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Democracy


ISSUE:  Winter 2004

Kyrgyzstan, March 2000


“OSCE is looking for foreign nationals to serve as observers for the next round of elections,” Ed Kulakowski at the American embassy tells us. “It’s a great opportunity to do something useful and see some of the country at the same time.”

We jump at the chance. We have been stuck in Biskek for two long months and are hungry to see life outside this capital city. We call the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and are soon signed up. They need people for the Jalal Abad district in the south, they tell us. Can we spare the time? Yes, we say. Yes.
About 40 foreign nationals have volunteered, mostly Europeans who work at the embassies or, like us, at the universities. At the orientation session, the first thing we learn is that one of the two long-term observers assigned to Jalal Abad has been arrested and is being held in jail. A frisson of fear pulses through the room. Not to worry, the coordinator says. We’ll get him out soon. It’s not really dangerous; if you happen to be arrested, just do this and this.

We knew there had been problems with the February elections; we’d seen protestors picketing the Bieli Dome, the Kyrgyz White House, over certain “irregularities.” We learn now that the troubles continue. The biggest problem is the “deregistering” of candidates. If a candidate is deregistered (considered unqualified to run for office), his opponent automatically wins. Candidates, mostly challengers to the current government, have been deregistered on all sorts of trumped-up charges. Naturally, the candidates and their supporters have protested and their grievances are being heard by the supreme court. But there’s a lot of pressure on judges to side with the most powerful, or to delay a decision until it’s too late. Moreover, although OSCE was invited into Kyrgyzstan for this observation mission, not everyone welcomes the observers. That will make our job more challenging.

The volunteers are divided into teams of eight or ten, each team being assigned to a particular region. Besides Allen and me, our team consists of two Brits, three Germans, and a Kazak woman who works for the OSCE office in Almaty, Kazakstan. Leading our team are two long-term observers: Fredrik, a Swede, who is with us, and an American, Michael, the man arrested in Jalal Abad. We’ll take the 7:00 p.m. flight to Osh, arrive at 8:00, have dinner, and spend the night. Early the next morning we’ll go by minivan to Jalal Abad.

Because we came to Kyrgyzstan via Almaty, Allen and I have never seen the Bishkek airport. The scene, when we arrive there at 5:30 p.m., is pandemonium. For domestic flights everyone funnels through a single counter with all their bags, everyone crowding together and pushing. After all that, our flight is delayed. Around 8:30 we are taken by bus and put out on the tarmac by the airplane, an old Russian TU154. But we’re not allowed to board just yet. Why on earth did they bring us out if they weren’t ready for us? We see why: there are not enough seats. Two men rush out of the terminal carrying a pair of airplane seats, flimsy things that look like folding chairs. Another pair follows. They hurry aboard to install them

“I hope I don’t get one of those seats,” someone in our group mutters.

Eventually we all get on board and are on our way. The airplane is so rickety that we wonder how it can fly. Would it pass safety regulations in the U.S.? Probably not. But it’s too late to worry about that now; besides, I’m hungry. Will there be a meal served? I wonder out loud.

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Allen says.

Sure enough, a beefy Russian flight attendant lumbers down the aisle offering plastic glasses of mineral water on a tray, and nothing else. Saule, the Kazak woman on our team, sits behind us, munching contentedly on apples and a loaf of lepioshka she has pulled from her bag. I remember the two apples in my backpack and we eat them gratefully.

It’s pitch dark by the time we arrive in Osh, and the city is so dimly lit we can see nothing except the shadowy forms of buildings, the outlines of a few trees. Our hotel, the largest in Osh, is an old Intourist hotel, and getting registered is a nightmare. There are complicated forms to fill out in Russian, and someone must help the non-Russian speakers. The check-in counter is glassed in, with only a tiny opening through which you must shout to the woman behind, and hand her your papers and your money. Then there’s the matter of keys. You get them from the concierge on the floor of your room. Such a complicated system! A holdover from the old Soviet days, when there were eyes everywhere, watching.

