Spot the difference

December 8 2010

People who have recently been remanded in custody without bail pending extradition proceedings in the UK:

Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks.

People who are believed to be in the UK without a visa, living freely with an extradition request pending since June:

Maksim Bakiev, son of previous president of Kyrgyzstan, wanted by Interpol on charges of fraud, embezzlement of public funds (on a grand scale) and by the Kyrgyz government in connection with the June uprising which displaced millions and killed thousands of ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan. Currently represented by Carter-Ruck.

Just my two penn’orth.

Kyrgyz constitution ratified

June 27 2010

An impressive report from the Associated Press is up on the Guardian which describes a 70% turnout in the Kyrgyzstan referendum today. It seems incredible that the result is already known (and I rather suspect some people will ask questions about the speed of the count, given the circumstances) but there are heroic tales of how ballot papers have been taken to the refugee camps and workarounds to allow people to vote who lost their IDs in the fighting. Currently, the government is reporting 90% in favour of the new constitution – if true then it rather gives the lie to some of the theories about the violence two weeks ago being a popular action by Kyrgyz not in favour of reform.

There have been no reports of increased violence (although there are still, daily outbreaks on a small scale) designed to disrupt today’s vote. Credit is due to the Kyrgyz government for pressing ahead and making this happen peacefully, despite the odds.

Over 100 SOS signs spotted in Osh

June 25 2010
Images of the SOS signs painted on roads in Osh
Images of the SOS signs painted on roads in Osh

If 400,000 people fleeing their homes doesn’t quite put the problems in Kyrgyzstan in perspective, how about this story of horror from Osh. Over 100 SOS signs have been spotted by satellites imaging the city. People desperate for help who still aren’t getting it.

Things are still developing fast. Amnesty International is calling for the government of Uzbekistan to stop forcibly returning people who fled during last week’s fighting in Osh and Jalal-Abat.  It may be too late, as other reports suggest that most of the 100,000 women and children who crossed the border to flee the violence have already returned. (Men weren’t allowed over, the suspected reason being that Uzbek dictator Karimov didn’t want potential pro-democracy supporters on his turf.)

What that means is more people in the highly insecure camps on the Kyrgyz side of the border, or women and children returning to homes that are little more than rubble, where supplies are few and far between. Throw in more tensions around Monday’s referendum on political reform and it’ll be amazing if the country isn’t back in the headlines over the weekend.

Kyrgyz ex-leader’s son claims asylum in the UK

June 18 2010

I wrote a piece for the Guardian today expressing anger at the lack of international response in Kyrgyzstan. I wish now I’d spent the time doing the other thing I had thought about following up – the whereabouts of Maxim Bakiyev, son of the ousted president of Kyrgyzstan who is wanted on charges of fraud in his home country.

After the April revolution he went missing – believed to be in the US and accused of bankrolling groups seeking to destabilise the interim government. He’s at least part of the reason that country is so broke at the moment, and is suspected of channelling aid money destined for the incredibly needy in Kyrgyzstan of to his private bank accounts.

He turned up a couple of days ago in a private plane at Farnborough airport, where he was detained by immigration officials. the Kyrgyz government claimed he had been arrested and requested his extradition. If only things were that simple. According to PA reports and the Telegraph, not only has Bakiyev Jr applied for asylum and been granted a temporary stay, he’s engaged the notorious Carter Ruck to represent him.

Wonder where he got the money for those learned friends?

I’m not usually one of those demanding asylum seekers go home, but in this case I think I might go all Daily Express.

Where’s the international response?

June 16 2010

It’s going on for a week since trouble began in Osh, now, and the foreign press pack has finally arrived in the city and is starting to bring back accurate reports of death tolls and the sheer scale of the destruction. The one thing they all seem startled by, CNN, the BBC, the Guardian, is that there’s no sign of humanitarian aid for Kyrgyzstan yet.

Luke Harding’s report in the Guardian confirms almost everything Emil told me on Monday – the different stories that were used to foster discontent, the massively higher death toll than is still being claimed and the violence against women. What I don’t think anyone has grasped yet, though, is that in the areas outside of Osh and Jalalabad you can travel for 200km without seeing a police station. These are places where authority and moral order had already broken down and legal power was vested in the hands of uneducated village elders. There is no civil or military Kyrgyz force which can keep order. Back in April, the interim government admitted to the world it was broke.

In Bishkek it’s been the people’s militias that have been holding the line against the former president’s supporters. Emil believes that part of the insurgents’ strategy is to draw troops away from the capital so that a counter revolution can take place.

