New York Times: Democracy Falls on Barren Ground

by Laurence on 3/29/2005

University of Alaska Professor Elinor Burkett, who spent 2001-2002 as a Fulbright Scholar teaching journalism in Kyrgyzstan, seems not to like the way the Tulip Revolution turned out. The author of So Many Enemies, So Little Time published a surprisingly harsh Op-Ed in the New York Times today:

Fairbanks, Alaska– THE hasty exit of President Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan from his capital, Bishkek, last week is being hailed with the same breathless exuberance that greeted Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 and the Orange Revolution that brought Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency of Ukraine in November. Democracy is on the march, we are told; yet another despot of the former Soviet world has been cast aside.

It’s a good story, but I’m afraid that plugging the political upheaval of this poor Central Asian nation into the paradigm du jour is akin to stuffing an elephant into a gorilla skin.

Look at the facts. In Georgia, President Eduard Shevardnadze was swept out of power when thousands of organized protesters surged into the Parliament and demanded an end to corruption. In Kyrgyzstan, Mr. Akayev’s 15-year reign was endedby a motley crowd of 20,000 who began the day in Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square chanting “Akayev is dirt,” then moved on to loot not only the main government building – called the White House – but also supermarkets, Internet cafes, the wholesale food market, beauty salons and A.T.M.’s.

An interview about Burkett’s book, So Many Enemies, So Little Time at FrontPage gives a hint as to why she might be skeptical:

Then, in August 2001, I took a Fulbright Professorship to teach journalism in Kyrgyzstan. I wasn’t looking for news. I was taking a break from reality and had seized on Kyrgyzstan as the most remote possible country – one where the word chad had never been uttered, one which never would appear on any CNN map.
Two weeks after my arrival, the Embassy called late one evening and advised me to turn on the TV and STAY HOME. About 10 days later, they called for a voluntary evacuation of Americans since the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, has been very active in Kyrgyzstan.
At that point, reality had come to me, so I couldn’t go home. Rather, I plunged into the new reality at the intersection where Reagan’s Evil Empire met Bush’s Axis of Evil. In late October 2001, I flew into Kabul. Over my Christmas break, my husband and I went to Iran. The day after our return, Bush declared the Axis of Evil. Since I’d already been to one of the three, I decided to try for the other two. I never made it to N. Korea, but that May I spent three weeks in Iraq. Over the intervening months, I traveled and lectured in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan
No matter where I went, it was impossible for me to escape the reality that ALL of my experiences were being shaped more thoroughly by my gender than by my nationality. Sure, people reacted to me as an American – mostly to ask if I could help them get visas or to ask if some silly nonsense they’d read in the press (U.S. troops being required to pray daily to a pamphlet filled with photos of Bush and his Cabinet, or the U.S. plotting to deprive the Russians of gold medals at the Winter Olympics.) But I was suddenly operating in a part of the world in which my gender was foremost in almost every encounter.
In Afghanistan, I found it difficult to walk down the street because I didn’t understand that women always scurried around in their burqas because they were always expected to get out of the way of any man on the sidewalk. I met a woman who’d been crippled by a beating from the Vice and Virtue Police because – unaccustomed to seeing out of a burqa – she’s tripped on the street and exposed a little ankle. I interviewed extraordinary women who’d been active professionals before the rise of the Taliban who’d endured their confinement by addicting themselves to sedatives or by abusing their husbands and kids.
In Iran, I got on a bus one afternoon and was directed to the back of the bus, which is where women are expected to ride. In Turkmenistan, I heard about arranged marriages to uncles, about women who refused to agree to such marriages being driven out by their families. In Kyrgyzstan, I learned about hymen replacement surgery – surely an amazing symbol of the plight of young women caught between modernization and tradition. If these women couldn’t produce bloody sheets on the night of their weddings, they would, as a minimum, be shunned, at a maximu, be killed. In Iraq, urban women had watched as Saddam became more religious, and as short-sleeve dresses disappeared from the stores and women were pushed out of public life.
So when I came home, I fully expected the feminist movement to be up in arms, demanding that the U.S. government do more to defend these women, marching on the United Nations in defense of their sisters.
Instead, I found NOW working on its annual Love Your Body Day. And if I didn’t hit a wall earlier, I hit it several weeks ago during the March for Women’s Lives. Whoopi Goldberg declared that “there’s a war going on, a war against women.” I agreed. Unfortunately, we were talking about different wars.

You can read an excerpt from her book online at

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