Bishkek is having city government elections. The televised debates are on steroids. Candidates from the 23 parties have 20 minutes to talk, with the time divided into three sections: (1) general questions from the moderators (“What will you do for our city?”), (2) rapid-fire pop quiz (“Who was the first Kyrgyz general?” “What was Chui Street called before the revolution?” “How much is the average electricity bill?”) and (3) questions from spectators (My favorite, from an incredulous old lady to a 33-year old male candidate: “Why aren’t you married yet?”). Topping it all off, the moderators jump between Russian and Kyrgyz, and candidates are expected to respond in the corresponding language. Even during the rapid-fire pop quiz. Insane.
The older candidates struggle with the Kyrgyz (USSR’s remaining influence), while the younger ones sometimes stumble on the Russian (post-USSR reemphasis on Kyrgyz in schools). For a few of the debates power went out in the studio, reflecting Bishkek’s ongoing problems sourcing electricity. Rolling blackouts are common in the city, and it was particularly fitting that one hit just as candidates were promising to improve energy infrastructure. Other big issues debated were government corruption, improving the schools, sanitation in the local bazaars, and the balance of power between the ethnic Russian and Kyrgyz populations. The candidates are divided into groups of 3 for each debate, resulting in an hour-long program each night (with 2 groups of 4). My host family has tuned in for all of the debates.
Turning from political parties to vodka-drenched house parties: my host mom is from a teeny tiny village in the far northeast corner of Kyrgyzstan, on the border with China. Her relatives still live in this village, and her 2nd youngest brother managed to build himself a new home ~a month ago. We went to the village for the resultant party, which was 14 straight hours of eating and drinking. The only interruptions were (1) killing the goat that we had for dinner; this involved gathering outside to say a prayer of thanks for its life, (2) bringing the herd in from pasture in the evening, and (3) visiting the forest that Damira’s father planted. (Courtesy of the Soviet government, he spent his 40-year career planting cypress trees on half of a mountainside. The saplings are now fully grown. The forest is beautiful, though I wonder why the Soviet government cared enough to plant it in this isolated spot. Driving back to Bishkek, I noticed dozens of mountains partially covered by cypress trees – there must have been tens, maybe hundreds of people in the USSR who spent their lives on this kind of work). Back to the party: by midnight everyone was completely drunk, at which point spontaneous singing began and, finally, raucous dancing in the street to *extremely loud* Kyrgyz pop music (poor neighbors). Everyone was woken up early by screaming children – most rural families have at least 4 kids and usually significantly more – at which point the hungover adults slouched over cold, fried bread and tea with milk to ease into the day.
Finally, I’ve started my legal research. Which means first of all trying get my hands on the law. This is harder than it sounds. For example, I only managed to get a copy of the law that I *think* I want to write about, by (1) randomly meeting someone in a coffee shop, who (2) put me in touch with his friend, a gov’t minister, who (3) likes Americans so he took me to the Agricultural Ministry, where we wandered around aimlessly until we, (4) found the pastures “department” (read: tiny closet-like office with a single, fat bureaucrat eating a sandwich over a stack of yellowing documents), and (5) convinced the portly bureaucrat to print a copy of the law, which took him a couple days to do. And (6) when I went back to his office to pick up the docs he asked for a 200 KGS (~$5) “fee” – a.k.a. bribe – which I said I didn’t have, at which point he gave me the document anyways. “We support Western researchers,” he said. Right.