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Rudaki as a replacement for Lenin

The blog of the Royal Society of Asian Affairs has published my piece on how Dushanbe’s character is changing, including a sneak peak of my postcard project.

See the post here

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Portland Press Herald: November 3, 2014

The power of special interests is a reminder of how crucial it is to restore strength to Maine’s law.

Paraphrasing Dorothy, sometimes it takes a faraway adventure to make you appreciate your own backyard.

For me, it wasn’t a tornado that brought me overseas, but a desire to help people in emerging democracies. Today, I am back home and immersed in Maine’s homegrown democracy work: the Clean Elections Initiative. Here’s how I got back.

As a kid, I was idealistic about politics. From having a bake sale to raise money to save the rain forest to handing out stickers for local candidates, politics was a part of our community, and it was fun to be involved.

But Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything for me. I didn’t have a personal connection to the tragedies of that day, but my attitude toward politics changed.

This was serious business, with serious consequences. The activity and the pageantry that captivated me before no longer had the same appeal. I was unhappy with President Bush’s rush to war and wanted to learn more about the countries that were in our sights.

In high school I got interested in Afghanistan and in post-conflict reconstruction. I majored in political science in college, starting the Yale Afghanistan Forum, which brought together people with starkly different perspectives – Afghans, local veterans and people from all over the world who were studying in New Haven.

Through college and beyond, I took every available opportunity to travel, learn, and help people in developing nations around the world.

I worked on projects in several countries, including Tajikistan. It was in this remote central Asian nation that I truly saw what democracy is at its core.

The Tajik people face enormous challenges, and a big one is corruption. No matter what problem the activists try to fix – education, health care, pollution, street crime – their efforts are frustrated. In their political system, the voices of the rich and powerful routinely drown out the voices of ordinary people.

I loved my work, but like a lot of development workers and expatriates, I was aghast at the level of corruption and oppression. And I was discouraged about whether my efforts there could make much of a difference.

The local folks’ point of view was entirely different. This was their country; they were realistic about the grave problems and undeterred by setbacks. Every day they risked their lives and livelihoods pushing for democracy against a brutal dictatorship. They were deeply engaged and committed to making things better, no matter what or how long it might take.

Their enduring effort is a concrete expression of democracy. These are the people who can and will make a difference. Their courage remains the one reason to be optimistic about the future of their country. They are inspiring, and they led me to question myself. What had I ever risked for my country? How hard would I work for my democracy?

In my final months overseas, I started thinking about what I would pursue once I returned to the States.

Halfway around the world, I realized that what we have in Maine is unique and incredibly valuable. And soon I would come to appreciate that things of such value should never be taken for granted.

Today I have come home to Maine, and come home to democracy. My democracy. I started out volunteering for the Clean Elections Initiative, and today I am a full-time organizer working to engage voters throughout southern Maine.

Clean Elections is about having the kind of politics where all of us – no matter our background or walk of life – can use our voices to improve our community and our state. It’s about separating private money from public office to lessen the opportunities for corruption.

It was almost two decades ago that Maine citizens initiated Clean Elections. It proved itself to be a valuable law, popular with voters and candidates alike.

But the law has been weakened by damaging court decisions, funding cuts and more. That’s why Maine people are, once again, initiating new legislation. The Clean Elections Initiative will strengthen our landmark law, increase transparency and bolster accountability.

Maine people’s tenacity and vigilance to enhance and improve democracy is proof that citizens can fight to change the system and win. It is exactly why the U.S. is a model for people struggling for democracy around the world.

I am so proud to be a part of this historic initiative. When it comes to democracy, there’s no place like home.

— Special to the Press Herald

 

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To follow my last post on changes in urban Dushanbe, here is a simpler story. It goes like this: I went to Iskanderkul. It was beautiful. Adventures were had. And when I was surrounded by mountains, all my love for Tajikistan came back.

That’s not to say that there is no human and political dimension. Iskanderkul is a reflection of lost opportunities for tourism (but I was grateful for the solitude) and its villages had their share of abandoned Soviet infrastructure next to remittance-funded new houses. And the Anzob Tunnel – the Iranian tunnel, the tunnel of death or the tunnel of doom – is truly shockingly bad for the main link between Tajikistan’s largest cities.

