Enjoy the Switzerland of Central Asia
I know many of you are psyched about the big Tea Party Rallies today, and I hope you have a great time and really show everyone the spirit of taking back your country. I also hope you don’t run into any phony Tea Pary activists. Hey, maybe you could carry a fold-up sign that says, “Phony Tea Party Activist” with a big arrow pointing to one side. Than way, when some faker holds up a big sign for the camera with all sorts of swastikas and hate speech all over it to prank all the Tea Partiers, you could sneak up behind him and hold up your sign for the camera, pranking him. It’d serve him right.
But if she gets there first, she gets to use her whip on him all the way back to the starting line.
But hey, all this organizing for freedom and liberty is hard work. If it gets you down, you need a break. You need to go to some nice, pleasant place to relax, unwind, and just get away from it all.
I recommend beautiful, sunny Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is, after all, the Switzerland of Central Asia. The Fergana Valley is warm and sunny from May to September, and the Tian Shan range provides enough mountain scenery to give even Colorado a run for its money. If you prefer the hustle and bustle of the big city, Bishkek, the capital, has just what you’re looking for.
If you’re tastes run to sports and recreation, there’s Buzkashi (the locals call it Ulak Tartysh), a fast paced-riding game that always draws a big crowd of spectators. Think of it as polo, only played with a dead goat instead of mallets and a ball. Other popular sports include At Chabysh (long distance horse racing), Jumby Atmai (a shooting game, think of it as biathon from horseback), Kyz Kuumai (girl chasing on horseback), Oodarysh (wrestling on horseback), and Tyin Enmei (picking up loose change from horseback). There’s always drama in a good game of Kyz Kuumai. If the guy catches the girl before they get to the halfway turn, he can steal a kiss from her. But if she gets there first, she gets to use her whip on him all the way back to the starting line.
Now, if your tastes run to business, you can invest in the food and beverage sector, dominated by Coca Cola and Reemtsma, a German cigarette company (large portions of Kyrgyzstan are not smoke-free). In the manufacturing sector, there’s Kant Cement (because we all know that former Soviet republics need more cement) and Kasiet, a yarn producer (apparently the sheep fare better than the goats). Then there’s the fantastic investment opportunity that will thrill all lovers of sound money…the Kumtor Gold mine, which hasn’t had a major environmental disaster since that truck driver accidentally spilled a load of sodium cyanide into the river back in ’98.
Or maybe you’re a career officer in the US military looking for a billet. If so, you might be in luck…the US operates the Manas Air base , located on the grounds of Manas International Airport, about 16 miles northwest of Bishkek. It used to be named Ganci Air Base, in honor of New York Fire Chief Pete Ganci who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center North Tower (1 World Trade), until they figured out that there was an air force rule against naming a base on foreign soil after a US citizen. So now it’s Manas Air Base, named after the Epic of Manas, a Kyrgyzstani poem about the hero Manas’s struggles against the Kitay (Chinese) and the Kalmak (Mongolians). Today in Kyrgyzstan, the poem is recited on special occasions by guys that call themselves Mansachi (which I suppose is Kyrgzystani for, “guys who can remember all the lines of that Manas poem thing”.)
The rec center on the base is known as “Pete’s Place”, and some people still call the base “Ganci Air Base”. I kinda like that, and I hope the Kyrgyzstanis don’t mind too much.
Now, if you’re a young US military aviator headed to Kyrgyzstan, definitely do not head 12 miles east of Bishkek. No, no, no, very bad mistake! If you do, you’ll end up at Kant Air base, which is the Russian military base in Krygyzstan (if you follow the link, you’ll see Vladimir Putin touring the base with his close personal friend, Askar Akayev). Yes, that’s right, Kyrgyzstan is host to both a US military base, opened in 2001, and a Russian military base, opened in 2003. And yes, they’re only about 20 or so miles apart. And I guess if you’re a young military aviator who is taking a working vacation in Kyrgystan courtesy of your Uncle Sam, you probably want to know something about Kyrgyzstani politics, what with the Russkies so close at hand and all.
Well, under the USSR, Kyrgyzstan was one of those many God-forsaken places that the Communists thought they could civilize by exporting Russians to. In 1926, Bishkek was named Frunze, in honor of Mikhail Frunze, a native son who went West to get educated and ended up becoming a close personal friend of Vladimir Lenin. After Lenin died, Stalin talked him into getting a operation for his ulcers, and he died of an overdose of chloroform during the operation. To this day, nobody knows if Stalin had him killed, or if he was the victim of incredibly incompetent health care. All four of the surgeons who operated on him that day were dead within 9 years, but then that sort of thing happened a lot under Stalin.