Read Luke’s article linked to above. It’s chilling. The fact that no peace keeping force has been dispatched to the area from the UN, NATO or the Russia security alliance proves that the world has learned nothing from Bosnia, Albania, Rwanda or Somalia when it comes to the speed with which action must be taken in these circumstances.

An update from Kyrgyzstan

June 14 2010

Obviously I’m not there at the moment, but I spoke to a friend of mine who’s a professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek this morning to find out his thoughts on the situation.

Emil’s family is from Osh, the focal point for this weekend’s extraordinary violence. He grew up there, before he moved to Bishkek to study. He was visiting the city last week, and scheduled to return this week with a visiting colleague from the UK in tow. He missed getting caught up in the rioting by a matter of hours.

Like most people who’ve sent eyewitness accounts to the BBC, he isn’t convinced that ethnic conflict is at the heart of the trouble. It’s just not been a feature of everyday life there, he says. The ethnic divisions are such that Uzbeks live mostly in the cities, while the countryside is dominated by the Kyrgyz. Both are so poor and underfunded that they have more than enough other problems to concern themselves with.

I’ve seen, however, the way men can react when they live in the poor and marginalised areas of the country. When I was in Kyrgyzstan last September it was to report on women who’d been subjected to the most horrendous domestic violence. I can easily believe that it wouldn’t take much to spark a bigger fight – three months of living under an innefectual interim government which has failed to deliver on the hopeful promise of actually changing people’s lives in a meaningful way perhaps? While constantly being subjected to the murmourings of exiled President Bekiyev’s supporters telling you the Uzbeks have it better? These are my thoughts, not Emil’s, I hasten to add.

Emil has heard through his family that the unrest was sparked by the arrival of 300 Uzbeks from outside of Osh – possibly Tajikistan – intent on causing trouble. He’s heard rumours – unsubstantiated – that they broke into a Kyrgyz dormitory and raped and murdered teenage girls. Whatever the cause, he says, he firmly believes they were organised by pro-Bakiyev supporters.

His family’s experience has not been good. At least one “distant brother-in-law” has been killed, shot three times by a sniper. His uncle, he says, lived in an Uzbek area of Osh, and pleaded with the mob not to burn down his house, explaining his Russian descent. The mob not only obliged, but in a way I find curiously Kyrgish, spared the neighbour’s house too, so that the flames wouldn’t catch Emil’s uncle’s roof.

Every other house nearby was razed.

In Osh I stayed at a beautiful little guest house with a serene garden that was filled with the smell of herbs in the evening. We met with a charming Muslim muftiat in his tin roofed mosque who explained how he was trying to educate the rural clergy in female emancipation. He used his walking stick to knock apples off a nearby tree for Amanda, Claudia and I. It saddens me to think that most of that has – by all accounts – probably gone. We arrived during Ramadam, and the high spirits of midnight feasters seems hard to reconcile with the images coming from the city now.

Worse, though, is that in the Suzak area near Jalalabat we saw this incredible primary school, being rebuilt by dedicated teachers after two decades lying unused – and unlike Emil I have no way of finding out whether or not the irrepressible Syrga who runs it is safe.

The best we can do?

Just been reading the daily World Health Organisation report on the situation in Kyrgyzstan, which lists a breakdown of NGO and official channel activity in the Osh/Jalalabad area as well as ongoing need. It’s a clinical document which hardly conveys the horror on the ground that’s being reported, and reads as though the Red Crescent and Red Cross are pretty much the heroes of the day at the moment (certainly the army isn’t – there have been lots of reports of soldiers simply siding with the Kyrgyz and shooting at fleeing Uzbeks).

I can’t help but be a little underwhelmed by the only mention of foreign government assistance. While the Kyrgyz interim authorities have been pleading with the Russian – and allegedly US – governments for help to keep the peace, they got this:

“One trauma kit (with supplies to treat 100 trauma cases), funded with support from the Italian Government, has been sent to Osh.”

Eeywitnesses say that there are trucks out picking up heaps of bodies off the roads and mass graves being opening up to bury up to 1,000 dead. One trauma kit would be funny, if it wasn’t such a tragic indictment of how the UN is pussy footing around the sensitive security issue (it’s the only country with both Russian and US airbases on its soil) and failing to step into a situation that’s been ongoing since Thursday.

