Bishkek, 24 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- With fir-lined streets blanketed in heavy snow, the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek looked very quiet and peaceful ahead of potentially confrontational parliamentary elections on 27 February.
Unlike the big cities in neighboring Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and even Turkmenistan, not many new buildings have been constructed in Bishkek since Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991.
The central Alatoo Square with the statue of Erkindik (Freedom) is situated on the spot were a bronze figure of Vladimir Lenin used to stand. The former Bolshevik leader’s statue now resides behind Kyrgyzstan’s National History Museum -- the building used to be a Lenin museum. The country did not entirely rid itself of many of the former Soviet empire’s symbols, such as statues or names of streets. These changes reflect the half turns that Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy has made in recent years as well.
Bishkek was founded 125 years ago as Pishpek and renamed Frunze after one of the Soviet leaders in the first part of the 20th century. It was one of the most Russified cities in Soviet Central Asia and little seems to have changed -- seemingly few people speak Kyrgyz in downtown Bishkek.
All in all, nothing in the Kyrgyz capital gives one the idea that this might be the stage for yet another peaceful revolution, as a few political observers believe might be the case. However, conversations with some people on Bishkek’s main streets reveal that the electorate is well aware of the upcoming parliamentary elections.
A 46-year-old man said he is determined to go to the polling station on 27 February: “Undoubtedly, I will go to the polls and exercise my right to vote. There are eight candidates from [my constituency and I will] vote for one of them.”
Unlike other candidates, President Askar Akaev’s daughter Bermet Akaeva, who is running for a seat in Bishkek's university district, has posters everywhere
They also well-informed about who is running for parliament in their districts. A 64-year-old retired Russian woman said she is going to vote for “her” candidate, who is ethnic Russian. She told RFE/RL why: “His mother is also a pensioner. He promises to increase our pensions and to improve people’s life in general.”
A 30-year-old woman who did not want her voice to be recorded said she would choose a female candidate’s name from the list and vote for her because a woman is more capable of solving problems since women are more attentive to details.
A 43-year-old ethnic Russian man who is currently unemployed said he does not know anything about the candidates and does not care about the elections. “I don’t know who I should vote for and how," he said. "I can’t say anything.”
Where are the voters getting their information about the candidates?
In the streets of Bishkek, there are a few campaign signs that call on the people to vote in 27 February elections. But posters of candidates are rarely seen. One reads “2005 Will Be a Year of Change for Kyrgyzstan” and show a portrait of a candidate. Another one simply pictures a candidate but does not give his name.
However, posters of Bermet Akaeva -- President Askar Akaev’s daughter who is running for a seat in the university district of Bishkek -- are everywhere. Her slogan is simple: “Care and Responsibility.” It’s written on a placard that also shows Bermet’s young, smiling face. Officially, Bermet’s candidacy was proposed by Bishkek University students. Today, in the university area, some of those who introduced themselves as students refused to talk to RFE/RL. One male student said there is an order from the head of the university banning students from speaking to the media.
Students seem to have a better knowledge of the candidates as well as of the political changes in their country. A 25-year-old male student who wouldn’t give his name told RFE/RL: “All candidates have their political programs and they say they’ll do this and that. But the parliament is becoming unicameral, therefore candidates must be elected carefully. The unicameral parliament will decide the fate of our country. That’s why we must be very careful in electing them.”
Potential voters listen to candidates’ promises carefully even though most of the electorate seems to be skeptical about the promises as this 43-year-old man put it: “They promise a lot but don’t do anything. Of course, they give many promises, but in real life they do not do anything during five years [of their term as deputies]. For example, two of our candidates say life is going to improve. It has not improved for the last 10 years. How can it improve now?”
Another man working in the parliament building who introduced himself as a plumber joked that he sees lawmakers every day, therefore he “knows them too well to trust them.” His commentary on voting is very simple: he will believe those who will increase his salary, he said.[For more on the elections in Kyrgyzstan, see our dedicated "Kyrgyzstan Votes 2005" webpage. For more on the region, see our "Central Asia" webpage.]