But for this trip, the issues were just scenery. We drove North, packing six people from five countries into a jeep, with enough food for a small village. And a puppy. The route took us through the riverside restaurants of Varzob, into towering green and grey mountains where Jordan-the-puppy got a Lion King-style blessing held over the gorge. We stopped for kurtob (a bowl of bread soaked in oil with fermented yogurt and tomato/cucumber topping) and apricot compote at a village tea house before turning into the Iskanderkul valley. We climbed into dramatic ever-varying mountains carved by a turquoise river, and I wished I had payed more attention in geology class. Up and down switchbacks (where the bumps proved too much for the car’s grill), we listened to Ethiopian reggae, until finally the lake opened up below us.

 

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There is amazingly little development around this wonder of the world. We drove past the two presidential dachas, with their helipads (the Predident hasn’t visited for 8 years), through the only forest I have ever seen in Tajikistan, before the road became impassible, and we continued on foot. Loaded down with too much food – did we really need glass jars of honey, peanut butter AND Nutella for one night? – and plagued with swarms of mosquitoes, we tried to focus on the beauty of the landscape. But literally lost in the tall grass, with night coming on, the hysterical laughter set in. We abandoned the lakeside-beach goal and camped in a clearing by a thundering stream.

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As darkness fell, we built a fire, ate bread and cheese, drank vodka chilled in the stream, and told stories. I lay on my back, looking at thousands of stars, and listened to Louie Armstrong. There are some feelings that are cliches for a reason: the insignificance of the Earth in the universe; the insignificance of a human being in the wilderness – and the deep comfort of fire, music, and companionship. We had brought a little more civilization in on our backs than was necessary – but I was happy to sing along to Fly Me To The Moon just then.

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We woke to sun outlining the crevices and glacial snow on the mountains that had been shadows the night before. Hiking back was easier – if not leisure – and we made our way back around the lake to the Soviet Tourbaza. The cabins are a bit run down but still charming, but the real point was the beach, and fifteen minutes of floating in the turquoise water, the cold bearable if I stayed within six inches of the surface. The mountains mirrored in the water looked more like a sci if backdrop than reality.

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By three it was time for the drive home, passing through mountains again, blasting Tajik rap at first, then turning to calming Bon Iver for the tunnel.

And I think that does need a description. It takes about 15 minutes – if you aren’t stuck behind a truck – but it feels endless. There are no lights. The road is pitted with massive potholes, which often fill with water, making a flat tire terrifyingly likely. And to make the sense of suffocation truly intense, you have to keep the windows closed because the flawed ventilation means dangerous levels of carbon monoxide build up. As soon as you see light, all the drivers speed up, and we rolled down windows with a cheer of relief.

From there its easy going. We stopped for roadside honey buying, and a dinner of fresh fish in Varzob. Dushanbe was quiet in the evening, poised on the brink of Eid.

 

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Three weeks into my project photographing Dushanbe’s Soviet architecture, I picked a favorite building. The sky blue towers on Pushkin Street are slightly surreal: twelve floors tall and monumental close up, they are somehow hidden, even in low-lying Dushanbe, when you are more than a block away. There are six of them, at corners to each other, the edges softened by vaguely-oriental arches and the weathering of time. The balconies are mostly closed in and laundry hangs as tiny bright squares across many of the windows. Satellite dishes cover the roofs like hair on a chia pet.

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For weeks, I would snap a picture whenever my route took me close by – a fairly common occurrence given that two of the more popular expat bars are close by. The towers drew me in with their decaying grandeur, their beauty in a city that is rapidly becoming uglier. It also helped that, unlike the slogan-topped towers on Rudaki, which I also was fond of, these were not featured on the Soviet postcards that were guiding me around the city.  I felt possessive because I was sure no one else valued them (I was wrong, I discovered as I started mentioning it – among expats, at least, they have a fan club). And as I documented the rapid rise of ugly fiberglass-clad pseudo-post-modern high rises across the city, I became increasingly sure that these relics weren’t likely to last much longer.
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Balconies and Windows

