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Along Kyrgyzstan's Campaign Trail: Through The Mountains To Talas

Bringing the horses down from summer pastures
Bringing the horses down from summer pastures

Passing through the town of Tash Kumyr and heading up into the mountains that divide southern and northern Kyrgyzstan, evidence of the election campaign fades. It seems logical: The 14 political parties seeking votes for the October 4 parliamentary elections can compete against each other, but they have no chance of distracting attention from the magnificent scenery on either side of the road.

In any case, there are not many people living up here, and the first people we do meet have little interest in elections -- they have many more pressing concerns. They are shepherds from the "jailoo" (nomadic camps). At this time of year, these horsemen are bringing their flocks down from the mountains ahead of winter.

The herds of sheep, goats, cows, and horses are the cause of most of the brief traffic jams along the mountain road, and their presence is so common that drivers just stop and sit back. No one ever honks their horn or gets angry. We get stuck in several of these jams and wait as the herds pass through the stopped vehicles and finally clear the road.

"Jailoodan?" my driver calls out to one of the shepherds to find out if he is from the jailoo, and the shepherd nods.

Are you planning to vote in elections, I call out, and the shepherd gives me a puzzled look, then says, "I never vote. I'm busy."

That's understandable, since these shepherds have likely been in the pastures high up in the mountains for several months as they always are in summer. And perhaps that is also why none of the political parties seems interested in advertising themselves in this largely uninhabited area. There are no billboards along the roadside at all, and it is not until we approach the town of Toktogul on the north side of the immense Toktogul Reservoir that the campaign trail reappears.

On the hillside just outside of Toktogul, an arrangement of stones high up on hillside spells out Ar-Namys (Dignity). It is the first place I've seen the stone arrangements since the road south of Osh, and also one of the rare promotions for the Ar-Namys party. Ar-Namys campaign posters appear as we drive by Toktogul.

Feliks Kulov is the leader of Ar-Namys and a veteran politician in Kyrgyzstan. Kulov was in the Interior Ministry when Kyrgyzstan was a Soviet republic, and after independence he served as interior minister, vice president, national security minister, mayor of Bishkek, and prime minister. It was this last position that might be doing harm to the Ar-Namys party in these elections.

On the road through the mountains
On the road through the mountains

Kulov was prime minister as part of the "tandem" with now-exiled former President Kurmanbek Bakiev. Both were seen as potential presidents after the 2005 revolution that chased longtime President Askar Akaev from office and the tandem -- one as president, the other as prime minister -- was the compromise the two worked out.

Kulov was prime minister for only some 18 months, but people I've spoken with in Kyrgyzstan have mentioned Kulov's past ties to the now unpopular Bakiev as the reason they would not vote for Ar-Namys.

Kulov is from Talas Province and it seems he is putting most of Ar-Namys's campaigning efforts into his home region. There are Ar-Namys posters and billboards on the sides of roads and houses as we descend from the mountains heading toward the city of Talas.

As we get closer to Talas, the advertisements of other parties start to appear, but I notice there are fewer of these than in the south. We pass a rally for the Kyrgyzstan party in a park off the road, where a few hundred people look to be in attendance.

The population of the city of Talas is officially about 33,000. I have no idea where they all are as we drive into the nearly empty center of town on a Saturday afternoon.

We do manage to find some groups of people to speak with about the elections. Although most say they will vote, there is a sense of cynicism here that I did not detect in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Higher up into the mountains
Higher up into the mountains

I walk up a group of five young men who are busy inspecting the engines of two cars, which I hope -- and presume -- belong to them.

"Are you planning on voting?" I ask.

They all say they are and that they are voting for Ar-Namys.

"What do you expect the new parliament will do? Will they make changes for the better?" I ask.

"Probably not," one says.

"What do you want them to do?" I ask.

"We need them to pay more attention to the economy of our province," another says. "For example, look at the condition of the roads here," and waves his hand vaguely at the dilapidated road.

He is correct. A lot of the roads in Talas could use some repaving.

I ask for directions to the administration building, the flashpoint for the 2010 revolution.

On the way there, I see a young couple out for a walk with their small children. I say hello and ask, "Are you planning to vote?"

They are, but they won't tell me for which party, although I could make a good guess, after they tell me about their expectations for the new government.

"There are more young people running as candidates this time. Look at the SDPK," the young mother tells me, in a reference to the Social Democratic Party.

Her husband follows, saying, "The new government won't have so many old politicians. They [old politicians] don't have any new ideas. That's why we have such problems. We need people in government who have fresh ideas."

We arrive at the Talas administration building. On April 6, 2010, a group of demonstrators stormed this building and occupied it. Throughout the day, the occupiers and police clashed as police tried to eject the protesters from the building. When the sun rose on April 7, the demonstrators were still occupying the building, and just a few hours later protests broke out in Bishkek that chased Bakiev from power before the sun set.

When we arrive at the building, there is no one in sight.

Talas is a sharp contrast to the bustling political campaigning in Kyrgyzstan's southern provinces. There is a possible reason for this: Less than 5 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population lives in Talas Province, so political parties might well be focusing more effort on other, more populous regions.

Our next stop will be Naryn Province, where the population is only a bit larger than in Talas.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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