What We Talk about When We Talk about Revolution

Photo: Valeriy Georgiadi, link from Elena Skochilo

by Noah Tucker on 4/8/2010 · 16 comments

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.

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This post was written by...

– author of 54 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Noah Tucker is managing editor at Registan.net and an associate at George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs Central Asia Program. Noah is a researcher and consultant for NGO, academic and government clients on Central Asian society and culture. He has worked on Central Asian issues since 2002--specializing in religion, national identity, ethnic conflict and social media--and received an MA from Harvard in Russian, E. European and Central Asian Studies in 2008. He has spent four and half years in the region, primarily in Uzbekistan, and returned most recently for fieldwork in Southern Kyrgyzstan in the summers of 2011 and 2012.

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Noah April 8, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Sarah, this isn’t the first time I work on something for awhile and then discover that you’ve already published on a very similar topic 🙂 Sorry I didn’t link to your new post, your example about punditry is so much more damning than my meanderings here.

Sarah Kendzior April 8, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Noah, your post is excellent and needed to be said. What I wrote on CNN is very minor in comparison. I hope people read your article and take note. That said, I’m working on a follow-up to my article from yesterday that also touches on a lot of these issues.

Grant April 8, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Good point to make on the matter. It’s something that much of the American world doesn’t realize, after all here we can barely get a flu without the entire world racing to get the latest.

Michael Hancock April 8, 2010 at 10:37 pm

I hate to do this, but I must give you props for referencing (accidentally or otherwise) the title of a great Raymond Carver piece.

Noah April 8, 2010 at 11:37 pm

Oh ye of little faith. Somewhere in my garage there is a piece of paper that says I have a B.A. in English Literature. I may have an addiction to subordinate clauses, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admire the master of minimalism.

DE Teodoru April 8, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Watching Obama and Medvedev at the reduction in nukes signing one can only wish one were a fly on the wall to hear their conversation on Kyrgyzstan. Manes has come to mean a lot to Petraeus/McChrystal, but not to Obama who is closing down Afghan War. Opponent in 2012 Petraeus is the target strategically of the Russians and politically of Obama and both must be smiling tonight at this twist and turn of the Great Game. The issue is that all this, as in Western “near abroad” is in flux and the Presidency must be restored to what it was before Rumsfeld destroyed in through a mix of blackmail and initiative.

The tragedy in all this is that US will not be seen as White Night who can balance against a Russo-Sino clutching of the region. Russia will have its two bases (so far no declaration similar to the one about the American base from the regime. Lucky for “anal-ysits” that Bakyiev is still down South and so we can see his unraveling fate as part of the regional strategy. If Obama is with him, we’ll know soon enough. But I think we’ll see that Obama signed on with the “near abroad” solution which caused the utilities prices to rise. It’s funny that the more the longitudinal lines change within the ex-Soviet Empire the more things remain the same. I’d love to see a video of Rumsfeld sitting on his john and reading about all this. A lot of “old friends” will call tomorrow to say: “Thanks Don for nothing!”

Noah April 8, 2010 at 11:21 pm

You really don’t read these posts before you comment, do you?

Michael Hancock April 8, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Can we get an IP location for this guy? My patience is wearing thin. DE, care to identify yourself?

DE Teodoru April 9, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Gee, little guys give themselves airs on blogs don’t they? My comment dealt exactly with what counts, the future—as seemed to be addressed by post “What We Talk About When We Talk About Revolution.” Sorry I went past your proverbial cab driver’s advice in hypothesizing but this has been a concern to many of us since WWII as we LIVED under the powers playing the little guys. But as I told your colleague in an e-mail, my goal is a dialogue. Read Tucker’s post and you’ll see that I responded to it…or was I supposed to only deal with your drivel?

They say that blogs are a lot of people speaking to a very few. I see why. OOOOO! You’re gonna get my IP location! What’s that a surge of electronic testosterone? What this makes you an electronic thug! Ha! You may not like what I wrote, but it’s MY views and very much on topic, in my view. But I assure you I will not intervene in your touristy memories with the issues that I thought mattered here.

Ian April 9, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Teh Teodoru needs no introduction, he is a well-known suffocator of blogs, discussion lists, and other public fora. Windy bloviation on topics unfamiliar to him is the soul of his wit.

K Raftery April 8, 2010 at 11:17 pm

Thank you for this well-written and poignant piece. I think that so many people are commenting and treating the entire event like a sophisticated video game that it has been easy to overlook that real people lost their lives. Real families are mourning today, burying loved sons, brothers, fathers…

Thank you for not forgetting that. It seems all too easy to do.

Those of us who care about Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia will still be here, even after the microphones are gone. And, we, too are just doing the best we can do.

And yes, the rest of the world will forget about Kyrgyzstan soon enough, it is up to us who

Metin April 11, 2010 at 11:49 am

just read an interesting article at Reuters.
Ousted Bakiev calls for international inquire on deaths of people.
I remember in case of Andijan organisations like Human Rights Watch and some Western governments called for ‘independent’ international inquiry. What do you think – would Western countries, who ‘care’ about Human Rights require the same from new Kyrgyz government?

Noah April 11, 2010 at 12:06 pm

According to reports I saw yesterday, the Otunbaeva government has already requested an independant inquiry itself.

Metin April 11, 2010 at 12:25 pm
Metin April 11, 2010 at 12:28 pm
Brian April 11, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I don’t think that many people in the blogosphere would mind if there were an international inquiry on this. However for me, and for others I presume, whether an “international independent” inquiry or an inquiry done by the host government would satisfy me has less to do with sovereignty or political issues, but whether I think the host government can do a credible job.

Human Rights Watch for their part is calling for an inquiry:
“Human Rights Watch said that as soon as it is feasible, there should be an investigation into the circumstances that led to the 41 deaths, whether they were result of criminal acts by protesters, legitimate use of force, or excessive force by security forces. “

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