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Reporter's Notebook: Strange Days In Jalal-Abad

Residents of Jalal-Abad gather to listen to President Kurmanbek Bakiev on April 13.
The tense standoff in Kyrgyzstan continues as embattled President Kurmanbek Bakiev today said he may be willing to step down -- under certain conditions -- while the interim government in Bishkek stripped him of immunity and threatened to arrest him. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier filed this report from the southern city of Jalal-Abad, in the region where Bakiev has sought refuge and where he hopes to rally supporters.

* Correction appended

JALAL-ABAD, Kyrgyzstan -- These are strange days in Jalal-Abad. A branch of the Silk Road passed through this southern Kyrgyz city and the area has hosted travelers for thousands of years, and there is a lot of local pride.

But Jalal-Abad and its surrounding region have received much unwelcome attention since a native son -- President Kurmanbek Bakiev -- returned and made the city his base in an attempt to cling to power.

The first thing anyone familiar with Jalal-Abad notices is that there are fewer people than usual on the streets. Normally, it is difficult to weave through the crowds that fill the sidewalks in the city center, and even more so to navigate through the bustle of the bazaars downtown.

But everyone here knows what happened in the northern city of Talas and the capital, Bishkek, last week, when scores of people were killed in the unrest that eventually forced President Bakiev to seek refuge in his home region. And no one wants to be outside if that sort of violence breaks out here.

On the surface it appears that life goes on in Jalal-Abad. For the last few days, more and more places of business have opened their doors to customers and slowly more people are venturing out of their homes to buy the basic necessities.

But the presence of Bakiev, who still claims to be the legitimate president, hangs over the city and is a very sensitive subject for conversation. That is because it is unclear who is on whose side.

This uncertainty was evident at a rally Bakiev held in the city center today. There were more than 4,000 people hanging around the scene, but Bakiev only drew applause from about one-third of that crowd when he made his appearance. And almost everyone was looking around to see who was cheering and who remained silent, as if to gauge which side they should be on.

No One Taking Sides - In Public

Not surprisingly, few in Jalal-Abad want to make any comment about that topic. Kyrgyzstan has an active political culture, but when asked on the street if they were pro-Bakiev or “pro-opposition,” everyone suddenly turns politically apathetic.

One young woman on one of the city’s main streets said she didn't follow politics. A young man standing next to her said the political feud didn't concern him, his family, or his friends.

Down the road in one of the bazaars, the responses were similar. A man selling jeans and shoes said he hoped the whole problem would just go away and he would be left in peace. Similar comments were made by shopkeepers, waiters, firemen, and construction workers. Hardly anyone wanted their opinions to be recorded, even though their comments were innocuous.

The acting provincial and city officials are all recent appointees of the interim self-declared government in Bishkek, so it is clear which side those officials support, at least publicly.

More curious is the position of the local police, who are returning to duty every day in growing numbers. Police cordoned off a route to allow Bakiev to get to today’s meeting in the city center. Traffic police also helped regulate the flow of vehicles to and from the April 12 rally near Bakiev’s home in the nearby village of Teyit.

The acting mayor of Jalal-Abad, Mederbek Usenov, told RFE/RL on April 12: “Kyrgyzstan is a democratic country. They have a right to hold a meeting.”

The police would not speak about whom they supported. At an intersection just off the city center where the rally was held today, police pushed away a microphone, shaking their heads to show they had no response on whether they were for Bakiev or the new government.

One senior policeman did comment briefly but again avoided speaking about the current stand-off for power. “I am simply working as usual, doing my job,” he said.

Pressed on the point about whether allowing Bakiev and his convoy to reach the city center wasn’t itself a sign of support for the ousted president, the policeman shot back: “Get out of here!”

It's fair to say most everyone in Jalal-Abad does in fact support one side or the other. But these are strange days here, and everyone seems to prefer that the people around not know if they are pro-Bakiev or pro-interim government. It is not Bakiev or the new government they are afraid of, but their fellow Jalal-Abad residents.

* The original version of this article mistakenly described the city of Jalal-Abad as 2,000 years old and with a population of 250,000. The city was founded in the 19th century and its population is about 80,000.