There’s Something About Kyrgyzstan

This Central Asian state breaks hearts.

Students march on the anniversary of the Tulip Revolution

Last week, Kyrgyzstan held its second presidential election since the 2005 Tulip Revolution, when street mobs ousted the country’s leader, Askar Akayev, following parliamentary elections that they believed had been rigged.

That the re-election of Akayev’s successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was just as rigged as the elections four years before must have stung particularly sharply for the United States, which just a few years ago touted Kyrgyzstan as an example of how focused development aid could promote democratization. When Akayev was overthrown, it was a rebuff of America’s efforts at reform from within; with Bakiyev’s re-election through vote-buying and intimidation, America’s hopes for a democratic Kyrgyzstan have now been trounced not once but twice.

But this isn’t the first time this remote Central Asian country has beckoned to wide-eyed foreigners, drawing them in only to dash their hopes. Just ask my friend Jack.

I met Jack by chance, in an Internet cafe in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. It was the spring of 2003, and the city, a Soviet backwater for eight decades, was finally getting its moment in the sun.

After 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, the United States looked for a foothold in Central Asia, and Kyrgyzstan became the region’s best hope for democracy: less authoritarian than its neighbors and seemingly more fertile soil for a modern state. Washington and its allies began to invest more money and send more people into the country.

It wasn’t just governments and NGOs that rushed into Kyrgyzstan but fools and opportunists as well. I was one of them, as was Jack. We each came to Kyrgyzstan chasing that wave, Jack from Germany, me from Canada. Jack had brought a few thousand dollars, which he invested in a factory that made cookies. I stumbled into a job running the American Pub, a bar for expats.

It was a good time to be in business. In July 2001, USAID asked Congress for $28 million to fund democratization and small-business-support programs in Kyrgyzstan. In 2002, it asked for $36 million; in 2003, the request was for $40 million. By the time I arrived at the American Pub, Bishkek was teeming with a mix of aid workers and consultants as well as military contractors working for the growing U.S. air base at the edge of the city, Manas—the base that the Kyrgyz government would threaten to close six years later.

Americans weren’t the only newcomers flooding the city. The city’s finest clothing and house wares were at Beta, a gleaming, multistory Turkish department store at the center of downtown. At the edge of Bishkek was the Dordoi Bazaar, a warren of shipping containers out of which Chinese merchants created makeshift shops selling mile after mile of cheap imports. And Russia, loath to cede its old territory entirely, was building a military base of its own a few miles away. It was gold-rush time, and Bishkek was boomtown.

Every boomtown needs its share of suckers, of course. I started work on a Monday; on Thursday, the tax inspector came. He told us to hire his niece as a waitress, or he would shut us down for tax evasion. It was my first job out of college. I asked my staff if we should go to the police. They laughed. “He is the police,” they told me. “Think harder.”

We met the niece. Unattractive and rude, she clearly thought the interview was beneath her. Unable to say no to the tax inspector but just as unwilling to hire a young woman who wouldn’t bother to show up or, worse, would put off the customers if she did, we settled on a middle course: We shut down the bar ourselves. We closed for six weeks of painting and renovations, which were needed anyway, gambling—correctly—that the tax inspector and his niece would lose interest and move on.

The bar reopened and filled up again: Danish and Dutch airmen between missions over Afghanistan and the military police whose job it was to watch over them. Thick-set contractors spending money on their skinny, pouty local girlfriends. Peace Corps volunteers on leave from teaching English in joyless Kyrgyz towns. Business consultants paid by USAID to assist local businesses, often by helping to navigate some especially stubborn thicket of local corruption.

And sprinkled in like pepper were American men of military bearing, whose first names were always a single syllable, like Roy or Doug or Ben, who spoke Russian and were vague about what they did, answering questions about their jobs with looks of mild irritation.

There was also a man named Marcel, 200-plus pounds of menace riding ugly beneath a bowling-ball head of graying, close-cropped hair. A few months into the job, I looked through the bar’s staff list and saw his name, which I didn’t recognize. I was told it was the name of our driver, which seemed odd. After all, the bar had neither a car nor anywhere to drive it to.

It was explained to me that in Kyrgyzstan, a driver is not always a driver, and a salary is not always a salary. Marcel’s pay was protection money, paid to one of the city’s mafias. Their numbers were many and colorful, or so people said. There were the ones you’d expect, like the Uzbek mafia and the Chinese mafia, but also the vocationally minded, like the taxi mafia and the traffic police mafia. Marcel belonged to the sportsmen mafia, which consisted of men who had attended Kyrgyzstan’s athletic college and who, left with no state sponsorship after the fall of the Soviet system, turned to a particularly aggressive style of entrepreneurialism.

One day, Marcel asked for a raise. Young and proud, I declined, not wanting to look like a pushover in front of my staff. This led to a number of developments. First, I started to see a lot more of Marcel. He began to make a point of lingering around the bar at the end of the night, smothering a cup of tea with his monstrous hands, at a table by himself, smiling at me.

Second, Jack and I started to talk about leaving Bishkek. His factory was up and running, and he was ready for something new. Jack agreed to take a job in Almaty, just over the border with Kazakhstan. I bought a plane ticket back to Canada. We held a joint goodbye bash at the bar, and we left the party separately.

I don’t know whether Jack knew the men who attacked him that night in the lobby of his apartment building. The next day, the police asked me who Jack’s enemies were. I didn’t know. Nobody knew. Bishkek was a big place, and it was easy to get into trouble. When I went to the hospital where Jack lay in a coma, his doctor took me into a stairwell and asked for money, which I paid. Later, I helped carry Jack down the stairs into an ambulance, to another building for a CAT scan, then back up the same flight of stairs to his room, because the hospital had no elevator. We tried to keep his head still on the stretcher to avoid disturbing the stent poking out of his skull.

I left Kyrgyzstan in October 2003. Two days later, Jack was flown on a med-evac plane back to Germany. He was in a coma for four months. He learned to walk again, to talk, to tell jokes. But he has a hard time working, and much of his memory from Bishkek is gone. For example, he doesn’t seem to know who I am.

Eighteen months later, I watched from Toronto as demonstrators stormed Bishkek protesting parliamentary elections they believed to have been fixed. President Akayev fled to Kazakhstan and then to Russia. Friends forwarded e-mails describing the chaos. “Nobody expected this,” read one e-mail, adding:

They hit the Beta store last night and completely destroyed it. After they took everything out of the store they broke all the windows and set the place on fire. The Century Club is destroyed along with the Dordoi market. There are a lot of small shops on my street that are destroyed and they are still burning. I saw a Lada driving down the street with a new refrigerator tied to the top of the car … as soon as he made a turn the fridge fell off.

I wondered whether the renovations that had saved us from the tax inspector’s niece would be undone by rioters. I scanned the photographs to see if any of the furniture being carried away by the mob looked familiar. But the pub was left standing.

The American effort to democratize Kyrgyzstan fell apart, however. The protests came to be known as the Tulip Revolution, after the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. But instead of more democracy, Kyrgyzstan’s revolution seemed to mean more of the same corrupt style of government.

By the beginning of 2007, USAID wrote in its budget submission to Congress that “many of the perceived opportunities for progress that followed the ‘Tulip Revolution’ have yet to materialize. … [T]he Kyrgyz Republic’s democratic institutions perform far below the average for transforming countries.” The agency’s budget request for its democratization and good-government programs fell to $23 million, a drop of almost half from 2003. The only funding that increased significantly was for counterterrorism and security. The hopeful experiment was over.