After a little searching, we find the concierge and get to our room. There are two cots, each with a few shabby-looking blankets, and a scratched, cigarette-burned coffee table with two pink plastic tumblers and a pair of thin towels. A bare bulb hangs from the ceiling. But something important is missing: heat. The room feels frigid. The bathroom has a deep tub, a sink, and a toilet, but all are old, rust-stained, and not very clean looking. Some of the pipes lining the wall are hot, so there’s evidently hot water, but the prospect of taking off my clothes in the cold and climbing into that tub is most unappealing. We had heard that the old Soviet hotels were bad, but this is amazing. No wonder there’s almost no tourism in Kyrgyzstan!

Right now, however, I’m thinking about food. Except for the apples, we haven’t eaten in about eleven hours. We go to the cafe on the second floor, where a few of our group have gathered, and sit with Saule, the Kazak woman. With her help, we order soup, bread, and manty, steamed dumplings. By the time we finish our meal, it’s almost midnight. Back in the room, we take off only our boots, wrap ourselves in the blankets, and shiver through the night.

Five o’clock comes very quickly. I briefly consider bathing, despite the cold, but another look at the bathtub makes me decide no. Allen shaves, and we both brush our teeth with mineral water. Downstairs, the restaurant area is warmer. Someone has brought in two electric heaters, and Saule, the first one there, has situated herself next to one of them. How resourceful she is! We join her, and are served a generous breakfast of fried eggs, bread, juice, fruit, coffee, and tea. I note that the same two women who served us the night before are serving us again this morning.

“They had an even shorter night than we did,” I comment to Saule.

“Jobs are scarce,” she says. “They are probably very grateful to work here and don’t mind the hours.”

Saule is an old hand at this, having served on several observation missions in various parts of Asia. But she has not visited this part of Kyrgyzstan for several years and is curious to see how things are now.

“The Kazaks and the Kyrgyz are close cousins,” she tells us. “The Kyrgyz like to say that the Kazaks are Kyrgyz who got lost on the steppes.”

I note that she has the same high cheekbones and Asian eyes as the Kyrgyz. I guess her to be in her mid-40s, a modern woman in fashionable trousers and boots, a black leather coat.

“Do you speak Kyrgyz?”

“The languages are very similar,” she says. “There are only a few differences, so I don’t have any problems.”

It’s barely light out when we leave, but we can see the haunting silhouette of Suleyman mountain rising over the city. Soon we are in the country, and an amazing landscape begins to unfold—great vistas of land and sky, the mountains, bare of trees, humped like giant brown shoulders. Though it’s still quite cold, a hint of green shimmers through the brown, the first flickerings of spring. The scenery is stark and spectacular, reminding me of parts of New Mexico, the great bare mesas there.

Saule sits with us and comments on things as we pass. “There’s a big Uzbek influence in this area,” she says. “Try some plov if you get the chance. Uzbek plov is considered the best.”

The ride is expected to take around three hours, as some of the roads are unpaved and wind around high mountains. There’s a more direct route that takes only one hour, but it goes through a thumb of land that belongs to Uzbekistan and none of us have visas. Getting visas is an arduous and costly process, and sometimes even with visas there are problems. Before 1991, people traveled freely from one Soviet Republic to another. But since independence, each country has been asserting its sovereignty, sometimes in ways that are extremely inconvenient to the citizenry. It’s all complicated further by the fact that the border demarcations were strange and arbitrary to begin with. When the separate republics were being carved out, Stalin is purported to have intentionally set borders that would divide and fragment ethnic groups, so that they could more easily be controlled. In this part of Kyrgyzstan, he succeeded especially well; Uzbek and Kyrgyz villages are scattered in both republics.

“The Uzbeks are good at selling things,” Saule comments, as we pass a small market. “The Kyrgyz and the Kazaks were never good at that. They were herders. They had to learn to farm as well. When the Soviets came, everything changed for them.”

And now things are changing again, I think, as they grope toward a market economy and democracy. I ask Saule how she learned her English, for she speaks it extremely well.

“I learned it in school in Kazakstan. And I’ve worked with Americans for a long time.”

“Even though these were closed countries, you were still able to study English.”

“Yes,” she says. “But it was not a popular language. In fact, those of us who studied English instead of German or French were sometimes looked upon with suspicion. But now everyone wants to learn English.”

This edging into the old Soviet days excites me; it’s a subject I am still wildly curious about. “What was it like?” I ask her.

She thinks for a moment, then laughs and snaps her gum. “There was no chewing gum, then. And no bananas. And there were very few oranges. But most people had what they needed.”