Update from Kyrgyzstan

April 12 2010

I heard back from my friend Gulmira in Bishkek over the weekend. She told me that because of a general news blackout last Wednesday, following the protests in Talas, she and her brother had gone along to Ala-Too square in central Bishkek to find out what was going on – and ended up being shot at and seeing grenades go off beside her. She reckons there were 40,000 people protesting outside parliament, and that the general feeling is that the new government has the people’s trust. Still, after the old one indiscriminately opened fire on you, I guess anything is an improvement.

There’s a lot of stories going around about how Russian TV was stirring up discontent over the last few months, because the Kremlin fell out with the previous regime in Kyrgyzstan over the US airforce base in Manas. It’s been widely reported that the Kyrgyz president, Bakiev, was likened to Genghis Khan for his brutal chicanery and selfish nature. The actual protests, though, were sparked by a huge increase of up to 400% in domestic energy prices. In part, these increases were because Russia increased its wholesale tariffs on power to Kyrgyzstan – which means that Putin’s government would probably struggle to beat Bakiev’s in opinion polls rihgt now.

Even if there was some propoganda as a backdrop, though, it’s not like the Russian media was actually lying. This was, and presumably still is, a country in which corruption is endemic and you have to be able to afford a bribe to see a doctor or get your kids into school. It locks people into a downward spiral of poverty.

I’m hoping to return some time soon to see whether or not the new administration can deliver on the promises of change that it’s made to people.

Bishkek: a tragedy but not a surprise.

April 8 2010
Felt picture from an art installation that was touring round Bishkek in a minibus

Felt picture from an art installation that was touring round Bishkek in a minibus

I don’t know an awful lot about yesterday’s fighting and violence in Kyrgyzstan other than what I’ve seen on the newswires (and the BBC, Guardian and New York Times seem like the best sources of coverage). While I’m shocked and appalled at the number of people dead – estimates up to 100 – and pictures of the police forces firing indiscriminately into the crowds of people protesting outside the government buildings in central Bishkek, I can’t say I’m surprised.

Most reports agree that the trigger for the protests were rising eletricity costs. What they don’t mention is the huge numbers of people even in the capital, Bishkek, who live without power, water and heating during the coldest months of the year, when the temperature drops to -20degrees C. Power-outs in the capital are common, causing enormous problems for local businesses like food stores who need a constant energy supply. The irony is that Kyrgyzstan has abundant hydroelectric potential – and supplies power to neighbouring Uzbekistan – which has been horrendously mismanaged, as this scarily prescient article from last year makes clear.

People’s lives are made worse by the systemic corruption – the picture above was created by slum dwellers as part of an art installation, and it shows a nurse demanding bribes before she’ll offer medicines or treatment. Talking to government ministers last year it seemed as if there was a genuine desire among many in the legislature to do something about the problems, but clearly it’s been too little too late. If anything, I’m more surprised that it’s taken this long for the situation in Kyrgyzstan to lead to bloodshed, given the problems many people there face.

I’m trying to contact friends in the country to find out more about who exactly was involved in the protests, which have resulted in the complete overthrow of the government. I imagine the communications grid is taking some strain, and they’ll be busy doling out medical supplies to those injured yesterday, but I’m hoping they’ll get back to me soon. If nothing else, to confirm they’re safe.

Power to the people

September 18 2009

I’ve almost finished the feature for The Guardian, and although I hope to write more on Kyrgyzstan soon, it feels sad that this particular adventure is coming to an end. So here’s a final post about an incredible art project to round things up for the time being.

A giant bonnet emblem for the whole city of Bishkek.

Like a giant bonnet emblem for the whole city of Bishkek.

It’s easy to forget, living in post-Blair Britain, that in some ‘less developed’ countries people can still force their governments to listen.

In the UK, a million people can take to the streets to protest against an illegal war and be written off as a mere trifle. London be brought to a halt by crowds complaining about bank bailouts, but the public money is still pissed away on bankers’ bonuses. A postal strike can damn near bankrupt the likes of me, who still mails cheques to his bank, but the case for keeping local branches goes unheard. Despite decades of state investment in high quality comprehensive education, the idea that the general public might have a better idea of what they want to do with their money than the government is still an anathema to the political classes.

They wonder why a generation has given up interest in Westminster. Our politicians could learn a lot from ‘backward democracies’ like Kyrgyzstan, where the public can not only force politicians to listen, but an art project can change the world.

