Like probably everyone else who stops by here, I’ve spent the better part of the past two days and part of the nights and early mornings glued to #freekg and diesel.elcat.kg, peeling off temporarily to follow links that are posted to other news and analysis. The pictures, videos, and firsthand posts from witnesses and feverish expats who may not have slept at all in the last 48 hours are truly arresting.
As much more of the world has begun to understand that something is going on in Kyrgyzstan, the chatter of voices writing and commenting has grown exponentially. Like everyone who loves Central Asia and its peoples, I’m certainly happy to see more people pay attention and slightly gratified, since for a couple of days people actually care enough to pay a little attention to the things I spend my life researching. I echo the feelings of a lot of people who have posted here—I’m amazed how much information is available thanks to the spread of the internet and instant-feedback mechanisms like Twitter, and I’m in awe of the differences between the information available this time and the torturous snail’s pace of reports from Andijon and Bishkek five years ago.
I was in Tashkent for both of those events, and it was mind-numbing how hard it was to get information. I remember very well sitting up late at night glued to my dial-up internet connection and watching news slowly creep out. (Registan then was one of the best and only English language forums for people to gather and share information, and like many readers it was then that I became a lifelong fan).
In a similar vein to what Sarah wrote below about what gets lost in the aftermath and apathy that comes later, I can’t help but remember another experience, away from the computer, that keeps coming back to my mind when I read now about the aftermath of the chaos created by the transition in Kyrgyzstan.
About six weeks after the Tulip Revolution five years ago (just before the Andijon events), I decided to swing through Bishkek on my way back Tashkent from Almaty. At the time, Kyrgyzstan was held up once again as the beacon of democracy in Central Asia, the latest in the series of themed-revolutions (I’m not sure if Tulip is a color) that were supposed to represent something like Fukuyama’s inevitable march of democracy. At the time, so many pundits held up Akaev’s ouster as the most positive development in the region in years, and the mainstream news from Kyrgyzstan was positive bordering on giddy with jubilation.
It wasn’t until I got to Bishkek that I began to see the other side of the story—the taxi driver who offered to take my dusty bags from the back of the Marshutka I rode in on took me around the city looking for a place to stay and took the opportunity to tell the other version. As we drove through downtown he quietly told me about the riots, about the looting, pointing to the burnt-out stores and telling me the story of each one. “That one was Chinese, so the people burned it.” “That one was a shoe store, the people burned it.” “That one was an electronics market, people burned it.” Different explanations were given—people resented the owners, didn’t like the Chinese merchants, wanted the loot, it was a casualty of chaos or just a damned shame. The burned-out hulks of the stores stood silently facing empty streets. Every hotel he took me to looked empty and almost deserted. Everyone seemed quiet, reserved, and apprehensive.
It was at that point that I began to see the rest of the revolution, the unpleasant afterbirth of a new regime. Reading diesel.elcat.kg yesterday was a constant reminder of that other side—hundreds of posts desperately asked about areas of the city where someone had family or friends. Many reports of shooting and violence were followed by laments like “that’s the building my brother works in! I can’t reach him on his phone!” or “my father lives two houses over, he can’t get out.” One of the most poignant was a poster whose elderly relative had died in their home, but was afraid to travel the streets to make funeral arrangements and was stuck inside with the body, asking for advice about what route he could safely take to the funeral home.
The pictures today are a grim reminder of that other side of revolution and the state collapse that comes with it (though hopefully briefly, in this case). When the world turns away again, as Sarah blogged below—and they most certainly will—the ordinary people of Bishkek, Talas, and the rest of the country will be left to clean up the mess, to try to salvage their business, pick their belongings out of the wreckage, nurse the injured back to health, and bury their dead. I write this not to call the protests or the provisional government into question, but only to remind the watching world that after you turn away, life will go on. When CNN tunes away to the next celebrity sex scandal or urgently reports the results of a golf tournament, those stores will still be burned and looted and those friends, fathers, and sisters and lovers killed yesterday will still be gone, only the rest of the world will no longer notice.
Already today (as Michael points out) the punditry has spun up its gears and begun to spew forth prognostication about “what it all means” and how it “fits into the context of THE GREAT GAME” and how we must act quickly to manipulate the situation to our own advantage before those Russians do it first. Conspiracy theories abound that fail spectacularly to capture but succeed brilliantly at avoiding the raw human anger at being shot at by your own government, the pain of human suffering, and the cold fear that comes from hearing rioters rove around the streets in front of your house with guns and grenade launchers, shouting and whistling in the middle of the night—of seeing cars without license plates driving erratically through the streets narrowly missing the people crowding them, or being waved over to stop by teenager brandishing a gun.
Unless there is some great collapse that goes much further than a change of government (and let’s continue to hope there isn’t one), it seems highly unlikely that the geopolitical situation in Central Asia will really change. If Russia really viewed the region as a zero-sum game and wanted the US gone tomorrow, they would hardly allow overflights of their own territory by US and NATO planes loaded with deadly cargo bound for Afghanistan. For that matter, only a week after being shaken to the core by more deadly bombings on the packed Moscow metro, Russia is more than content to allow the US and NATO to fight the war against extremists in Afghanistan and by proxy in Pakistan so that it doesn’t have to. Russia, after all, bears on almost every streetcorner the scars of their own Afghan war in the form of omnipresent disabled veterans missing arms and legs and reduced to begging.
In reality, even those pundits who want to claim that geopolitics is somehow changing with the events in Kyrgyzstan circle like vultures only long enough to apply whatever pet theory explains this situation too—oil, narcotics, “Islamo-fasicsm,” red scares, the Cold War, the Great Game. It’s new and different, but yet somehow exactly the same, or exactly what that pundit might have expected. It’s very easy to see what you expected when you don’t bother with details.
None of this is to trivialize the importance of the cause, or to defend Bakiev somehow. I don’t mean to say that the sacrifices made in the last two days will come to nothing or that the Kyrgyz shouldn’t bother to change their government if it won’t make a difference in geopolitics. What I do mean to say is that what matters to so many today and in the days to come is different than what the pundits want to say matters at just this moment, when the microphone is on. When the microphone turns off, the reporters go home, or people simply stop following the Twitter feed, the people of Kyrgyzstan will still be there. Don’t be surprised if you visit a month or two from now and what people tell you about is not the glory of democracy or the triumph over the Russians or the Americans or other abstract ideas. Instead they will probably show you the burned out storefronts, ache with the memory of those they lost, and continue to do their best for their children and family just like before, whether you’re paying attention or not.