Dustii (Friendship) Tower on Rudaki Ave

Every morning in Dushanbe, I was woken up by construction on the apartment complex rising behind my house. When I came home at night, a single bright light on top of the skeletal framework competed with the waxing moon. The small apartment building I lived in – 2 stories, 8 apartments – was itself on borrowed time. It wasn’t much to feel nostalgic for – overgrown courtyard, broken windows and broken wooden boards in the fly-infested stairwell. But the courtyard also had two-story hollyhocks, and the neighbors shared washing machines, phone chargers, an occasional meal. I started thinking of it as a metaphor for everything good and bad about post-Soviet life in Tajikistan: life in the ruins of a grand design, stagnating but organized through the pacts of the inhabitants.
I visited the inside of the blue towers by accident. I was going to Iskanderkul for a the weekend, and my friend was borrowing a friend-of-a-friend’s aquaintance’s sleeping bag from an apartment on the top floor of one of the towers. This was harder than it sounded: both street and apartment numbers are only useful to know if they are also posted somewhere on the building. The only numbers I could see, though, were the faded numbers painted large on the outside of each floor – for what purpose I could only imagine. We made a guess, taking a dark and creaking two-person elevator from the cramped lobby (lit with a bare bulb) up to the top floor. It reminded me vividly of the tower I briefly inhabited in Bratislava, though this elevator had a door. The top landing had four doors, all unlabeled, none of them opening when we knocked.
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But I was immediately drawn to the balcony, the view I suddenly had across the city in the late afternoon haze. From here I could see the detritus clustered on the upper level balconies of the tower opposite, screened by the delicate lacework concrete railings. Looking down, I saw one of the squat buildings nearby had a rug drying on the roof. On the way down the stairs, I read the graffiti – a large ballpoint pen drawing of a car squeezed among the usual declarations of love.
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In the interior courtyard (smelling strongly of the rotting melon rinds collecting at the bottom the trash bins) we pondered which tower to try next, until I noticed the old number sign, well hidden behind a scraggly tree: Pushkin 8. Aha! Into another dim entry, a slightly better maintained elevator, and again we knocked on the door of a random apartment, where a young girl pointed across the hall. We were foreigners; she knew where the foreigner lived. I took a last look from the new balcony: pigeons circled the top of tower I’d just been in, and the twin pastel wedding cake towers of Dushanbe Plaza loomed behind, the new wannabe-Dubai Dushanbe elite’s answer to statement architecture. As we reached the street again, I turned back for a last look, almost running into a young woman with elegant shoes and tight jeans, talking on the phone as she headed out for the night.
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I don’t know the history of the blue towers; I don’t even know their name, if they have one. I don’t know who owns them, I don’t know if the same families have lived there for decades or if they are all rented out to newcomers. I don’t know their future, but I’ll be sad when they are gone. As an outside observer, I have the luxury to see the towers as a symbol.
Dushanbe is changing, though often these reconstructions only imply a superficial cladding over old foundations. Many of the 1980s landmarks I searched for are still there, covered with uglier facades. The new forces transforming the city combine a Soviet disregard for the past with a drive for growth that only benefits a select political circle. The same story is everywhere: the drug money; the Chinese construction firms; the countless broken sidewalks and new shopping centers. There is a giant hole in central Azadi Square, where the post office used to be and a new post office has yet to be built. The site is fenced off with a massive billboard for Megafon. Something old is gone, and whether it’s lamented or not, the future hasn’t arrived yet. Not for the majority.
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January:

Brighton: The empty beach is slippery, and the sea is most beautiful when it is the glimpse from the station, down at the end of the street. Up close, it’s the green color of water after washing paintbrushes. There are wet brown pebbles, and a grey sky, and I finally understand Dover Beach. The pier is white, and the colored lights are blinking – not the tawdry desolation of an off-season amusement park, but ticking over, a smaller version of itself. The roller coaster blocks the best view, the hints of white cliffs on the eastern edge of the shore. Cold wind, the most winter-like I’ve felt, but the sound and smell of waves makes me homesick. Becca’s hungry, so we head to a tea shop with a knitted model of the pavilion domes.

