Living in a Soap opera

May 29th, 2010 Sections: News, Weekly_Postcards

Following last week’s “massive missive” … which could hardly have fitted onto an ordinary “postcard”, I had hoped that this week’s contribution will be shorter, reflecting a more peaceful, if less “interesting”, period.

Perhaps that was wishful thinking.  Sorry.

As the week progressed I found myself thinking, once again, that it was like living in a soap opera.  Not just any soap opera, however.  I was reminded of the hilarious and controversial parody “SOAP” that ran for four years at the end of the 1970’s.  “This is a story about two sisters, the announcer would tell us “Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell. These are the Tates, and these are the Campbells, and this…is SOAP“.

The plot line was excruciatingly complex with: philandering husbands and numerous love affairs; a sarcastic butler, (who went on to have his own series later); a war hero who was still living in the Second World War of the 1940’s; Mary’s second husband who once thought he could make himself invisible … and who was abducted aliens, mob killings, religious cults, a gay son who fathers a daughter and leads to a custody battle, (Jody was TV soap’s first openly gay character … part of the reason the series was so controversial), and an affair with a South American revolutionary leader … just to name a few.

Each of the weekly half-hour episodes would open with a review of the previous one with the announcer giving a brief description of the convoluted storyline and remarks like: “Leslie was undecided about killing herself so decided to kill Billy instead; Dutch has finally decided to decide between Eunice and Corinne; When Burt and Danny decided to stand up to Tibbs, Tibbs decided to have them knocked out; The judge decided that she would decide on whether Jody or Carol receives custody of Wendy; Now that Mary’s baby has decided to appear, will it also be able to disappear or will it be as normal as everyone else in the family and what have the fates decided for Jessica? … followed by the catchphrase, “Confused? You won’t be, after this week’s episode of…SOAP“.

Well, I am certainly confused by the twists and turns of the storyline here in Kyrgyzstan … let’s see if this week’s episode can bring any clarification …

As it happens, Saturday and Sunday were basically “slow news” days, at least in terms of the main plotline of our particular Soap Opera … nothing much seems to have happened … apart from, that is, developments in what is being called here the “Telephonegate” scandal.

Last week I told you something of the posting of recordings of telephone conversations between several prominent persons on You Tube.  Well, I have posted some details of some of the further revelations in this affair on my website, ( and, in particular, about the Press Briefing conducted on Sunday by one of the four Deputy Chairmen of the Interim Government, Almaz Atanbaev, when he acknowledged that the recordings were “true”.  This was probably one of the most important developments to date in that exposes differences between the members of the Interim Government and seemed to contain what could be considered as direct personal attacks on some of his colleagues.

According to the reports of the meeting, he agreed that the conversation with Beknazarov had indeed taken place and that he had been responsible for the appointment of the new Head of Customs”, but went on to defend his protégé at Customs for the successful work he was doing in his new role.  He also pointed out that other members of the Interim Government had also been responsible for appointing people to posts and he insisted that any accusations about the “sale” of posts should be the subject of a proper, legal, investigation by the appropriate authorities.

In relation to the other conversation, (between Beknazarov and Sariev about finding USD1 million to meet the cost of the special security operations in the South by apparently “writing off” the sum from elsewhere in the budget), he commented that he knew nothing about the cost of the operations, although he admits to signing another document allocating two million to the operation.  Which raises an interesting question … how much did the security operation really cost? – one million US dollars, or two million, or even three million …  or maybe …?  According to the Acting Finance Minister … it was just USD250,000 (!).

All the same, he seems to have been critical about his colleagues in the Interim Government, stressing that “Today, every penny must be clearly recorded, rather than seek ways to (it) write-off …”, and who can argue with that.  Sariev, on the other hand, maintains that everything is documented.  Presumably there are auditors who check this sort of thing, I ask myself, so why are we having a “public debate by Press Conference” like this?

It appears that the affair has exposed differences between the members of the Interim Government, with what looked like personal attacks on some of his colleagues and a defense of his own with comments like:

  • “such statements discredits my reputation for honesty …”
  • “If I am guilty put me in handcuffs …”
  • “I openly declared (to) Rosa Otunbaeva, I do not want to work with thieves …”
  • “I just want to die an honest man. Of course, I do not know how much time do I have left, but I do everything possible (so) that (the) country prospers.”

If the purpose behind the leaked recordings was to sow discord and disunity between the members of the Interim Government, then it is succeeding.  When he was asked if the unity of the Interim Government was broken, he pointedly said that “it was never united”.

