Archive for October, 2012

My Talk about Kazakhstan…and Zhanaozen

This morning I will give a talk about Kazakhstan to impressionable university students who probably know next to nothing about Kazakhstan.  Last week I was in a sporting goods store stocking up on “smartwool” wool socks and the sales clerk who checked me out asked where I was going.  I told her Kazakhstan, after I said she probably wouldn’t know where it is.  She surprised me and said that she knew about Kazakhstan because she had lived there as a little girl.  I was in a hurry to finish my shopping so I didn’t pursue this bit of surprising information from her.  Someone else, besides me, had actually been to Kazakhstan maybe 10-15 years ago.

As I prepare for my return trip to Astana, I realize I have not been in Kazakhstan for almost a year and a half.  I left the early spring of 2011.  Much has stayed the same where I live in Minnesota but I’m sure much has changed in Astana.  I’ll be shocked by what has happened as far as more students at the university I taught at.  More buildings will no doubt have been built in my absence.  In Astana, they were going up at a frenetic speed while I lived in Astana for over a year.

I’m wondering how many people were forced into labor on these buildings?  Why do I ask these kinds of questions? Because of the following unsettling report from the Human Rights Watch organization.

On December 16, 2011, a terrible massacre happened in Kazakhstan. State police fired on civilians in the small town of Zhanaozen in the western part of our country. According to official numbers, 16 people were killed and 100 were injured. Independent sources stated that more than 70 were killed and more than 500 to 800 were wounded. This was the bloody end of a seven-month conflict between oil and gas workers—protesting for better working conditions—and Nursultan Nazarbayev, the dictator who has ruled our country with an iron fist since 1991.

The Zhanaozen massacre marked the beginning of a new era in Kazakhstan of unprecedented political oppression. Striking workers have been convicted and sentenced to long-term imprisonment, while trials linger for the civil society activists and politicians who aided the workers. One such leader, Vladimir Kozlov, was convicted last week on trumped up charges and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison and forfeiture of all his assets. State authorities have also targeted the independent media. Journalists who covered the incidents are now facing charges of coup-plotting.

Meanwhile, the security forces who fired on civilians have not been punished. Nazarbayev refuses to consent to an international investigation, because he knows the results would expose the real face of his regime.

As representatives of the civil society of Kazakhstan, we fear for our colleagues. Our attempts to stop Nazarbayev’s tyranny have been futile, since all parts of the justice system, including prosecutors and courts, operate under his orders. His system of oppression has been well documented by international human rights organizations like Freedom House, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. The New York-based Human Rights Foundation has also recently announced a new initiative to expose Kazakhstan’s regime and is sponsoring publication of this open letter.

We respectfully ask US legislators to help us. In the past, thanks to the intervention of European politicians, civil society activists like Bolat Atabayev, Zhanbolat Mamay, Natalia Sokolova, and Igor Vinyavskiy have been released. We are confident that the proposed law known as the Magnitsky Act, currently under consideration in the House of Representatives (and held-up by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen), or a separate Zhanaozen Act with similar goals, would compel Nazarbayev to allow space for dissent—a vital first step toward democracy. With the imprisonment of Kozlov last week, Kazakh civil society has lost the most vocal critic to the Nazarbayev regime and his unregistered political party, Alga!

On the next page we copy the names of the Kazakh officials, police officers, judges, and security agents involved in the Zhanaozen massacre and the subsequent oppression of civil society and the media. We also ask the U.S. to consider adopting a document threatening a travel and finance ban for these individuals and we alert civil society, financial institutions, and public policy groups.

Nazarbayev has been aided in Washington by public relations machinery including BGR Public Relations, Qorvis Communications, Global Options Group, APCO Worldwide, Policy Impact Communications, as well as Kazakhstan insiders such as billionaire Alex Mashkevich and Bulgarian fixer Alexander Mirtchev. They have all enriched themselves while serving a ruthless tyrant that ordered oil workers killed. They have peddled the lie that Kazakhstan is the story of a “young democracy” with “stability”—rather than a totalitarian police state with a leader who wins elections with 95% of the vote and passed a law allowing him to be elected president indefinitely.

Nazarbayev, like Putin in Russia, and Lukashenko in Belarus is yet another tyrant interested only in looting the treasury and ruling for life.”

Well, this is thought provoking as I consider talking to our American youth about a country they may have never heard of and about the trafficking and human rights violations that continue to go on in Kazakhstan.  But we have some of the same problems here in Minnesota and the rest of the U.S.  Evil is everywhere but unfortunately we live in a bubble here in the U.S. and are unaware of the dangers that are all around us.  Maybe that is why Halloween is a good reminder of the bad. Maybe the ensuing storm beating off the East Coast is also helpful to remind us that we are NOT in control of anything.  God is.

