The last time I lived in Kyrgyzstan was in 1999-2000 while I was conducting research for my undergrad thesis at Hampshire College*. The 1990s was a really horrible time for people living in the former Soviet Union. Currencies were devalued to the point where they became effectively worthless. There was a severe lack of goods. Transportation and basic infrastructure like water, gas, and electricity functioned sporadically, if at all. Even today, it can be hard for people here to talk about that time. The kind of physical need coupled with the mental anguish caused by humiliation and uncertainty about the future produced a suffering that still goes largely unacknowledged in the West.
During that time, the first president of the Kyrgyz Republic, Askar Akayev, was still in power, ten years after first being elected. Although it had become apparent by 1999 that his government was corrupt and siphoning money from donor organizations, those in power were able to quell any resistance. Things were just beginning to get better following the horrible times ushered in by perestroika.
In 2005, the Akayev presidency came to an abrupt end when huge crowds of protesters who had been camping in the main plaza, Ala Too Square, stormed the White House (the name of presidential residence in Kyrgyzstan) and forced him from power. Coming at the heels of the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, this coup d’état became known as the Tulip Revolution. In the days that followed, Kurmanbek Bakiyev took power with promises of reform. However, in the subsequent years his regime proved to be as corrupt as that of Akayev. In early April of this year, another popular revolution took place in Kyrgyzstan. This time Bakiyev was forced out of power, and a referendum has been held to amend the constitution so that Kyrgyzstan has a parliamentary form of government rather than one where power is concentrated in the hands of the president.
Another upsetting development, which is at the fore of everyone’s mind in Kyrgyzstan, is the ethnic violence that broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents of the country’s second largest city, Osh. Located in the fertile Ferghana Valley, Osh has traditionally been a city where people of various cultures and languages lived side by side. An important city on the Silk Road, the political situation has already affected trade, as the border has been closed between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan at the Osh crossing.
As I move through the streets, I notice the things that have changed in the years since I was last here. In general, the economy is better than it was ten years ago, and there is a sense of more stability despite the recent revolution and violence in the South. The formerly ubiquitous feeling of economic desperation has receded and a cautious hopefulness hangs in the air. People feel empowered to have public opinions that are contrary to state policy, a sign that free speech is gaining ground. (See an upcoming post on political street art.)
*I’m currently working on a website to present the results of that project which focused on nationalism and folk music in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union. Expect a link in the coming weeks.