“There are political rallies every day here in Jalal-Abad, sometimes a party will hold a meeting in the morning, another in the afternoon, and then one more in the evening,” Ruslan tells me.
Ruslan is the correspondent in Jalal-Abad for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk. He is a native of the city and he has been providing Azattyk's election campaign coverage from this area.
My expectations after leaving Osh were for a more subdued campaign in Jalal-Abad. Along the road from Osh south to Batken there were an abundance of political party advertisements in every inhabited area and, as I mentioned in a previous article, even the hillsides were fair game for party promotion spots. But heading north from Osh to Jalal-Abad there were fewer party banners and signs along the road and the hillsides were left untouched.
Passing under the arch at the entrance to Jalal-Abad, the campaign returns in full force. Hanging on every post along both sides of the road into town are the red posters of the Ata-Meken party. Once in the city the flags, banners, and billboard advertisements of other parties adorn the walls of buildings and hang on cables over the city streets.
The best place I can think of to meet Ruslan is in the central square across from the provincial administration building. The Jalal-Abad administration building and the square hold special places in the history of Kyrgyzstan's revolutions. Jalal-Abad was one of the first flash points in events that led to the 2005 revolution. There were protests on the square across from the administration that sometimes turned violent. Demonstrators stormed, and eventually seized the administration building, an event that encouraged protesters around the country and led to then-President Askar Akaev’s ouster.
His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, made what would be his last stand in Kyrgyzstan, speaking to a crowd from a platform set up on the central square in April 2010. Having been chased from the capital, Bakiev tried to rally the people in his native region to help him regain the presidency. He fled the country barely 48 hours later.
'They Get Things Done'
An easy place for me to meet my colleague, and a good place for supporters of the Respublika Ata-Jurt party to assemble ahead of a rally, as I see when I arrive. I’m here to cover election campaigning, so we follow them.
Respublika Ata-Jurt is holding a rally in the hippodrome on the edge of Jalal-Abad this afternoon. A respectable crowd of what looks to be a few thousand people sit in grandstands and the show begins -- and it is a show.
Two horsemen, one dressed as a medieval warrior, the other as a medieval bai, or lord, ride in ahead of three Kyrgyz women, also on horseback and also wearing traditional Kyrgyz attire of hundreds of years ago. Then come the young horsemen wearing white shirts with red scarves on their heads and spears in their hands. It is meant, and it succeeds in evoking the memory of Manas, the Kyrgyz people's legendary mythical warrior.
The crowd seems pleased and since the people's attention is now drawn to the stage, where the horse riders have stopped, the party activists start their speeches.
We amble along the front row of the crowd and come to an older man dressed in a suit and wearing a “kalpak,” the traditional Kyrgyz hat, who is clearly someone of importance. I tell him hello and quickly explain who I am and why I am here, then ask, "Can I assume you are a party supporter?"
"I am a communist" he replies and starts laughing. "Do you know what a communist is?" he asks me.
"I absolutely know what a communist is," I reply, smiling, and he starts laughing again.
He is a party supporter and when I ask him why Respublika Ata-Jurt he answers firmly, "Because they can get things done."
"What things can they do?" I ask.
"They know how to help people, they know what people want, they are active," he says.
I cannot pin him down on specifics and, since the show is on, I cannot really take up too much of his time, so we depart.
Vibrant Political Activity
There is one other place I have to go because there is something I want to know.
Jalal-Abad was another area badly affected by the interethnic violence in June 2010 that I mentioned in a previous article from Osh. The Uzbeks I met in Osh seemed disinterested in the upcoming parliamentary elections and I am curious how the Uzbeks in Jalal-Abad feel about the poll.
So we go to Suzak, a district of Jalal-Abad where Uzbeks live. In turns out the situation in Suzak is very different than in Osh. Just like the rest of Jalal-Abad, there are party posters, flags, and billboards everywhere, some written in Uzbek, which I do not remember seeing until now.
The responses are the opposite of Osh also. I stop an elderly Uzbek man pushing a bicycle along the roadside. "Are you planning on voting?" I ask. "Of course," he replies. When I ask if he has already chosen which party he will vote for he replies yes and adds, "I can't tell you, it’s a secret."
The same thing I heard from Kyrgyz people in the villages by the Tajik border.
One after another, people selling wares from tables along the sidewalk, shopkeepers, pedestrians, and just people hanging around by trees or cars, all the Uzbeks I speak with say they will go the polls on election day. Almost all of them have already chosen which party they will vote for, and while some repeat the "it’s a secret" line, others tell me the party's name immediately.
One woman said she was voting "for the president’s party." Technically, President Almazbek Atambaev is not a member of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) as he was obligated to leave the party when he became president. But many still look at the SDPK as Atambaev’s party.
Not a great reason for choosing a political party, but then again three young Kyrgyz women told me in Osh they were voting for Respublika Ata-Meken because party co-leader Omurbek Babanov is "cute."
Two young Uzbek men standing by a car tell me they will vote for Ata-Meken and they can show me why. On an Ata-Meken sign along the street is a map of Suzak, as it could be, with new apartment buildings and shops.
Ata-Meken is not only promising the Uzbeks of the Suzak district major renovations, the party is promising to make Suzak a separate town, not simply a district of Jalal-Abad.
It is shame I have to leave Jalal-Abad so soon because it appears the city’s reputation for vibrant political activity is on display again.
Jalal-Abad was, arguably, the place where the 2005 revolution started. My next stop is the place where, less arguably, the revolution of 2010 started, Talas.