A single standpipe is currently working in the 1,000 home settlement of Kyrman

A single standpipe is currently working in the 200 home settlement of Kyrman

Just to put things in perspective, it’s no worker’s paradise, the Kyrgyz Republic. Lenin may point with revolutionary fervour at the parliament building, but forty odd percent of people live on less than the dollar a day standard for absolute poverty and corruption is endemic. If you’re ill and can’t afford to bribe your way into hospital, there’s a good chance you’ll die before a doctor can see you. In one settlement we visited last week, at least four women had recently passed away giving birth in their homes.

Critical to understanding Kyrgyzstan is awareness of the two tier legal structure. The constitution is one of the most liberal – if not the most liberal – in the former Soviet Union. Great swathes of it were imported wholesale from places like Switzerland and Sweden. Freedom of movement and expression are guaranteed, healthcare and education are promised to be universal and free.

The reality, though, is that state institutions have held on to communist rule books for day to day life, and are resistant to change because doing so is lucrative for them. If you move from countryside to city, you’d better be rich enough to bribe someone to stamp your papers to confirm your new address, because without this ‘propiska‘ in your passport, you’ll have no access to medicine, education or utilities in your new home. The endemic corruption spread from this point out: ambulances won’t even drive to your front door unless you can guarantee an up front bribe, and if you can’t pay the police to look the other way when they stop and search you for your passport, it’s fifteen days in the cells for you. And here, they don’t bother with a mattress when they beat you, they just keep going until you’re ready to phone a friend who might be able to pay them off.

And the politicians are happy to turn a blind eye. Until a recent survey by the American University of Central Asia actually put a figure on the number of unregistered internal migrants living in poverty in Bishkek (about 25% of the city population), the problem of the squats and shanty towns around the edges of town and the major markets was invisible to parliament. Why bother to stop police from beating up migrants as they queue outside the labour exchange? It’s not like they’ll be voting any time soon, they don’t have propiska.

Five families live in this one house in Nijnyaya Ala-Archa

Five families live in this one house in Nijnyaya Ala-Archa

Problems are easily buried underneath other problems here, like Satan’s own Matroishka playset. When I asked an MP whether or not any action was being taken against the front agencies who advertise lucrative bar work in Russia and Europe for young girls, but actually force them into the sex trade, he told me the issue had never been discussed. “We have too many other problems to solve first” he said.

And yet, and yet… People can make things change. A week ago, almost as an afterthought to our tour of Kyrgyzstan, our Red Crescent hosts asked us if we’d like to see their art project, and meet Orla and Tarot from the Irish organisation Active Art that was helping to organise it.

It was astounding. Two groups of women – some of whom we’d met earlier in the week – that had separately been through training in sewing and computer skills have joined together to create an art installation that will be open to the public in November. The project is called ‘Marshrutka‘, or minibus. The centrepiece will be a minibus, of the kind that passes for public transport here, covered in traditional felt hangings to be made to look like a travelling yurt. Once inside, visitors will be able to see felt pictures depicting the migrants’ journey into Bishkek from the country side in just such a vehicle, pictures which depict officials asking for bribes, families crushed into single rooms, and the violence meted out against them by the system.

The women have created video and audio stories that tell their own personal tales, too harrowing to ignore. Of giving birth in the middle of only room you have, surrounded by your seven children. Of being turned away from shops and kiosks, and stopped and searched by police. Of starvation and fetching water from a shared standpipe. Of… well, you get the idea.

Can you see what it is yet?

Can you see what it is yet? I didn't say the artworks were subtle

The installation will be open for a few days, and then the fun begins. The marshrutka will take to the streets of Bishkek, and pull up on corners for anyone to get in and see the truth about their city’s invisible, yet economically essential, inhabitants. That last point is important: because whatever the local residents think about the migrants – and it’s the usual ‘smelly peasants taking our jobs’ kind of thing – without them the city would cease to function.

Bishkek isn’t huge – around a million inhabitants – and the downtown area has lots of big open spaces that a brightly covered marshrutka will be very visible in. It’s like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters gave up on hippy tripping their way across country and decided to ram raid the White House to highlight the issue of healthcare. I can’t wait.

During the week of the marshrutka’s tour of the city there’s a round table convening to discuss the situation and rights of migrants, organised by local activists, the university, mayor’s office and the Red Crescent. Hopefully, it’ll result in a change of the law regarding propiskas and promises to address the impossible corruption which faces newcomers to the city. The marshrutka is just a small part of this process, a simple gesture, but it’s going to be a hard one to ignore.

Self-portraits of the women involved in the marshrutka project.

Self-portraits of the women involved in the marshrutka project.