“And how does it seem to you, now that everything is open and free?”

“We were told such lies,” she says. “And we didn’t know any better! We were told, Now we have defeated the Americans. We have surpassed them in production. It was all a big lie!” she laughs. “A few years later, everything fell apart!”

“We were told lies also. We were told you were the evil empire.”

She nods thoughtfully. “We were told you were evil, too.” We look at each other and burst our laughing. “Amazing, isn’t it!”

We ride in comfortable silence for a while, looking at the mountains, the small villages. There are few cars. Instead, there are horse-dawn carts, people riding on horseback or on the occasional donkey. The houses look poor and shabby.

“Some of the villages have no electricity now,” Saule says. “They used to have gas, electricity, TV. Now they have nothing. Most have no heat in the winter. They are sliding backwards.”

Periodically we stop for a road check. Every rayon, or region, has its own checkpoint, as does every municipality, and all vehicles must stop. For Allen and me, there’s a vague feeling of fear each time. Perhaps it’s the Western aversion to police, to government control, especially here, in a former communist country. At one of the checkpoints there’s a fuss, and Saule gets out with the driver and Fredrik to talk to the guards. I am impressed by her lack of timidity, her ability to meet every situation with confidence but without aggression. It’s a quality I have noticed in many Kyrgyz women as well.

Saule returns with a village woman who comes on board without so much as a glance at Allen or me. She sits quietly looking forward, her hands folded in her lap.

“We will drop her off near the bazaar in Jalal Abad,” Saule explains. “It’s on our way.”

She’s the first village woman I have seen up close, so I sneak glances at her. Her hair is covered with a bright pink kerchief, and she wears a thick woollen sweater and vest, the kind the vendors wear in the outdoor markets in Bishkek. Her face is brown and leathery from years of working in the sun, and her hands are rough and blunt, oddly touching, lying folded in her lap. She exudes solidness, a modest strength to endure.

“She says that life in the villages is very hard now,” Saule tells us. “They have nothing but tea and bread. The average pension is three or four hundred soms a month. Only a few lucky ones get 1,000 soms. Her pension is 300 soms.

Three hundred soms—around six dollars. Even with bread at five soms a loaf and carrots at three soms a kilo, it would be very difficult to live on 300 soms a month.

I ask Saule how old she thinks the woman might be.

“Perhaps 50. It’s hard to tell.”
“Isn’t that young to be getting a pension?”

“The Soviets gave a pension to every woman who had five or more children. They were called ‘Mother Heroes’. This woman has had five children.”

The Soviets again. All the things they did to set up a perfect social order. Encourage women to have lots of children, reward them for their success. Then everything fell apart.

Finally, we reach Jalal Abad, which seems more like a large village than a city. We stop at the OCSE office to pick up Michael, who is now out of jail, and go immediately to Lesic, our guest house. It’s a much nicer place than the Intourist hotel, we are relieved to see. Built by the Swiss, it’s relatively new, with six or eight light, spacious rooms, a clean bathroom, and heat.

Though it’s only ten o’clock, it feels as though we have already had a long day. Our work, however, is only beginning. In a meeting room complete with charts and maps, Mike explains what’s up. He’s younger than I expected, perhaps only in his late 20s; I admire his courage. To have gone to jail for this. He gives us an overview of the situation in our region—what kinds of problems we might encounter and how to handle them. The elections are supposed to be “fully transparent”—the term comes up over and over again—no under-cover shenanigans, everything out in the open and visible. Our role is not to point out violations or to enforce the rules; our role is to observe and to report what we see—the small picture. The coordinators will pull the pieces together for the “big picture” report.

We are assigned our specific areas and put into subteams of two. Some of us will observe in Jalal Abad; others in the surrounding mountain villages. Allen and I will form a subteam together and are given neck badges identifying us as American and Canadian, respectively, with our names and nationalities spelled out in Cyrillic. Next the four subteams are assigned to their drivers and interpreters. Ours, Yura and Rumiya, are college students at Jalal Abad State University. Yura is ethnic Russian and speaks no English. Rumiya, a mix of Kazak and Tartar, spent a year at the University of Alabama on an exchange program and speaks English almost like a native. Both worked for OCSE during the previous elections so they know what to expect.

