Tom Bissell Interview: Kyrgyz Uprising


Originally published in Alternet, April 2005

A mere three weeks after a mass uprising which resulted in a parliamentary upheaval, little Kyrgyzstan seems to have faded into the background — losing ground to the Pope and Terri Schiavo.

The former Soviet republic, sandwiched between Kazakhstan and China, has been the site of what many have been calling a democratic revolution comparable to those seen in Georgia and Ukraine. After observers reported rigged parliamentary elections, an uprising began in the southern part of the country and quickly spread to its capital, Bishkek. On March 24th protesters raided the presidential compound and president Askar Akayev fled to Russia and later resigned in a videotaped speech.

After the initial fanfare, the bloom may be off the rose. As politicians vye for power in the new government, the democratic ideals that may have sparked the uprising are getting short shrift. Meanwhile, the West’s attention lags; Kyrgyzstan is of little strategic interest, aside from its potential to spark a Democracy domino effect throughout Central Asia.

Author Tom Bissell has focused his fiction and nonfiction energies at the Central Asian region. Once a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan, he has gone on to publish two books about the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. His first, a travelogue called Chasing the Sea, encompasses everything from environmental disaster tourism to smuggling money to the families of dissident journalists, all of it set to a soundtrack of pirated copies of Eminem and Depeche Mode. His most recently work, God Lives in St. Petersburg, is a collection of short stories about the region. His writing is full of uncomfortable truths, brilliant dexterous language and skeptical of any and all political ideology. He speaks with Ben Bush on the lingering effects of Soviet domination, rampant corruption, religion and American influence.

Ben Bush: In your book Chasing the Sea, you have a fairly positive portrayal of [former Kyrgyz president Askar] Akayev, how has that changed in light of recent events?

Tom Bissell: As relatively liberal as Akayev was, he came of political age in the Soviet system, which was as corrupt and perilous an environment as any, and I think in recent years he began to look around at his fellow Central Asian autocrats and dictators and realize that his slightly more open approach to governance wasn’t doing him or his country any good. Rather than have the life of an admirable failure, he just decided to grab onto everything he could. Kyrgyzstan had been known as the nicest place to go to in Central Asia, where the cops were least likely to shake you down, and I think a lot of people attribute that to the atmosphere Akayev had created, but I have been really shocked by the corruption of the last four years. It had become a distressing situation and I’m happy with the events in Kyrgyzstan, but it is unfortunate that the one guy who least deserved it has been chased out of his country. Karimov, Turkmenbashi, or Nazarbayev – I would have preferred to see any one of those three go. It does seem Kyrgyzstan is in a bit of a jam, and it’s very nerve-racking to see what’s going to happen next.

Read the complete article at Alternet.