07 November 2006

Views from the U

The difference between what is happening in the streets of Bishkek and what some people away from the streets believe is happening is remarkable.

About noon on Monday, thousands of opposition supporters moved from Ala-Too Square to the White House, the national executive offices, where they rolled in a mobile stage and loudly pressed for the resignations of President Bakiyev and Prime Minister Kulov. Last Friday Bakiyev said he would present his package of constitutional reforms to the Parliament on Monday, but he never showed up. By that time, a sizable percentage of members of parliament had already decided to boycott the proceedings. They claim Bakiev is uninterested curbing executive power and enhancing the role of parliament, he is again stalling for time, and should resign immediately.

At the university, many faculty and students I spoke with have characterized the opposition movement as irrelevant, thuggish, concerned only with its own partisan self-interest, and devoid of any principled positions. A faculty member who teaches U.S. politics and government was uncharacteristically indignant when I asked if she had attended any of the rallies over the weekend. A Russian language instructor dismissed the significance of the opposition movement by waving her hand in “their” direction—the university is close enough to the White House that the crowd noise was clearly audible to us—and quickly changing the subject. When pressed, it became clear that many of opinions at the university are shaped by what they know, or believe they know, about the upheaval last March in which rioting and looting occurred and their conviction that today can only be a repetition of yesterday.

Meanwhile, the crowds in front of the White House about 9:30 last night, while predominately men, included couples, elderly men and women, young adults, even parents with small children. Outside of a few shrill speakers, the mood was pleasant, unthreatening and almost festive. A family enjoyed a meal on one of the few unoccupied spots of grass; if there were drunken louts, they were well hidden. A few boys, seeking a better view, watched from the trees they had climbed. In front of the stage, military officers festooned with medals and pins talked with civilians. There were so many men in suits smiling and shaking hands that it looked like a networking break at a corporate sales conference. This was hardly a gathering of the rabble; if anything, appearances suggested the crowd was heavily titled toward the middle, professional and business classes.

It seems obvious that the excess of March 2005 left a bitter taste in the mouths of many in Kyrgyzstan. An American faculty member who was here at the time said several Kyrgyz nationals told him they were embarrassed by the behavior of the countrymen. Students and faculty alike remind me there is no little culture of participatory democracy in Central Asia. What is unstated is that this historical deficiency justifies their non-involvement in politics. They seem to be waiting for democratic traditions to divinely drop from the sky or for an appreciative state to grant them democratic rights as a reward for their patient apathy. Outside people are trying to build those traditions and achieve those rights. And some day, perhaps, the people on the inside will teach the history and the struggles that they were unwilling to be part of.

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