Our job today will be to visit as many voting stations as possible to introduce ourselves, and generally get the lay of the land. This is so that we will know where to go tomorrow, but it’s also to discourage certain types of abuses by warning officials of our presence. In the region Allen and I are assigned, a very popular candidate has just been deregistered on the charge that he hadn’t declared a hectar (about an acre) of land he owns, worth about $30. The villagers are very upset about the deregistering, and are mounting demonstrations. Mike and Fredrik are not sure how volatile the situation is, so we all go together to check things out.

There’s a roadblock on the highway. Though our two vehicles have OSCE signs giving us the authority to move about freely, we too are stopped. Mike and Fredrik and the interpreter get out and talk to the police, and eventually our vehicles are allowed to proceed. A few miles ahead, at the first polling station, a school, we come upon a crowd of about 200 villagers with horses and carts and a few old cars. I catch my breath. It’s a scene that reminds me of the old photos in the historical museum in Bishkek—the faces, the dark clothing, the high boots, the rough hats made of fur and animal skins, the horses. A large group of men are gathered in front of the school and about 30 women are sitting or standing around a picnic table in the playground area. Allen goes with Mike and Fredrik to talk to the men. Mike tells me to go talk to the women.

The women stare intently at Rumiya and me as we approach. In our slacks and Western-style jackets we are probably as alien-looking to them as they are to me. I’m not sure what to say to them. What I really want to do is stare at their faces, their clothes, ask them what their lives are like. I ask them how long they have been there. Rumiya translates.

“All night, they say. They have been waiting to hear the decision of the Supreme Court in Bishkek, which is hearing the case.”

“What will they do if their candidate is not reinstated?”

“They say they will boycott the elections,” Rumiya says. “They say they will go all the way to Bishkek and protest to the President. They will go by airplane, or by car or horse. On foot if they have to.”

I look at their faces. They are country women, their heads wrapped in colorful kerchiefs, their bodies bundled in old coats and wool sweaters. Most have probably never been very far outside of their villages. Like the woman who rode in our van, their faces are worn, their hands rough with hard work. Some might be living on mostly bread and tea. I am touched by their spirit and determination. Their resolve. The impossibility of it.

Allen and Mike and Fredrik are told pretty much the same thing by the men, so we get back in the cars and drive up to the next group of protestors. This group is about 500 strong, and they line an area by the side of the highway. Bunches of men squat on the crest of a hill just above us. The group that meets us below is very angry.

“They say this is an island of democracy, but it’s a lie!” the translator says. “We are ready to give our blood for justice and democracy! Our blood!” They, too, are a touching, motley group in their felt kalpaks and old fur hats, their dark shabby coats. Many have come on horseback, and their horses idle behind them. You must help us! they say. Tell them in Bishkek! Mike explains that we are simply observers, that our job is to observe and to write a report. What good will that do us? they ask. You will write your report on Monday. The elections will be over. It will be too late for us!

A hundred years ago it was the Russians they faced. Now their own people in Bishkek are the enemy, city people, as different from them, perhaps, as the Russians were.

The decision is supposed to be issued at 2:00 p.m. that afternoon. What will happen if the decision is negative? What if there is no decision by election time? Troops of police are on hand further down the road; and though we have seen no threatening behavior, anything could happen. Rather than endanger us, Mike and Fredrik decide to reassign us to a different set of villages. So Allen and I and Yura and Rumiya spend the rest of the afternoon visiting the precinct headquarters of our newly assigned area and as many polling stations as we can. Most of the stations are schools that look like they were build 50 or 60 years ago and never repaired or maintained. But at every place we are made to feel welcome. One old man tells us that if we come back tomorrow, he will make plov for us. We manage to visit six polling stations before returning to Lesic for dinner. Though Saule and her partner have visited at least a dozen, Saule has managed to find a hairdresser and had her hair washed and set!


The next morning, the cook gives each subteam a huge sack of food for lunch, and off we go. It’s a beautiful sunny day, warmer than we’d expected. We drive over the rough mountain roads, stopping at small villages tucked in here and there. In the first few places we see several minor infractions—old couples going into a polling booth together; officials in the polling stations who don’t belong there. There’s an impressive voter turnout, and outside each station, there’s a bit of a street-fair atmosphere. A few industrious women have set up tables selling pirogies and samsas; others sell peanuts, sunflower seeds, gum. Groups of people mill around, talking.

