Those who read the tile of this post should have figured out that this post is not about programming but is an account of an interesting trip I recently came home from. An amazing trip that took me through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. So if you want to know something about Central Asia please continue to read otherwise skip this post.
The trip focused on the history of this region and it’s people. The region is famous for it’s huge steps, incredible mountains and vistas and it’s rich history and art. It contains enchanting cities like Samarkand and Bukhara. Cities that has existed for millennia as important centers of commerce along the silk road.
The most interesting part of the trip, and the one I wish to retell in more detail is the event that happened in Bishkek (the capital of Kyrgyzstan). We were invited to the parliament by Edil Baisalov, the current chief of staff of the interim government. For those who haven’t followed the news of this region: There was recently (April 6-15) and uprising in Kyrgyzstan where the then president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his government was removed and replaced by an interim government. One of the many reasons for the uprising was the shutting down of news outlets that were critical of him and his son.
Why would a central figure from the new interim government invite a group of Swedish tourists? Edil Baisalov was recently a political refuge fleeing Kyrgyzstan in late 2007. He feared imprisonment or assassination from president Bakiyev. He ended up in Sweden. He was very moved by the way Sweden accepted him and his family, how they were provided with an apartment, free language education and counsel. Now, when a group of Swedish tourists, in this time of political crisis, dared to enter the partially closed border and go forward with their trip through Kyrgyzstan, I think he felt obliged to say something. I am not sure exactly what his motives were.
The meeting took place on the 5th of May. The group of forty Swedish tourists was led into a big round table room in the parliament building. After a few minutes Edil Baisalov entered, greeting us in Swedish. He switched to English and continued to talk a little bit about himself, his history with activism for human rights and against corruption. Baisalov was a very open critic of the Bakiyev government, criticism that finally led to him having to flee from Kyrgyzstan. One thing that struck everyone from the beginning of the meeting was how very candid and honest this person sounded - this was no ordinary politician. And reading his profile in Wikipedia shows that this is a longtime activist, who is not used to have power and to be careful about what he says.
Baisalov said that the main focus is to organize free and fair elections this fall. They are working on changing the constitution in the direction to become a parliamentary republic, increase freedom of speech and improve the election and voting system.
Another focus he mentioned was to improve the situation for women - from education and job opportunity standpoint. He said that Kyrgyzstan has a population of very well educated women, almost more so than men (for example his mother was a doctor and his father a driver). This he said was a legacy from the Soviet times, when the situation between men and women were more equal (compared to today) and where everyone could get an education. He said that the situation for women has deteriorated and is regressing. This trend he wishes to reverse.
He was asked about relations to Russia and the States.
He answered by saying that Russia quickly accepted the interim government. Mainly (he thought) because Bakiyev had cheated Russia by accepting money from Russia to build a power station, but in return for the money Bakiyev should have barred the States the use of the military airport. He did not comply with this demand. This and other similar situations caused Russia to be offended by Bakiyev. This Baisalov thought was one of the reasons behind Russia’s quick approval of the uprising and ousting of Bakiyev.
With regards to the interim government and its relations to The States: He said that they were finding evidence that the States had bribed military and government officials in order to use the airport in Bishkek. "They fight for democracy in Afghanistan while they sacrifice democracy in Kyrgyzstan". But he said that they (the interim government) will continue to allow the USA to use the airport and it is for the next elected government to decide on this issue.
He also mentioned that Bakiyev's son, known as the ‘prince’ and was touted as his almost certain successor, was visiting Washington a few months back (maybe to talk the military air base). He was accepted as an official of the government even though he was dismissing the democratic process in Kyrgyzstan. Baisalov mentioned these two stories as possible causes for the apprehension of the attitude of the USA towards the new interim government knowing that they supported and even encouraged the corruption within Bakiyev’s government.
He was also asked to talk about what happened during the uprising that led to the ousting of president Bakiyev. He mentioned a former minister of defense who was very popular among the military and critical of Bakiyev. This person was sentenced to prison for 8 years on trivial charges. During the uprising this person was freed and due to his popularity within the military helped secure their support for the demonstrators. Baisalov also mentioned that they recently had discovered 8 million dollar in a bank security box belonging to the previous defense minister (the one who had replaced the one who was sent to prison).
When Baisalov continued to describe what happened during the days of the uprising he choked, after multiple tries. It was clear that the pain from losing close friends just weeks earlier was too much and to soon. 88 people were killed and 500 hospitalized during the demonstrations.
He added his view on secularism, about the long term goal of reaching something like the social democracy in Scandinavia, about ways to make politics more about ideology and issues than about clans and individuals. Baisalov expressed following important opinion: “Even if we’ll lose the election we’ll win. The purpose is to gain a democratic system”. Much more was said but I cannot remember more specifics.
The whole group left the event in a strange mood. What we just had heard was so very unexpected and unique. It is not often you get the possibility to visit a parliament after an uprising and talk to one of the leading opposition leaders and activists in the country, or listen to a politician that felt so honest and human. Everyone walked out from that meeting with a great hope that Kyrgyzstan might be the first real democracy in Central Asia, if the elections and everything pan out. But because of Baisalov’s very personal account everyone also walked away with a personal connection to Kyrgyzstan and its fight for democracy and human rights. Personally I and I think many others in the group will be following the events very closely from now on.
In order to thank Baisalov for taking the time to talk to us, I would like to recommend to everyone to visit Kyrgyzstan. It is an amazingly beautiful country with a friendly and fun people.
The cities were not what I expected, the cities Almaty, Bishkek and Tashkent where much more modern, clean and organized than I expected. But most of all they were green and beautiful, with parks everywhere and trees planted along every street. Still these are very poor countries, with vast differences between rich and poor and low expected living age. For example GDP per capita in Kyrgyzstan is 934$ compared to 52 000$ in Sweden (source Wolfram alpha). But I encourage everyone who wants to experience something different to travel to Central Asia. I will definitely be returning, maybe a hiking trip in Kyrgyzstan!