The Latest Revolution

Madeleine Reeves

There is an eerie thrill to be had from walking through the home of a deposed president. Legitimate trespassing. Private vice exposed. By the time we came to gawp on Saturday afternoon, three days after the uprising that had overthrown Kyrgyzstan’s government on 7 April, the Bakievs’ house in the capital, Bishkek, was an empty, burned-out shell. Everything sellable had been taken, down to the light-fittings and wall tiles. Sections of the roof were hanging loose where it hadn’t burned right through. The front door had already gone, and so had several of the windows. Inside, the soot-covered walls had become a blackboard for expletives. ‘Bakiev, you son of a bitch, go!’ read some wall-high graffiti, signed ‘From the People’. The floors were a sea of discarded papers, notebooks, magazines, business cards. We picked our way across them, looking for clues and for something to salvage. We took photos. We stood and stared, sifting with our feet through the scattered, sodden possessions of a president disgraced.

The rich pickings had gone first, to waiting criminals well aware that looting follows a coup as night follows day: televisions and fridges, a washing-machine, jewellery, furniture. When the television crews arrived at the house the morning after the uprising, smaller trophies were being carried out from the smoking remains: children’s toys, photo albums, pot plants, kitchen equipment, clothes – the hangers left strewn across the lawn like a family of feeding birds. Voting bulletins with the numbers changed were held up full view to the cameras. A middle-aged Kyrgyz man waved a torn picture of the president’s wife dressed in stately garb. ‘Look at that handbag, covered in jewels!’ he said in broken Russian. ‘Her dress is nothing but jewels. They’ve sold off all the riches, everything this country had, and look at how we live! We’ve become nishchie’ – paupers, a term harking back to earlier class wars and justifications of revolutionary grab. ‘What else do they expect? This is the people (narod) taking back what is theirs.’

We had been here before. In March 2005 the ‘Tulip Revolution’ that propelled Kurmanbek Bakiev to power was followed by three nights of looting: markets, shops, cafés and offices were stripped bare and the streets of central Bishkek showered with broken glass and rotten, trampled vegetables. This time shopkeepers were better prepared. Many city centre stores have invested in metal shutters. Some of the new multistorey ‘trading centres’ have no windows at all, only giant billboards in place of glass – a striking contrast to the late socialist buildings over which they tower. ‘Revolutionary architecture’, someone called it.

Early in the afternoon of 7 April, when it was clear that a demonstration to demand an end to ‘family rule’ was turning into something altogether more violent and serious, shop fronts and office windows were plastered with the precautionary slogan: ‘Biz el menen!’ – ‘We’re with the people!’ Sometimes this was accompanied by a statement of ethnic or party affiliation: ‘This shop is owned by Kyrgyz,’ or simply ‘Talas’, a reference to the north-western city where riots had broken out the previous day, and an index now of being on the right side of Kyrgyzstan’s political fence.

Being ‘with’ the people, however, is different from being ‘from’ them. For many Bishkek residents, the young men who thronged the city as the day began – predominantly poor, predominantly rural in background and Kyrgyz-speaking rather than Russian – were a ‘people’ with whom they only ambivalently identified. Some of the demonstrators had been bused in by rural micro-credit groups and activist organisations: critical institutions for translating economic grievances into political demands. Others, mobilised along lines of kinship and regional loyalty, came to join leader-patrons from the same district or clan (uruu). Most, however, arrived from nearby villages and the sprawling migrant districts that service Bishkek’s markets, travelling in by public transport, responding to the phone calls of friends, former schoolmates and fellow villagers already making their way from a planned gathering at the eastern edge of the city to the White House, the seat of government, in the centre of town. Others, no doubt, just came to look.

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