But it is not always so benign. At each stop, we leave Yura outside with the car, telling him to keep his eyes and ears open while we are inside. In one place, he hears a group of women say, Well let’s go vote and get our 50 soms. Inside, Allen sees a woman with a 50 som note tucked into her passport. Is this a case of Vote for me and I’ll pay you 50 soms? Or simply, Vote and I’ll give you 50 soms? Most likely it’s the former. Fifty soms, roughly a dollar, is cheap for a vote, but to people living on 300 soms a month, it’s a lot of money. At another precinct, a suspicious number of names have been added to the voter list. Could all those people really have been off looking for work in Russia when voter registration took place, as the official claims? In yet another, one of the candidates, a large man in an impressive-looking suit and overcoat, marches through the polling station with four of his henchmen. Does that constitute intimidation of the voters?

Dutifully, we record everything we see, then careen through the mountains to the next village. Yura drives his Lada 4 x 4 very fast and plays his music very loudly. We tease him through Rumiya, both of them attractive young people, more like us in their modern ways than the villagers. We pass an ancient walnut grove, masses of huge trees hugging the sides of a mountain. Rumiya tells us that the first walnuts in the world came from this region.

“According to legend, Alexander the Great noticed them when he was here and brought them back to Greece. Now Greece is known for its walnuts, but they originally came from here.”

Perhaps it’s true, as Alexander the Great did indeed pass here. Again I am reminded of the ancientness of this area, how many “conquerors” swept through these mountains. The Kyrgyz people are relative newcomers, arriving twelve to fifteen hundred years after Alexander. He would have encountered the Sythians, fierce fighters and horsemen, among the first of a long succession of nomadic warrior peoples to come down from the steppes and inhabit this land. Each group took something with them, and each left something behind.

Some of the schools we visit are in very poor condition; one has a leaking roof with a big tarp tied up to catch the dripping water. Several have potbellied stoves where voters stop to warm their hands. What impresses me most are the old men who come in wearing their medals on their shabby coats. They are small men, with deeply wrinkled faces and gnarled hands, men who have survived war, lived hard lives. Though the nation they fought for no longer exists, they wear their medals proudly. Now they vote, proud of their new democracy.

We visit maybe ten polling stations, then return to our rooms for a short rest. The most critical part of the process lies ahead. Stalin is reputed to have once said, “It’s not the voting that counts, but the counting of the votes.” We are to pick a polling station and return there to observe the count; then we must accompany the ballots and the protocol to the district commission office and watch while the totals are entered into the computer. The process is expected to go on well into the night. One of the polling stations happens to be in the same building as the district commission office, so we decide on that one.

The voting is scheduled to end at 8:00 p.m.. We arrive around 7:30 and situate ourselves in a corner of the polling room. There’s a flurry of activity as last-minute voters rush in. A few don’t have the correct identification papers and are turned away. At 8:00, the chairman of the commission declares that the voting is over. The room is full of observers—representatives of NGOs and observers for each candidate. The chair asks that all but two observers for each candidate leave the room. The two NGO representatives, along with Allen and me and Rumiya, are also allowed to stay. The tables are pushed together to form one large table and the ballot boxes are placed in the center for all to see. The election commissioners, a mix of men and women, take their seats around the table and the process begins.

Before the ballot boxes can be opened, the unused ballots must be counted and recorded. There are pink and green ballots, one for the legislature, the other for the assembly. They are counted into bundles of 100, torn on the edges, and marked. Already there are discrepancies. Though every voter would have been given both a pink and a green ballot and there was an even number to begin with, the unused ones don’t match up. There are 890 unused green ones, and 958 unused pink ones. They are recounted three times, always with the same result, so the totals are recorded and the bundles set aside.

The voter lists are then examined and the number announced. Now the serious counting begins. The ballot boxes are opened and sorted into piles of pink and green. The pink ones will be counted first. Each commissioner grabs a bunch and sorts them into four piles: one for each of the two candidates, one for “None of the Above,” and one for invalid ballots—those that are marked unclearly, that have both candidates marked, or that are not marked at all. Each candidate’s ballots are then counted into piles of 100, the last ballot used to wrap the bundle and label it.