All this, possibly bodes ill for the future and for the campaign which is due in October …

Meanwhile, however, there have been attempts to reunify the members of the Interim Government … one appeals to another that they “have been friends for a long time”, with an appeal not to be driven by emotion.  It’s been pointed out that one of the problems they face is that they have adopted to follow a collective approach, but individuals are finding it hard to adapt.

Also, Roza Otunbaeva has given an interview in which she defends all three members of the Interim Government … she know Atambaev to be an honest person and the other two were discussing arrangements in accordance with an official decision of the government … we’ll see if these comments later comes back to haunt her.

Kurmanbek Bakiev, himself, seems to have learned one lesson, even if his close relatives haven’t, and he is steering well clear of the Telephonegate controversy.  According to some press reports he has gone on holiday to Turkey.  The Turkish embassy has denied this but that hasn’t stopped a small picket outside the embassy being organized … although it doesn’t look as if Turkey will follow Byelorussia’s lead and withdraw all their diplomats when it looked as if there could be troubles over President Lukashenko’s support for his ousted Kyrgyz counterpart.  Bakiev is apparently being careful not to talk to either his sons or brothers by phone and according to one report, he is alleged to have explained this with the comment: “I know if I contact them … then all the cases that you’re talking about will be dumped on me.”

It is well known that systems for recording telephone conversations are easily and readily available.  A report on the Russia Today (RT) channel, for example, points out that almost anyone can listen in to mobile conversations, although it can require some pretty sophisticated and expensive equipment.  In many countries such equipment is used in operations combating crime and terrorism, and there were recent reports that the Kyrgyz Security services had recently received such equipment from the US for exactly that purpose.  Here, however, it seems that, if the reports are true, all the telephone traffic is routinely recorded and passed to the law enforcement bodies.

During the week there was a “round table” called “Freedom and Safety in the Internet Sphere”, where one of the speakers revealed that, in 2008, the Kyrgyz security services had apparently initiated the installation of a “system of operational search action” by all mobile phone operators.  Those mobile operators who refused to install the system were put under pressure, “both morally and physically”, until they did so.  This system allowed for all traffic to be copied and delivered to the security services.  Of course, there is no detail about how they use the information contained in the recordings.  After the events of April 7th, 2010, the operators attempted to turn off the system, but the intelligence services apparently intervened to make them switch the system on again.

It is not quite clear how this revelation tallies with comments by Atambaev that the recordings could not have come from the Kyrgyz security services as “… their equipment is destroyed” …  but if it is true, then, (given the extent of penetration in the mobile phone market), there must be a huge amount of data generated.

And, of course, it raises lots of questions such as: why did they need to buy special equipment at all if every conversation is recorded as a matter of course and the handed to the authorities anyway?

To top all that, according to Atambaev, one member of the Interim Government is currently “helping the police with their enquiries”, but no details have been released “… for operational reasons”.  We are all waiting with baited breath to find out more.

One member of the Interim Government has said that he and the others who will be standing in the elections will be stepping down from their roles as Acting Minister to participate in them.  Anyway, Atanbaev has apparently announced that he won’t be standing in those elections – neither the ones later this year for the parliament, nor next year’s for the Presidency.  It looks as if he is aiming for the post of Prime Minister, which is an appointed post here, not an elected one.

Roza Otunbaeva, Chairman of the Interim Government, won’t be standing in the elections either.  The decision to grant her Presidential status and power required that she quit her political party, which she has done, and forbad her from standing for election in 2011.   There has some discussion about her position and whether she will be accepted as “President” by other Central Asian leaders … most of this seems to center on the fact that she is a woman and the region is very much a collection of patriarchal societies, and the fact that there is no real tradition of female leaders here in Central Asia, apart from Kurmandjan Datka – the Queen of the Alai – whose portrait appears on the 50 som banknote.  A connection between the two has be drawn by several commentators and we’ve even had a request from a foreign journalist for an article about her, so I presume there will be more.  There is even a move to get “the women of Kyrgyzstan” to stand behind Otunbaeva as the leader of the country.  I’m not sure successful that will be … being a woman didn’t necessarily help Margaret Thatcher get out the “women’s vote” … but then Margaret Thatcher was a character that, rightly or wrongly, tended to polarize opinions … perhaps, having been a diplomat, Roza Otunbaeva is more of a conciliator.  Time will tell.

