A Strange and Fractured Return to Order in Kyrgyzstan
After deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled the capital on Wednesday, April 7, crowds of protestors, angered over what they saw as corrupt and repressive rule, clashed with security services, which responded in turn with lethal force. In the aftermath, more than 80 people were killed and nearly 1,000 were wounded, though the death toll has continued to get revised upward. As the city calmed over the weekend, and the government now attempts to establish control over the country, a strange and fractured order has emerged.
On the surface, life is no different here in Bishkek. Police are patrolling the streets demanding bribes from speeding drivers; government ministries are functioning, apparently as normal; and most businesses have reopened. But amid the virtual lawlessness of the last week, some -- including those from distant villages -- have taken the opportunity to claim unoccupied lands in and around the capital, carving out their own property lines. Squatters have even started building.
Ironically enough, while walking not far my apartment, I've seen open clashes between squatters from the previous uprising in 2005, who have returned to claim their seized property, and the new opportunists, who are challenging them over who has the "rights" to the land. The interim government has issued public statements condemning these illegal occupations, calling for squatters to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But for now, those near my apartment seem unconcerned as they begin digging their new home's foundation.
For some among the city's most vulnerable population, the temporary anarchy has meanwhile provided an opportunity to try securing a better life: A group of disabled occupied the charred remains of the home of the deposed president's son, Maksim Bakiyev, collecting signatures for a petition in hopes of legally making the property into a shelter and workshop for the disabled. "We have nowhere to go. Bakiyev promised decent pension, housing, and medical support, all promises he never kept. Now its our turn to take back what he took from all of us," said Bektur, one of the nearly 45 disabled men milling around or cleaning the severely damaged property. So far they've gathered nearly 1,500 signatures from onlookers who stop to catch a glimpse of the unusual activity amid the destruction.
Yet even with the interim government's pledge to bring stability to the country, the world outside of the capital resembles something out of dystopian science fiction. Marauders patrol the highways, creating roadblocks, levying a "transport tax," and raiding cargo trucks. One local businessman who asked for anonymity was forced to pay massive fees while attempting to arrange the transportation of goods from the western region of Talas.
Across the country, not only have many in Kyrgyzstan turned on ex-president Bakiyev, accusing him of rank cleptocracy; they're also palpably souring on the idea of alliance with Washington -- which they see, for a number of reasons, as being too close to the ousted government: First, the U.S. operates an Air Force base in the country, which plays a significant role in combat operations in Afghanistan. Second, the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan left for Washington on the same plane as the reviled ex-president's son, Maksim, while the government fell. Finally, two former U.S. senators, Bob Dole and John Bennett Johnston, sit on the board of the Asian Universal Bank, which is owned by the government and has close ties to the Bakiyev family.
A graffiti artist captured the sentiment succinctly: "Goodbye, Yankees."
Bakiyev is now reportedly gathering support in Kyrgyzstan's south, which remains disconnected and largely alienated from the uprising in the capital, and concerns over renewed political violence and ethnic conflict are widespread across the country. Many even among the new regime's supporters wonder how long their victory can keep the peace.
Photo credit: D. Dalton Bennett