While the counting is taking place, groups of people wait outside, eager to hear the results. Faces press against the small window. Gradually the window steams up, and at one point I go over and wipe it with a piece of Kleenex. The men outside cheer, and everyone in the room looks up. We all smile at each other.
It’s a long process. The observers stand behind the election commissioners, watching them count. Allen and I and Rumiya do the same. The chairman passes the bundles around so they are all counted by at least two different people. Hours pass. Finally, the counting is over and the results are read. The results for the assembly race are unambiguous: around 350 for one candidate versus 1,850 for the other. The legislative results are closer—around 1,300 for one candidate and around 900 for the other, with 58 considered invalid.

The two observers for the losing legislative candidate are outraged. They stand up and demand a recount. The ballots have already been counted several times, all under the watchful eyes of several people. What to do? The chairman invites the observers to count the votes themselves. Some of the commissioners leave the table and move to other chairs in the room while the disgruntled observers begin re-counting the pink ballots. The rest of us watch them. Periodically they pull out a ballot and lay it aside. Eventually they pull out 15 votes for the opponent which they think should be invalidated for some reason. The chairman examines them. Some have an X in the box instead of the required check mark; some have checks just outside the box instead of inside; and one or two have “da” (yes) and “niet” (no) written by the candidates’ names. Rather than argue, the Chairman does something impressive: he calls over the two representatives from the NGOs. They will decide. The NGOs choose to adhere strictly to the requirement of a check mark, and 13 of the 15 ballots are disqualified. In fact, in every case, the voter’s intention is clear. Only two ballots were recorded incorrectly.

The final tallies are then adjusted, but the observers for the losing candidate are still angry. They want to file a complaint. Legally they are allowed to do this, so everyone must wait while paper is found and they write out their complaints.

I watch the commission secretary at this point. She’s a slender woman in her mid-30s, wearing a pink blouse and thick sweater. She looks exhausted and upset, and speaks sharply to the dissenters. Then she turns and makes an impassioned speech to Allen and me, which Rumiya translates. She says that she is very discouraged by the criticism and ingratitude of those observers. She’s a schoolteacher; she has been teaching for 15 years and is a very responsible person. They, the election commissioners, have been working since 7:00 in the morning with only a few minutes’ break now and then, and after such a long day, isn’t it understandable that they might make a few mistakes? And look, the people don’t even thank them for their hard work; instead they are angry and file complaints. Don’t we think they did a good job and that the others are wrong to be so ungrateful?

I want to tell her that yes, they have done what I think is an excellent job, but as observers we are forbidden to make such comments. We nod our heads and shrug. But I am not happy with this response. After the objectors finish writing out their complaints and leave, I call her aside and say, “Don’t be discouraged by all this. Democracy is very very difficult. It’s a process; it’s not something you learn overnight how to do well. In America, we’ve had a democracy for more than 200 years and we’re still learning how to do it. You’ve had a democracy for only nine years, so you can’t expect it to work perfectly. But it’s people like you, people who are willing to work so hard on the process, who will eventually make it work here.”

Some of our candidates acted like animals during the campaigning, she says. Like animals! “They do in America too,” I assure her. “Believe me, it’s not perfect in America.” She thinks about this, nods, and returns to her work. She seems a bit lighter now, and I am glad of that.

I, too, have learned something. So many people here who believe their votes matter, who want passionately for this democracy to work! All day, I realize, I have been quietly reassessing my own stance toward political processes. I think of the low voter turnout in the U.S., my own indifference to political systems—that of Canada, where I was born and grew up, that of the U.S., where I have lived most of my adult life and where I have never voted. It has taken this experience in a tiny country in Central Asia to make me see something important that I have overlooked.

Next, the protocol must be filled out and posted. This seems to take forever. It’s already past midnight and everyone is exhausted, but multiple copies of the protocol must be made out by hand as there are no copy machines. Moreover, every member of the election commission must sign every copy of the protocol. Most of the other observers have gone home, leaving only the two NGOs and us. One of the commissioners makes a pot of tea and pours some into a small, chipped bowl and passes it around. When it empties, he refills it and offers it to someone else.

You Americans must just laugh at us, he says through Rumiya.