February:

Windsor is green grass and blue sky, divided by sharp crenellations; shockingly declarative sun after a month of tired grey. I spend a pleasant half an hour imagining defending the castle from invaders. Inside, suffocating gold covers everything, and I trend on plush carpet, past a video of the Queen eating canapés. I stop by the portrait of Richard III, the one that transfixed Inspector Grant in The Daughter of Time, and try to understand his expression. Lesson: I prefer my royalty medieval.

Blarney/Cork, Ireland: the pines sway overhead and I am full of the scents of the forest, solitude, and a hill full of clover and ferns. The rain comes down as I walk down a road of daffodils, and into the peat-scented warmth of the tea shop, with vintage posters of a sunny Ireland. Sinking sun is orange on the river below and edges the tiny world of lichen, moss and a single white flower in the crook of the battlement. 4 hours of walking, putting off the return to the city.

March

Richmond Park is hard to find, but the Thames Path is a good diversion. The banks are green velvet and the river shines, sky the deepest blue against the fall of pink petals. No one can quite believe their luck, sprawled on the banks like they can’t fight the urge to get close to the spring earth. The mallards look curiously at the dropped Cadbury flake. On the top of the hill, an anonymous celebrity is being photographed exiting the flat I will buy when I win the lottery. The balcony looks over the shining, twisting river and a thousand blue-hazed shades of green. No leaves are in the park yet, and the forests are crowded with dead wood. The deer blend in, unseen until they rear up, silent, close enough to touch.

East Anglia: Eastward train through flat fields, shockingly yellow with rape seed flowers. Half my happiest moments have been looking out train windows. Singing in Norwich in the Octagonal Chapel, dark wood and kiwi green panels, 19th century hand-written hymnals hidden in the cupboard. The pub has a diorama of a city on the ceiling, with cotton ball clouds hanging down on strings. In the morning, Erin and Finn play cello duets in the kitchen. Late for a train, we run through Norwich, hunting historic plaques, and occasionally looking at the historic things attached to them. The cathedral is framed in white Magnolia trees. An unplanned stop in Stowmarket leads to hot cross buns in the churchyard. In Cambridge we sing in chapels, voices echoing shockingly loud. I am starstruck by the granddaughter of Newton’s apple tree, just past blooming outside a college gate.

April:

Walking in the fields above Bath, it is easy to imagine myself a Jane Austen character. Vertiginous slopes of buttercups lead down to church spires. The weir rushes dark and cool under the bridge. Dinner in the Bath Ale pub, pie and mash. We overhear the cooks trying to convince our waitress to leave them the last three pieces of lemon cake.

Oxford feels closed off when you are only a tourist. Isn’t the Thames nearby, my dad asks, remembering where the bodies are usually found in Inspector Morse. The crew teams are out on the river, competing with swans. A flock of goslings learn how to peck for crumbs on the grass. In the maze of medieval alleys, the spires are silhouettes against pearly clouds.

May:

Norwich again on the Bank Holiday Monday. Sitting outside a pub by the river, chips and a pint and a sun that makes the back of my neck hot. The local anarchists are holding a May Day party by the Cow Tower. Children with flower crowns spin around the pole. Another pub, playing pool in the basement, and a third, drinking local cider and loosing at Boggle.

