Last week, Kyrgyzstan held its second presidential election since the 2005 Tulip Revolution, when street mobs ousted the country's leader, Askar Akayev, following parliamentary elections that they believed had been rigged.
That the re-election of Akayev's successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was just as rigged as the elections four years before must have stung particularly sharply for the United States, which just a few years ago touted Kyrgyzstan as an example of how focused development aid could promote democratization. When Akayev was overthrown, it was a rebuff of America's efforts at reform from within; with Bakiyev's re-election through vote-buying and intimidation, America's hopes for a democratic Kyrgyzstan have now been trounced not once but twice.
But this isn't the first time this remote Central Asian country has beckoned to wide-eyed foreigners, drawing them in only to dash their hopes. Just ask my friend Jack.
I met Jack by chance, in an Internet cafe in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. It was the spring of 2003, and the city, a Soviet backwater for eight decades, was finally getting its moment in the sun.
After 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, the United States looked for a foothold in Central Asia, and Kyrgyzstan became the region's best hope for democracy: less authoritarian than its neighbors and seemingly more fertile soil for a modern state. Washington and its allies began to invest more money and send more people into the country.
It wasn't just governments and NGOs that rushed into Kyrgyzstan but fools and opportunists as well. I was one of them, as was Jack. We each came to Kyrgyzstan chasing that wave, Jack from Germany, me from Canada. Jack had brought a few thousand dollars, which he invested in a factory that made cookies. I stumbled into a job running the American Pub, a bar for expats.
It was a good time to be in business. In July 2001, USAID asked Congress for $28 million to fund democratization and small-business-support programs in Kyrgyzstan. In 2002, it asked for $36 million; in 2003, the request was for $40 million. By the time I arrived at the American Pub, Bishkek was teeming with a mix of aid workers and consultants as well as military contractors working for the growing U.S. air base at the edge of the city, Manas—the base that the Kyrgyz government would threaten to close six years later.
Americans weren't the only newcomers flooding the city. The city's finest clothing and house wares were at Beta, a gleaming, multistory Turkish department store at the center of downtown. At the edge of Bishkek was the Dordoi Bazaar, a warren of shipping containers out of which Chinese merchants created makeshift shops selling mile after mile of cheap imports. And Russia, loath to cede its old territory entirely, was building a military base of its own a few miles away. It was gold-rush time, and Bishkek was boomtown.
Every boomtown needs its share of suckers, of course. I started work on a Monday; on Thursday, the tax inspector came. He told us to hire his niece as a waitress, or he would shut us down for tax evasion. It was my first job out of college. I asked my staff if we should go to the police. They laughed. "He is the police," they told me. "Think harder."
We met the niece. Unattractive and rude, she clearly thought the interview was beneath her. Unable to say no to the tax inspector but just as unwilling to hire a young woman who wouldn't bother to show up or, worse, would put off the customers if she did, we settled on a middle course: We shut down the bar ourselves. We closed for six weeks of painting and renovations, which were needed anyway, gambling—correctly—that the tax inspector and his niece would lose interest and move on.
The bar reopened and filled up again: Danish and Dutch airmen between missions over Afghanistan and the military police whose job it was to watch over them. Thick-set contractors spending money on their skinny, pouty local girlfriends. Peace Corps volunteers on leave from teaching English in joyless Kyrgyz towns. Business consultants paid by USAID to assist local businesses, often by helping to navigate some especially stubborn thicket of local corruption.
And sprinkled in like pepper were American men of military bearing, whose first names were always a single syllable, like Roy or Doug or Ben, who spoke Russian and were vague about what they did, answering questions about their jobs with looks of mild irritation.