By Raffaello Pantucci and Sue Anne Tay.
First published in the Lowy Institute for International Policy’s The Interpreter on 26 October 2011.
Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of what appears to be a lively democratic election campaign. Rushing to meetings around Bishkek and then driving to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city, big political posters adorned bridges, tollbooths and places in between. So it was with little surprise that we came across a large-scale rally at the stadium adjacent to our hotel in Osh.A somewhat lackluster affair on a cold damp afternoon, the rally was in support of Bakir Uulu, a candidate we later discovered was something of a soft-Islamist (something that should have been obvious from the crescent that adorned his campaign logo), eager for the US to move its military presence out of Kyrgyzstan. Azerbaijani dancers pranced around as an apparently famous Kyrgyz MC crooned nationalist songs from behind his shiny suit. Eventually, some of the many policemen standing around chomping on sunflower seeds got interested in our presence and our already tepid interest in the event receded.
But as we were leaving, we walked right into the candidate who was walking from his nearby office (below) to the rally to give the keynote speech. Ever the politician, he pressed the flesh and stood around for some pictures before telling us that we must come back and listen. He pointed to one of his young acolytes to ensure we got good seats.
Unfortunately, this young staffer did not feel it was his role to also translate, so as we sat in the cold listening to the candidate talk we were obliged to simply pick out the odd word that was apparently universal (America, Afghanistan, Europe, Taliban, Hizb ut Tahrir, Uzbek, China etc). The one line our guide did choose to translate was that the candidate thought ‘they had learned a lot from America and Europe.’ Far more active was an excitable drunk sitting behind us who seemed determined to record the entire event on his Motorola phone and get our phone numbers.
Kyrgyzstan is a young country and this was reflected in the crowd, though a number of older Kyrgyz were among those sitting interested and engaged in what the candidate was saying. One group was drafted into participating in a parade that marched around the stadium waving blue flags as part of a cortège that included a unit on horses and three white trucks with campaign posters taped to their sides. At the back of the stadium, a rather hapless group of men alternated between trying to put up large banners of the candidate and smoking cigarettes. They finished their task as the candidate ended his speech.
We made our way back to our hotel with a better understanding of Kyrgyzstan’s dysfunctional politics than anything gleaned from academic analysis.