By 1989, only 22% of the population of Frunze was ethnic Kyrgyz. Everyone else was from somewhere else, like Russia or The Ukraine. One of the first things they did when the Soviet Union fell was to change the city’s name back to Bishkek. About this time, Putin’s friend Askar Akayev was elected President of Kyrgyzstan. Akayev came off like a pro-Western reformer, quoting Adam Smith more than Karl Marx. However, by 2005, when his term was due to end, his own people saw him as increasingly corrupt and authoritarian. It didn’t help a bit that his son Aidar and his daughter Bermet both won seats in the 2005 elections. Bermet’s chief opponent was Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan’s first ambassador to the UK. You see, Akayev passed a law declaring that anyone who hadn’t resided in Kyrgyzstan in the last 5 years was ineligible to run for parliment, which conveniently disqualified Otunbayeva and allowed his daughter Bermet to win.
This and other abuses led to the Tulip Revolution, which ended with Akayev and his family fleeing the country and with new elections in Kyrgyzstan. Russia most emphatically did not support the Tulip Revolution, which was seen there as a pro-western movement akin to the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in The Ukraine. (The names of those revolutions were inspired by the 1989 Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution.)
But it may have been his foreign policy that did him in…he tried to play Russia like he did his corrupt business cronies, and lost.
The new elections resulted in a landslide win for Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the former Kyrgyzstan Prime Minister. Bakiyev, like Akayev, ran as a reformer, promising to limit presidential power. Within a year of his election, protesters were claiming that he’d increased presidential power instead of reducing it. Bakiyev appointed his son Maksim as head of the national development agency and became known for corruption and kickbacks. But it may have been his foreign policy that did him in…he tried to play Russia like he did his corrupt business cronies, and lost.
You see, Moscow offered Bakiyev a $2 billion aid package with the understanding that he’d kick the US out of Ganci Manas Air Base. Bakiyev signed the deal, then hit the US up for higher rent at the base. When the US agreed, Bakiyev said we could stay. Not surprisingly, Moscow then cited “economic difficulties” as the reason that they couldn’t follow through on the aid package. Bakiyev then started cozying up to the Chinese, who agreed to build a power line and a high-speed rail line between the two countries. Feeling threatened, Moscow started broadcasting anti-Bakiyev propagana into Kyrgyzstan.
And just last week, things “blew up real good”. There were riots in Bishkek, with angry mobs overrunning the capital. Most telling, Bakiyev’s own security forces refused to disperse the rioters. Bakiyev fled to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, about 150 miles away. Roza Otunbayeva assumed provisional control of the government with the rioter’s blessing, and the revolution is now known as “Roza’s Revolution”.
Not too surprisingly, this whole thing took Obama and Hillary Clinton’s State Department completely by surprise. We now have a black eye in Kyrgyzstan, perceived as being “too close” to Bakiyev, and too slow to recognize Otunbayeva as the interim leader of the country. Otunbayeva, who was ambassador to the US before she was ambassador to England, speaks fluent English, Russia, and Krygyzstani. Unfortunately for us, she’s currently leaning more back toward Moscow than she is toward Washingon, and who can blame her? Putin jumped on the opportunity to distance himself from Bakiyev, and seems to be well along in making overtures to Ms. Otunbayeva.
And Ganci Manas Air Base? Otunbayeva has stated that it will remain open “until the current contracts expire”. The bad news is that they expire this summer.
Now, you’re probably wondering just what is the US doing running an air base in a small, landlocked former Soviet Republic, when we have to deal with slimy characters like Bakiyev to do so, and both Russia and China are doing everything in their power to shut it down. Well, it’s to support the war in Afghanistan. You know, warm, sunny Afghanistan, where the goats and the Taliban roam? Where seldom is heard an un-Islamic word, and where Osama bin Laden hasn’t been seen since 2001? I suppose if we Americans are ever persona non grata in Krygyzstan, we can always vacation in Afghanistan – provided we can figure out an air route to get there that doesn’t involve flying through Krygyzstan.
So visit beautiful Krygyzstan while you still can, but don’t plan on connecting direct to Kyrgyzstan from any European Union nation. According to the EU, none of the Kyrgyz airlines are safe (page L 102/14, near the end).