The role of the Press, their rights and responsibilities, has also been the subject of much discussion … Down South, there have been complaints about the coverage that the region has been receiving … saying that it is one sided and demanding redress.   Some training is being arranged by the OSCE for journalists in the South of the country … yet another organization conducted a survey which seemed to suggest that journalists in the Ferghana valley were the most knowledgeable about their rights and responsibilities.   Back in Bishkek, some of the local TV channels are being nationalized … which has raised more than a few questions …

There has also been considerable commentary and analysis about the “Great Game” superpower rivalry being played out here … the role and aims of America, Russia, Europe and China.  Whereas Russia’s role in events is taken for granted, America seems to have been caught very much on the back foot, and their recent decision to renew the contract for fuel supplies to the Transit Base at Manas has raised a few eyebrows.  Although China seems to have been fairly quiet about recent events, they are extensively involved in the economic development of the country, particularly in regards to transport infrastructure, (road and rail).  It appears as if Brussels, Moscow and Washington share a common policy objective in trying to maintain stability in the country.  Certainly they and several of the international agencies are channelling funds in order to help do this.  There is a big combined mission in town trying to assess what needs to be done, what can be done, by whom, and, of course, how much it will cost.  I was in a meeting with some of them on Thursday, but they didn’t say anything about what they might have in mind and were mainly interested in our take on what was happening at the moment.   I am always intrigued by the question about how effective donor projects really are, but I suppose there is a chance that they might be able to come to some agreement and arrangements in order to coordinate something that can be effective.

Of course, every soap opera has its sub-plots.

With all this going on … there have been the odd protest meetings and I wish I could say that there has been no mayhem, riots and civil disorder … but Thursday saw a couple of incidents down South.  I wish I could also report that there had been no further deaths but one person was killed in Djalal Abad and two alleged underworld killers managing to escape from a court, killing one of the prison guards in the course of their getaway.  The search for the escapees is underway and the police authorities are adamant that as there is no longer any “political protection” for organized criminal gangs that they will apprehend them … eventually.

The border with Kazakhstan may well have opened … but things are never quite as simple as they seem.

Something odd, for example, seems to have developed with regard to the border.  For some of the way between Bishkek and Lake Issyk Kul, the border runs along course of the Chu River.  For example, at one point the road, which was built in Soviet times, crosses an meander in the river, and back again.  The land either side of this looping meander is in Kyrgyzstan, but that inside it is actually part of Kazakhstan.  Here there are a couple of petrol stations which are always extremely busy because the price of fuel in Kazakhstan is cheaper than here in Kyrgyzstan.  They post prices in both Kazakh Tenge and Kyrgyz Som and are happy to accept either currency.  Unlike other places where you cross the border, there are no border posts and cars just zoom across the two bridges unmolested by officialdom … so, for about a hundred yards it is possible to transit through Kazakh territory without a visa …  I do it nearly every month when I travel up to Naryn, and I often wonder if that makes me an illegal alien.

Anyway, the river is normally a hive of activity … farm animals come down to the river banks to drink, family cars are parked on the flats above the river banks, especially at weekends, as people relax and picnic, swim and fish in the river waters.  In recent days, it appears as if things are still exactly the same … at least, on the Kyrgyz side.  It appears that the Kazakh side is deserted … we are not sure why this should be the case, but it could be something to do with the two meter high, barbed wire fence that has been constructed on the river banks.  I appreciate that the Kazakhs have been making comments about their concern over the security situation here in Kyrgyzstan, the need to protect their borders and the necessity to counter smuggling, but I can’t help feeling sorry for the local Kazakh population who are thus being deprived of access to a natural resource.

We are still getting enquiries from travelers who have been turned back from one border post or another.  The problem seems to be that not all border crossing posts are open for everyone … in fact they have been.  Some are designated as “local” crossing points, that is: for use by citizens of the two neighbouring countries only.  The most famous of these is, of course, Torugart, between Kyrgyzstan and China, but over the years special arrangements have been put in place so that tourists following the Silk Road can pass over between Kyrgyzstan and Kashgar.  (For a long time it was the only crossing point that they could use … now there is Irkeshtam further south by Osh, and there is constant talk that a pass in Tajikistan may open.  The next land crossing point is several hundred kilometers North East in Kazakhstan.)  No such arrangements are in place for these other crossings, however, even for crossings that we used to be able to use, and that all helps to make access to Kyrgyzstan for those tourists who do want to visit more difficult.

