Lenin and sheep on main drag set tone of Kyrgyz revolution

The noisy demonstrators who took to the streets of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, last week not only chased out President Askar Akayev. They probably also scared off the sheep.

I thought about the sheep as I watched TV pictures of the "tulip revolution" - protesters breaking into the presidential White House and hurling stones at the parliament building. The sheep used to graze on a patch of scrubby grass a couple of blocks away, next to the National Library and across from the Wedding Palace (that communist relic of a time when civil ceremonies replaced church weddings). The dusty sheep were a reminder that Kyrgyz city-dwellers had not forgotten their rural roots.

It's difficult to imagine that the Bishkek of demonstrations, looted shops, and burned cars is the same city where I lived in the mid-1990s, and have visited several times since.

Although it's a national capital with a population of around 800,000, Bishkek feels more like a sleepy Midwestern American town. It's a city of tree-lined boulevards and dirt side roads where each little house has a vegetable garden and an apple tree. Rivers flow down from the snow-covered Tien Shan mountains, watering the trees and flowers of the shady parks. There are street markets with meat carcasses hanging from hooks, old women selling buckets of fresh apples and raspberries and medicinal herbs, touts hawking cheap Chinese watches and bootleg CDs, and locals with blankets spread on the ground selling used clothes, household appliances, and greasy auto parts. It's a city with the best and the worst of communist architecture - imposing public buildings with overstated classical facades and drab apartment blocks.

There's a gentle air ofpost-Soviet decay in the fading facades, overgrown gardens, and gaping holes in the sidewalk. Children run and play on the steps outside the White House and rollerblade around the statue of Lenin in the main square.

The Lenin statue, like the sheep, has something to say about a society where many people are only one or two generations removed from a nomadic lifestyle, and where political loyalties are defined by family ties rather than by ideology.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the first public symbols to fall were the statues of Lenin, pulled down by cheering crowds in city squares from Vilnius to Vladivostok. But not in Bishkek, where no one cared enough about what Lenin stood for to tear down the statue, let alone put up something more politically correct in its place.

Although the central square with the Lenin statue was the symbolic center of Soviet Kyrgyzstan, the heart of the country is outside Bishkek. But not too far. Within half an hour's drive is an almost pristine landscape of towering peaks, clear lakes and streams, hot springs, and forests of walnut and juniper. Apartment-dwellers escape to the mountains on weekends, and some return for the summer, tending sheep, yaks, and horses, and living in a yurt, the traditional tent made from animal hides.

Rural traditions are never far away, even in the middle of the city.

When an elderly neighbor in my apartment block died, his relatives set up yurts in the courtyard for two days of formal mourning. One morning, I noticed a horse tethered to a railing. I came home later to find it butchered and roasting over an open fire, and family members toasting their relative's memory with kumiss (fermented mare's milk), the tipple of choice of herders.

The nomadic lifestyle helps explain the fractiousnature of Kyrgyzstan's politics. Unlike the well organized opposition in Ukraine or Georgia, Kyrgyzstan's "people power" movement was a motley collection of regional, local, and ethnic groups, united not by ideology but by social and economic grievances with the Akayev regime that had held power since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the spinoff of far-flung republics into individual nations.

The main political force in Kyrgyz society is not the party but the extended family, or clan. Ask a Kyrgyz "Where are you from?" and you'll learn as much about genealogy as about place.

The kinship ties that held together this society of herders have been transplanted to urban settings, and to the political system.

For ethnic Russians in Kyrgyzstan, who live in urban areas, politics is mostly about issues and strategy, and the Russian-language press reflects this in its analytical coverage.

But for the Kyrgyz, it's all about family. "When a political appointment is made," a Kyrgyz colleague once told me, "the Kyrgyz press never asks about policy. They just want to know who he is, where he's from, who he's related to, and whether he'll find jobs in government for his family."

Mr. Akayev did just that, appointing members of his immediate and extended family to key government posts. That may sound like nepotism, but it makes more sense in a culture where for thousands of years people have relied on their extended family for food, shelter, and protection. In Kyrgyzstan, a successful career in politics or business carries a moral duty to help family members.

Western observers no longer call Kyrgyzstan an "island of democracy," but it is still a relatively liberal society among authoritarian Central Asian states. It is strategic host to both Russian and US military bases, and has the outward trappings of a modern political system - an executive, a legislature, and a judiciary; political parties; nongovernmental organizations and civil-society groups. But traditional and rural values remain strong.

This is a society where counting sheep is a serious business - wealth and social status depend on it - and where there's still a pasture in the city center.

David Mould teaches mass communications and international studies at Ohio University. He was a Fulbright senior scholar in journalism and mass communication in Kyrgyzstan, and has worked as a trainer and consultant to TV and radio stations there.

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