This post is part travelogue and part musing on world politics, though I'm not sure where one ends and the other begins. In possibly the most famous Sherlock Holmes story, the key clue is the dog that didn't bark and while it may be strange to find a non-barking dog in Kyrgyz, it's one of the things I take away.
Some stuff about Kyrgyz (I was told that this term is preferred to Krygyzstan). I got an insight into the way my students must feel when they go to the States and are gobsmacked that there are so many different looking people because Kyrgyz makes the US look homogenized. Though Kyrgyz didn't have any of the historical main cities on the Silk Road, both the Northern and Southern routes passed through the country, sloughing off folks of various genotypes like my cat sheds fur around the house. Then, the Great Game had populations move to various places. After that, Stalin's collectivization boosted diversity in its own imitable way. Space prevents me from listing all that I saw and met, but ones that stand out are Uzbekis and Tajiks, Chechen and Georgian, Dungan and Russian. This is all on top of the original 40 regional clans united by the national leader Manas against the Uyghurs. I was primarily in Bishkek, which was just a waystop on the Silk Road until the Russians decided to make a city there, so it is a lot more cosmopolitan that the rest of the country, but a 3 day trip around Issyk Kul Lake was equally eye opening.
It is "occasionally referred to as "the Switzerland of Central Asia"", though Wikipedia says it is because of its geography, while the Economist headlines it is because it is the only democracy in Central Asia, though others have described it as 'volatile'. It is visa-free for Americans and 44 other countries for a 60 day visit. The Manas transit center, the airport for the C-17 transports that take supplies in and people in and out of Afghanistan is basically the same as Manas airport, the international airport that serves Bishkek, and you see the C-17s lined up as you land at the airport. The vibe is pretty American friendly, despite the Wikipedia summary of incidents at the transit center, especially if you talk about NHL hockey. While Bishkek was 20% Russian before the breakup, it is now down to about 9%, but is very much in the Russian sphere of influence (There is a clear distinction between the Manas Air Transit center and the Russian Air base on the other side of Bishkek and on the shores of Lake Issul Kul, there was a Soviet weapons test facility that was going to host Indian navy tests, but the most recent news has it going to a group of Russian investors.) Some folks I spoke to who had been there a while were confident that if Russia really wanted to close the Manas transit center, it would have happened a long time ago.
However, 'Switzerland' is a relative term. After the break up of the USSR, there was a relatively peaceful transition to a semi democratic government, but the President, Askar Akayev, got a bit dictatorial and was overthrown in 2005 in what is known as the Tulip Revolution. Unfortunately, the next guy, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, had some problems with nepotism, and in 2010, his government was overthrown, with some violence and deaths, but which led to a true separation of powers and perhaps the first free elections in Central Asia.
Trying to figure out what made Kyrgyz different, I asked one of my hosts, what made Kyrgyz different from Kazakhstan and Tajikstan in terms of democracy and rather than getting a paean to the Kyrgyz people, he said it was basically a choice of going for economic development or democratization and since Kyrgyz didn't have the resources that the other two countries had, they chose democratization first. It was a perspective I didn't expect.
While Krygyz is in the Russian sphere of influence, it is, it seems to me, a part of what seems like a Turkish sprechbund. Maybe the 'Turkosphere' might be a better term. Not only is the indigenous language (Krygyz) Turkic, and the food shares a number of features of Turkish cuisine. Of course, the amount of stuff I know about Turkish culture can be reduced the apocryphal story of Viennese eating crossiants to celebrate lifting the Ottoman siege of the city, so I'm not really sure, but a number of people I spoke to talked about the links between Kyrgyz and Turkey and Central Asia.
In addition, the settling of the political situation has a lot of small scale business owners from Turkey. The supermarkets, eateries and 24 hour convenience stores, as well as some of the major banks are often Turkish. Rather than the SE Asia situation where dollars are a de facto second currency, you have to change your greenbacks to som, and the folks living and working there said the easiest thing was to use an ATM rather than bring an envelope of dollars like I had. It was astonishing to me how easy it was to get around with absolutely minimal Russian of hello, goodbye, thank you and how much?
Which brings us to the situation in Syria, which, when I was leaving, was gearing up to welcome American cruise missiles. What a difference a few weeks make. I watched a lot of Russian Television (RT channel, which is probably worth a post of its own) when I was in Bishkek and it certainly had a different slant on events. For example, two headlines were "Jihadists bruised and on the run in Syria" and "Killing and forced converstion spree ends as army boots Jihadi fighters". Perhaps it was all propaganda, but they had reporters embedded with the Syrian military getting shot at, so it wasn't like they were phoning it in. I realize that they are coming at it from an particular slant, but after reading the Western news, it was an interesting experience.
I'm very much aware that in the absence of understanding and information, it is human tendency to have the square peg facts get squished in the round areas of our internal stories and I realize that this is probably one of those times. But what I saw from the Syria story while in Kyrgyz was not that things just happened accidentally and by coincidence, things were moved in the direction they went because of particular players who had particular reasons for wanting things to happen. I don't think that there was a conspiracy that got us to where we ended up with Syria, but there was a timing of events that lead me to think there were bumps and nudges.SCO summit in, of all places, Bishkek, Kyrgyz. The main boulevard was cleared of cars as the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Belarus, Sri Lanka and Turkey came together. I waved to Vladimir and caught the motorcades of India, Afghanistan and Turkey as I was out and about, and entourage of Tajikstan was staying at a hotel where I caught dinner with a few people (interesting guys).
I'm compressing a lot of this, but in reading about Syria before I left, Turkey's name seemed conspicuously absent. I wouldn't have given that much thought, but then coming to Bishkek, and seeing the extent of Turkish commerical penetration into Central Asia, and hearing that, despite the internal violence in Turkey, the armed forces were on high alert at the border (how high? check this out).
Turkey was also in the news in that Istanbul lost its 5th consecutive bid for an Olympics. Coupled with that was the unwillingness of the US to share intelligence about the chemical strike with Russia and the general acceptance of the fact, which I assume, in the complete absence of evidence, that the US couldn't because the Russians would be able to compare it with what they have gotten from Snowden and verify a wide swathe of intelligence gathering methods.
I'm not postulating that every move was choreagraphed, but it suggests that there was a lot going on under the surface. Already, Iran is making interesting moves. (I include a link to this Fox news video because of the title: Should the US be weary of Iran's charm offensive? As an English teacher, I usually don't make fun of spelling mistake and the like, but really...)
Putin's decision to become a colleague of David Brooks and the Russian proposal to take Syria's chemical weapons, came, I think, just after the G20 and just before the Shanghai Summit, but the confluence of all these things is something I wouldn't have considered had I not been in Bishkek. It certain suggests to me that it wasn't just Obama and cruise missiles.
Anyway, I know there is nothing about US drones or gun control in here, but there might be interesting stuff to talk about. School is just starting here, but if you have any questions about Kyrgyz, I'll try to answer them. And about politics, ask me in two weeks and I'll probably have another story to squish pegs into.