I just wanted to write a short note about the crisis in Kyrgyzstan these days. I spent some time there in 2004, and I spent four days in particular in Osh, which is now the epicentre of the violence. The events are described here.
Osh is one of the crazier places I’ve visited. It can at times seem like nothing much. The food there was better than most places in Central Asia because the Fergana Valley is an agricultural heartland of the region. The problem is that the Fergana Valley was split among three republics by Stalin and those divisions stayed after the USSR collapsed. So the situation is that although Osh is in Kyrgyzstan, it is populated mainly by Uzbeks. It’s actually a multiethnic stew as there are lots of Tajiks there as well, along with the odd Chinese, Afghan and a handful of Russians. When I was there, unemployment was around 80%. It was primarily a narco-city, a major transit point for drugs coming in from Tajikistan and Afghanistan going either to Moscow or China.
There are signs of trouble in a city like that. When people tell you not to go out after midnight they give you that look that tells you they aren’t joking around. They know as a young man you might ignore their advice but they want you to get the message loud and clear. I stayed in a flat in a typical Soviet apartment block. On the ground floor, a fence was thrown together around a fairly nice car. One savage beast of a dog guarded that car, the sort of dog that if it ever got out of that enclosure would have gone on a killing spree. You don’t see that kind of thing in most places, only in places that are a little bit lawless.
They have cops and all, but they aren’t that interested in what we think cops should be interested in. Once in the bazaar, a group of Russians in front of me did a 180 and pushed pass me, very abruptly. I kept going and sure enough I ran straight into a policeman. I don’t trust policemen much back home much less in one of the poorest countries in the world. Sure enough, I was hauled in. He was more interested in my money belt than anything else. I decided that I probably had some sort of rights and refused to even show any money besides the fistful of som I had in my pocket (enough to buy lunch). I was eventually allowed on my way. It was a bit of a lawless place, with the police more worried about shaking down Russians (no doubt he thought I was one, since other foreigners are very rare in Osh) rather than the drug trafficking that fuels the city’s economy.
They’ve had problems like the ones they’re having now before during the Soviet days. Everything seemed peaceful otherwise – the Kyrgyz themselves are wonderful people and the Uzbeks pretty cool too. But Kyrgyzstan has crap government, and that part of the world is always a bit tribal. It’s sad to see the country rip itself apart under these types of circumstances. And a little bit strange to see a city I was in just six years ago burning to the ground.