showing military vehicles set ablaze and a crowd in Bishkek approaching a gated compound. One man removed his shirt and approached troops cloaked in riot gear, spreading his arms in defiance. Shots rang out for minutes on end and cameras showed bloodstained pavement and protesters holding aloft bullets recovered from pockmarks in surrounding buildings. At least three men appeared dead or seriously wounded; ambulances were allowed to ferry away the bodies.

The most surreal aspect of all of this was watching the youngest Tyiok boy prance around the living room tonight. Along with playing cards, local schoolchildren are fond of a certain plastic toy machine gun that emits a nasty pop. To him, the rounds echoing off our walls must have seemed just as entertaining as those in the Russian action films that play in loops on Kyrgyz TV -- when there's not a revolution underway.