On August 31, 1991 the Supreme Soviet (roughly the equivalent of parliament during the Soviet Union) voted to make the Kyrgyz Republic an independent country. Since then, the day has been commemorated with parades and other various patriotic fanfare in Ala-Too Square. Think of the political showmanship that takes place on Red Square in Moscow, and scale it down to Kyrgyzstan.
This year for Independence Day, I forewent the daytime ceremonies to attend the national buzkashi championship. (A post on that coming later.) However, late in the evening, I made it to Ala-Too to see if people were still out and reveling in an independent spirit. To my surprise, there were literally thousands of people – families with children, groups of young people, pensioners – strolling through the center, chatting with friends in parks, and avoiding the spray of the huge fountains. Unfortunately, my video camera was not charged so I was unable to capture the expanse of the crowd.
What really struck me about the scene was the fact that people really seemed to inhabit this official space as though it belonged to them, as though they were claiming their own right to the city. The concept of the right to the city was first articulated by Henri Lefebvre who proposed that urban space need not be merely organized around economic utility, which was its original purpose. Lefebvre maintains that the city landscape carries the latent potential for re-imagination and creative use its residents, that they have the power to implement their own visions of social and spatial relations. For a succinct exploration of this idea, see this article.
As I watched the throngs happily filling Ala-Too Square, it struck me as unusual that people were not being corralled into designated paths and observation areas. From my experience in formerly Soviet republics, I have come to expect strict limitations on where and how people are allowed to move through public and private spaces, particularly when large crowds have gathered. But here I was – surrounded by perhaps 10,000 people who were taking ownership of the public arena. People have come to claim their right to freedom of speech and movement. It reminded me of the popular revolutions that took place in the self-same square, in 2005 and again in April of this year. As a Westerner, I have positive associations with ideas of democratic uprising, associations that are not shared by many Bishkek residents.
While discussing the Independence Day events and crowds with local acquaintances, I discovered that for many of them the day brought about fears of unrest, of chaos and the destruction of property. Large crowds, particularly those with a nationalist bent, forebode coups d’état along with the danger and destruction that invariably follow. Indeed, Lefebvre states that it is specifically in public space that the interests of capital and private property come into conflict with popular/populist demands for greater participation in political and economic life.
As an anthropologist, I try to sit with all of these perspectives and see the how various political interests position themselves within the newly established governmental framework. I am waiting to see what kinds of new opportunities will arise for communication, interaction, and justice within public discourse in the wake of the April revolution. Please join me in my wishes for peaceful resolutions to the lingering problems as I contemplate the new kinds of independence Kyrgyzstan experiences in 2010.