“No,” we say. “We are not laughing. You are all working very hard. We wish you every success.” Once they were part of a great proud nation; now they are painfully aware of their shortcomings, their apparent backwardness, how they must seem to the rest of the world.

There are several things I remember from that period, all of us so tired we begin to enter an almost dreamlike state. Allen sits next to one of the commissioners, a farmer, and they begin a conversation, with Rumiya translating. Allen is asking him about the old collective farm system and how things are working now. Allen comes from a farm family in Nebraska. The man says it was hard to break up the collectives. They went on and on for miles. Most farmers were given a piece of land, though some chose to pool their land and continue as a cooperative. He has 30 hectares, he says, and grows wheat. But times are very hard now; they were much better off during Soviet times. Their equipment is very old, most of it doesn’t work anymore, and it’s hard to find money for fuel or fertilizer. He wants to know how things are done in the U.S. and asks many questions about our farms, what sorts of things farmers grow and so on.

Everyone else in the room is half listening to this conversation. At one point the commission secretary, the woman who made the impassioned speech earlier, looks up from the protocol she is making out and says, Look at them! They are sitting and talking so nicely together. They even look alike, as though they could be brothers! And indeed, it’s true. Allen and the man are around the same age, size, and coloring. The farmer takes off his hat and reveals a head almost as bald as Allen’s. We all laugh, and everything in the room softens.

I remember also a pressing need to pee. I ask one of the NGOs where I can find a toilet, and she volunteers to go with me. The toilet, as I should have known, is outside. The crowds have dispersed, and everything is dark and quiet. I always carry toilet paper, and twist off a piece from the wad in my pocket and give it to the woman. She smiles, and we link arms. It’s a beautiful night, the sky full of stars, with a half-moon shining. I know the words for “moon” and “star” in Kyrgyz and say them, adding the Russian words for “very beautiful.” She hugs my arm. It’s a nice moment, and we feel oddly connected. We squat and pee; then, giggling like schoolgirls, return to the voting room.

It’s almost 2:00 a.m by now, and the protocols are still being painstakingly copied out and signed. Allen and the farmer are still talking quietly. Representatives from other polling booths are trickling in. I watch a woman unroll a voter list and write in a few names. I watch others filling out protocols that have already been signed. I look at their faces. Are these bad people, purposely falsifying the records? I don’t think so. The computer program upstairs will not accept figures that don’t totally tally; the number of names on the voting list must match the number of ballots reported. When they don’t, the computer rejects the report. In anything counted by hand there are bound to be a few small errors. So the figures are adjusted accordingly.

Eventually the many copies of the protocol are finished. We are given ours, and go upstairs to the computer room to watch the results being entered. I am so tired I can barely see. An old man comes up to Allen and asks, Where were you today? We were expecting you. I remember him from one of the polling stations we visited yesterday. We made plov for you, he says. But you didn’t come.

By the time we return to the headquarters in Jalal Abad with the protocol, it’s after 3:00 a.m.. Fredrik is there, manning the phones. He looks at us tiredly. “Bad things at Jalal Abad State University,” he says. “I’ll know more when that team comes in.” We are the second of the four subteams to return. Saule’s group was the first, naturally.


At eleven the next morning, we gather in the meeting room for a debriefing. Our experiences, it turns out, were quite benign compared to some of the others. At Jalal Abad State University, students were forced to vote multiple times for a certain candidate. Some of the observers were not allowed to see the counting; one of the subteams was led on a wild goose chase as they tried to accompany the ballots and protocols to the district commission office. Again we remind ourselves that democracy is young here.

We all have a last lunch together. Saule, looking fresh and not the least bit tired, produces a package of photos she took this weekend, already developed.
“It’s nothing,” she says, when I ask her how she did it. “I gave it to my translator last night and asked her to take it somewhere to be developed this morning.”
Saule, the resourceful traveler. It’s her nomadic roots, I’m convinced. This ability to move about easily and comfortably without a fuss. To be prepared and adaptable.

As we drive back to the airport in Osh, back through the greening mountains, I think again of the various groups who have moved over this land, what they took, what they left behind. Despite their reputation in the West, the Soviets did establish a kind of order; they brought education, creature comforts. Something was lost, but something was also gained. And now that they have gone, what will remain of what they left behind?

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