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My Fall of 1994 Reflections in Bishkek

I wrote this letter on October 12, 1994 to my loved ones back in the U.S.  I was writing from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and had my head full of wedding plans back in the Minneapolis area but also when I returned to Bishkek, I wanted to do the wedding all over again.  I forgot how provoked I was with Tatyana, my Kazakhstani friend, who didn’t believe I was willing to fly her and a Kyrgyz girl on my own expense. Back at that time it cost about $3,000 to fly both of them to Moscow, then New York and then Chicago where they took a bus from there to Minneapolis.  Once Ken and I went on our honeymoon, they stayed on for another week or so traveling back together to New York and then home to Central Asia.  As late as October, things were NOT moving on Tatyana’s end of things. Not due to her busy-ness but due to her doubt.

“…I want my Kazakhstani friend, Tatyana, who lives in Almaty, to be one of my bridesmaids.  She simply can’t believe that I would fly her to the States to be a part of our wedding.  It means getting a letter of invitation, a visa, her passport in order, plus the plane fare arranged.  I told her in June to make the necessary preparations by writing friends of hers in the States so she could stay with them after the wedding. I hasn’t happened because of her unbelief and the time for buying airfare tickets is NOW! Because she thinks something could go wrong with her Kazakhstan government not granting an exit visa, she doesn’t want to get her hopes up.  Inertia was winning!!!

People from the Soviet past are steeped in their old way of thinking.  They have been programmed to think negatively. Thinking it will not work…it will not happen.  This fall semester with 60 first year students while there were 40 new students last year, I still have hope for Kyrgyzstan!   I can say that because of reading my students’ journals and homework assignments.  I can look into their hearts and respond to each one with encouragement.  One of my students, named Marat, is proselytizing his Muslim faith to me. (;-)

The downside of being the only American English teacher after all the other ones left from the first year is that I have a very heavy teaching load.  It is like giving an essay test to 60 students and returning their results to them each week.  Each student’s assignment takes about 10-15 minutes to grade.  The decision was made by me to give up my Fulbright grant at the end of January instead of the end of May of 1995.  After returning from my Minneapolis wedding, I will get married again in Bishkek for the benefit of my expat, Kyrgyz and Russian friends.  I’m mostly doing the wedding again for my students.  I will move to Almaty where Ken’s job is and we are expecting great things together!!!

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My Spring of 1994 Reflections of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan

Eighteen years ago I was hitting my stride as an English teacher and Fulbright Scholar at a university in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  I had made foreign friends and also friends with the native Kyrgyz people and those who were Russian but born in Kyrgyzstan.  The following is what I wrote on March 27, 1994 to family and friends back in the U.S.

“Yesterday was a good day at the sauna.  I usually go every Saturday morning from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m. with Olga, Lena, Natasha and other Russian women.  We sit and sweat, then jump into a cold pool, then sip on tea and repeat the cycle about five times in two hours.  My friend Olga and her husband Andrey have two daughters under the age of four.  As I was leaving the sauna I thought of my 50 minute walk back home and was favoring my one foot because I had developed a blister on the way TO the sauna.  There was Olga with her husband, in their car and since I live close by, they offered me a ride home…

Yesterday afternoon I went to a meeting with other westerners who gather monthly.  There was a Russian guest speaker who talked for an hour and a half about working with the Kyrgyz people and how the Bible was translated into Kyrgyz. He said that the Muslims became aware this was going on so they got someone to translate the Koran for them. Somehow the man who was working on the Koran got interested in doing the Old Testament and eventually became a hunted man.

When educated Kyrgyz would make comparisons with the Bible and the Koran, they valued the words in the Bible. The remarkable stories of the perseverance of the saints and God’s faithfulness to the people who were hunted down as early Christians must have encouraged this translator.” [Later in my stay, I received from a Kyrgyz friend of mine a translated copy of the Koran into Russian. I had always thought that it was sacrilege to have that book in any other language than in Arabic. They must have bent the rules on that for Central Asia. Not that I could read this translation any better than it was in the original text.]

The following is what I wrote on May 5, 1994:

I just celebrated Easter AGAIN in Almaty with my friend Tatyana [Kazanina].  The Russian Orthodox church has a different religious calendar which they follow. The main reason I went to Almaty was to visit with my other friend Ken. I went with him and another friend of his [he drove his Mercedes] to Kazakhstan’s “Grand Canyon.” It WAS beautiful but cold so we turned around and came back.  Before this trip to Almaty on the public bus (it took 4 ½ hours) I took another “trip.” Let me explain.

