Cahal Milmo: Has the Tulip Revolution wilted?

Kyrgyzstan Notebook
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The Independent Online

In the wake of its 2005 "Tulip Revolution", Kyrgyzstan was lauded as a beacon for democracy in a region better known for crackpot dictators with a tendency to rename months in their honour and build statues of themselves that rotate to constantly face the sun.

But on the snowy streets of Bishkek, the capital of this former Soviet colony sandwiched between China and the rest of central Asia, there is increasing evidence of a backward slide in the march away from the political repression of the past. A Washington-based human rights watchdog, Freedom House, this month downgraded Kyrgyzstan to the status of "not free".

For the past fortnight, activists have held a "rotating hunger strike" in Bishkek and the southern town of Osh following the imprisonment of Ismail Isakov, a senior opponent of the hero of the Tulip Revolution and current president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Critics say the sentencing of Isakov, a former defence minister, for corruption is part of a steady centralisation of power by Mr Bakiyev, which has taken place amid a spate of bloody attacks on journalists and activists. The EU has expressed particular concern about the murder last month of the Kyrgyz journalist Gennadiy Pavluk, who was thrown from a sixth floor window in neighbouring Kazakhstan with his hands and feet bound together.

The Kazakh authorities implicated three men who they said were members of the Kyrgyz secret services, a claim firmly denied by the President.

In the meantime, Mr Bakiyev has been accused of building a dynasty. His son, Maksim, a wealthy entrepreneur, was recently appointed by his father as head of the powerful state agency which controls all inflows of foreign money as well as Kyrgyzstan's gold and hydroelectric industries. He seems to be a chip off the old block. On a visit to China last month, he expressed an interest in buying surveillance drones to fly over Bishkek.

Shaken, but not stirred

While a few centimetres of snow brings prudent British drivers to a juddering halt, their Kyrgyz counterparts show no such fear in the face of the white stuff.

I learnt the perils of such bravado when, travelling to the airport last weekend, my ride hit a patch of black ice and went into a terrifying spin. After bouncing off the central reservation (twice) and narrowly missing a lamp post, the driver got out, kicked the tyres, nodded his approval and got back in as if nothing had happened.

It is surely no coincidence that the chief of the Kyrgyz state road safety department last week reported a sharp rise in car accidents with five deaths and 52 injuries in the first 19 days of January.

I could eat a horse

Vegetarians beware, the Kyrgyz like their meat. And they love nothing more than a steaming plate of "beshbarmak" – a robust stew of boiled meat served in a broth of noodles. The dish I enjoyed was made with a leg of horse. Delicious. And not a vegetable in sight.