And there have been tours … although not as many as in previous years.  One tour operator has been quoted in the press as saying that business is down by about 80% on last year, and my gut feeling is that, even if this is an exaggeration, it is not far off.  We are still dealing with the odd request, but the level of enquiries is down on previous years.  Fortunately, the groups that are not due to arrive until later in the season are still watching to see how the situation develops before deciding whether to carry on or cancel.

This week, in particular, we have had two large groups which, I am pleased to report, went off without any problem. Indeed none of our tours have, so far, faced any real difficulties – as in 2005, after the Tulip Revolution.  Let’s hope that continues!

One group crossed the border from Tajikistan and were supposed to travel up through the country and round to Torugart … but they decided to that they wanted to avoid Osh and Djalal Abad, which is understandable given the recent press that these two towns and received and the current travel warnings, so we re-arranged the itinerary for them to cross into China across the southern pass, Irkeshtam.  I’m pleased to say that the trip appears to have passed without incident.  The one disappointing thing was that they only had, basically, two days in Kyrgyzstan and so missed some fantastic scenery … and a chance to experience what I call the “authentic” Silk Road.

The other group, from New Zealand, was traveling the other way, from China through to Uzbekistan.  Our partners have been bringing groups here since about 1998 and they …   The one disappointment they had was that it was not possible to get up to Son Kul Lake …  at just over 3000 meters above sea level, this lake lies in a treeless hollow ringed by mountain peaks and legend has that when the great Kyrgyz leader Ormon Khan saw it for the first time he imposed a fine of forty horses, (no small sum – then or now), on the local tribe – because they had hidden such a miracle from him!  The problem wasn’t anything to do directly with our “little local difficulty”, (revolutions), but with a road blocked by fallen trees and a mountain road that was washed away in parts.   A month earlier and it would have probably been blocked by snow.

Snow was a problem for the other group and it took them something like six hours to travel just seventy kilometers … they were up quite high.  The weather has, in fact, been quite nice.  The sun has been shining, although occasionally it has been overcast, with the occasional shower and gusty breezes … and it has been a bit cooler than usual for this time of year.

Victor Rehemyae, (one of our contractors – our IT consultant and photographer), took the opportunity of the brilliant sunshine and a spare half an hour and was able to get some really good snaps of the city center.  He specializes in panoramas and you can see an example of one, that he took last Tuesday, on my website, …  or, at least, you will be able after it is uploaded on Monday.  As well as the fine weather, it shows some of the main sights in the square, (including the burnt out building of the Procurator’s Office), and you can see that people are carrying out their daily lives as normal.

Click here to see it in full screen a new tab/window

Tuesday was, in fact, a “big day” for the kids in the family of ten that I know.  It was May 25th, the last day of the school year, the last day of lessons – especially for those in their last year of compulsory schooling – and is known here as “Posledniy zvonock” as it is the occasion of the last school bell of the year.  (“Posledniy” is Russian for Last, and “zvonock” means “ring” … strictly speaking, the Russian for bell is “kalakolchik”.)  The long summer holidays start here … over three months of holidays (!) … until September 1st.  You can imagine how the occasion is usually marked by “high jinks” being performed by young people and by parties and special discotheques.   In the school there was a sort of ceremony or presentation when all the children would participate and recite poems, etc., and one of them received a “Gramata”, (a sort of Diploma), in recognition of his hard work throughout the year.  Not bad, and quite an improvement, since last year he “skipped” a lot of lessons.   So, some things are continuing as normal – and even showing signs of improvement.

Another example of how things are carrying on as usual … I have just had to sign a series of reports on VAT for the tax authority … seven different forms – twenty five signatures … and that’s just one set of forms that I have presented to me for signature every month.  It is sometimes said that you have to pay for a signature and stamp on an official document and although that’s not true in my experience, I often joke that if I was able to charge 10 som for every signature … then I think that I would soon become a millionaire.

On Sunday I am off to Naryn for my monthly visit to the guesthouse … It’s five hours up to Naryn, and five hours back.  Although I will have work to do while I am there, it will offer a chance to sit back, relax a little and reflect on all that is going on.

Each weekly episode of SOAP would end with the announcer asking a series of life-or-death questions in a deliberately deadpan style, such as: “Will Jessica discover Chester’s affair…? Will Benson discover Chester’s affair? Will Benson care?“, and conclude with the trademark line, “These questions, and many others, will be answered in the next episode of SOAP.

Well, we may not have all the intricate twists and turns that the script writers managed to dream up for the Tates and the Campbells … but we certainly have a lot of questions, so let’s hope that at least some of the answers will be provided in the next week’s “episode”.

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