I walk everywhere in Bishkek since it a much smaller city than Almaty. But you really have to look where you are going because the sidewalks and streets are laden with potholes, cracks or other such traps.  When I saw the bus for Almaty pulling out of the bus station, I didn’t want to wait for another hour for the next one.  As a result, I sped up my pace and took my eyes off the sidewalk.  There was an inch pipe running from one little garden plot to the next.  That is what grabbed my right foot and propelled me to the pavement with a 30 pound backpack on my back.  I was in pain for the whole trip after that and that night while I stayed at my friend Tatyana’s place. It wasn’t until I got to Ken’s place the next morning where he had plenty of ice packs, that the pain eased.  My knee is better now, a week later, but it has ALL colors of the color chart throughout my leg…”

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My Fall of 1993 Reflections of Kyrgyzstan

Nineteen years ago, on September 21, 1993, I wrote a letter to family and friends about my upcoming return to Central Asia.  I’m combining this with another letter I sent out on November 2nd of that same year.  Things seemed to have been moving quickly for me and it was good to stand in place for an instant to jot my experiences down for later perusal.

“On Sunday, Sept. 26th at 2:35 p.m. I will be boarding a Delta plane to go back to Central Asia. I have more than enjoyed the past month of staying in Minnesota with family and friends.  For the past four months working in Kazakhstan for Peace Corps, life was just plain hard work.

My university in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan wanted me to be teaching at the start of school on September 15th. Due to a mix up of communication, I am arriving on October 1 instead.  Thus, I am already starting on the wrong foot with the dean of the school.  Something needs to turn this situation around since this woman, Camilla, is known to steamroll over people.  To cross her is not a good idea. I have learned only too late, I am looking at ten months of working with her.

I know what I am getting myself into as I prepare to leave and there is both a feeling of dread and excitement.  I look forward to getting to know the Kyrgyz people more as I will be teaching phonetics and listening comprehension at the Kyrgyz State University. Fortunately, I will not be alone but teaching with another American Fulbright Scholar from Rutgers, New Jersey. She is only in Bishkek for three months.  She arrived two weeks ahead of her schedule to accommodate the university’s needs of having foreigners there in place.  I am not sure if we will be sharing living quarters or not.

From the little bit of exposure I had with the Kazakh people in Almaty, I am eager to get to know the Kyrgyz people better. Once I know what my e-mail address, I will be sure to let the e-mail users know. I have a new Compaq laptop which also has fax capabilities. I need to learn about that so it can be up and running while trying to get prepared for my classes….”

The following letter was written on November 2, 1993 after I knew more about my living situation:

“There is SO much to be thankful for in the one month I have been in Bishkek.  I have a really spacious apartment which looks out to the mountains from both my east and west windows. I am able to see beautiful sunsets.  How nice to have this place since I plan to do a lot of entertaining.  However, time spent in the kitchen is more than comical since I have been forced to make do without a lot of the necessary utensils we all take for granted.

Things like measuring cups and spoons, potholders, pie tins, Tupperware, a fridge that works as well as a stove with four gas burners and an oven.  The challenge for all of us foreigners is to cook or bake as close to American food as possible with whatever materials you can find at the Osh Bazaar.  Just buying meat with carcasses and heads of sheep, pig and horse hanging off hooks while birds are flying overhead is a sight to behold.

Well, to change the subject…There are six other American teachers at my university.  I am looking forward to having my three different Phonetic classes come to my apartment in December for American style Christmas parties.  Each class has about ten students in each room and we meet once a week. It has been a joy to teach them American pronunciation.  My goal for these next nine months is to be the best teacher I can be to my 30 plus students and also to learn Russian.  We (four other English teachers) have two hour language classes most every day.  It is a struggle for me to be disciplined enough to study in the afternoons what I learn in the mornings with my own tutor.  The grammar is so difficult but I have to say that it is easier than learning Chinese.

I’m glad to say that my relationship with Camilla has improved.  She seems to be treating me well.  However, she is very disorganized as a dean and has managed to get the ire up of all the other American teachers at her school.  We are all trying to work out smooth communication despite the clash of teaching styles and methodologies that necessarily happen when Americans meet up with rigid Soviet-style methods.

My e-mail has been up and running and I invite any of you to send me a note by that mode of communication.  My address is:  [note that back at that time of 1993, they were still using the Soviet Union as a location] It is not always reliable because of bad phone lines but it is better than the mail service which is routed through Moscow and ends up at the top of a heap of other undelivered mail. Who said this is an exciting time for the former republics?  There is a lot of desperation and near panic due to the unstable economy…”

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