Bristol and Wales: Another singing trip, to Bristol this time: day in the Baptist church, night drinking organic ale at the vegan collective cafe. Steve has a piano in his kitchen and a book of postcards of 50s rest stops. Bristol may be famous for its bridge, but I prioritize food, so I see a Cafe Rouge in the mall instead. Train to Newport and bus to Cardiff. Welsh flags over the castle (pictured), and empty streets on a Sunday afternoon. Morning by the harbor, the sun is blinding on the Millennium Centre and the fountain. The sea is like glass. I see no one for an hour except two elderly tourists confused by the Ianto Jones shrine on Mermaid Quay. Out to Saint Fagan’s and the museum of Welsh life, fires burning in the dark kitchens of  cottages, beehive pig pens, a whitewashed medieval church with bright red and ochre paintings on the inside…and lots of lambs. Frolicking is the only word to describe it. In the afternoon, a train with Sweta to an even emptier Swansea, and a bus out Gower Peninsula. The fields and wide view of the sea remind me of Maine, at least until we arrive in Rhossili. Out of the bus, the wind blows out my arms until I feel like a could launch myself out and fly. On the cliff, we are the same height as the birds. Gorse bushes with yellow flowers cling to the road, and far below, carefully outlined by the sinking sun, the tiny white house perches above crashing waves. Up early again the next day, to join four elderly Americans and one elderly Russian for a tour to the Brecon Beacons. There is good welsh music of many genres and the guide went out of his way to avoid all of it. But up in the South Valleys, that all stops mattering. A mix of emotions, political as much as visceral, in the mining museum. Down in the pit, with the dark, the low ceilings and dripping water, I am fascinated but blindingly grateful to escape to the sun again. The Beacons are cloud shadows over green and tan and purple. Going over passes, I almost feel like I am in the high plateaus of the Himalayas again. On the train back to London, the full moon floats on a sky of warm purple.

Paris is hot and feels Mediterranean. At the Musee D’Orsay at dusk, the sky blurred over Montmartre is the same shade as the Monet. Walking in the morning from Gare du Nord, sun on shutters and balconies and the grates of shops. Fra Angelica and Holbein at the Louvre, and a picnic by the Seine – baguette and cheese creamy and crumbly, cherries and wine from the bottle. Listening by the bandstand in Luxembourg Gardens, and an omelet in a quiet Saint Germain cafe. The next morning up to Sacre Coeur, cool stone under bare arms as we lean out over Paris. In the Centre Pompidou we watch 4-4:30 of The Clock.

June:

Full circle to Brighton. The first Sunday of summer, packed sweaty on the train, all of London spills into the sea air. The only decision is the order to swim, eat and drink. Too much sun, ice cream and fish and chips. Cold water like a shock that fades into bliss, the embrace of the ocean finally.

 

By Anna Kellar

(written for the Armed Violence Reduction Monitor, originally published February 20, 2014)

As NATO troops prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014, attention has begun to turn to the consequences for the region. Diplomats are particularly worried that instability and the influence of radical Islam might spread north into Central Asia. However, the danger has been exaggerated, and, without more careful analysis, these worries are likely to produce policies that are counterproductive for the medium- and long-term security of the region.

The following insights are born from interviews I conducted in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the summer of 2010, whereby I discovered that some locals did not share the international perception of rising insecurity in the region.

Sources of Instability

How severe is the risk of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia? On the one hand, the secular regimes of Central Asia seem secure. The region was remarkable for the lack of Arab Spring-inspired movements, and Tajikistan’s November presidential election was rigged without significant outcry. However, this stability may be fragile. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have received political backing and economic support in return for basing rights and logistical support for NATO troops, and some worry about the effects if this external support were to end.  If Afghanistan returns to full-blown civil war, the fighting may spread over its northern borders, reigniting dormant conflicts. Russia especially worries that chaos in Central Asia would destabilize its Muslim regions, and increase terrorism in the heartland.

The major terrorist threat has come from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Founded in 1991, it aims to overthrow the Uzbek government lead by Islam Karimov, and establish an Islamic state under sharia law. In 1999 the IMU claimed responsibility for six car bombs that exploded in Tashkent, killing 16 people. After being driven from Uzbekistan in the early 90s, the IMU joined with anti-government forces in the Tajik civil war, using its base in Tavildara, Tajikistan to carry out several attacks in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan before being expelled to Afghanistan.

Though the Islamic Resistance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) sided with more moderate Tajik Islamist forces in Afghanistan, the IMU joined with the Taliban, and several of its leaders were killed in fighting in 2001. The remnants of the group may still be active in Waziristan, and involved in attacks on the Pakistani government, killing 14 Pakistani soldiers in an attack last year. In August 2000 the IMU also kidnapped four U.S. mountain-climbers in the Kara-Su Valley of Kyrgyzstan, holding them hostage until they escaped. In response, the United States classified the IMU as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. In 2004, there was a spate of anti-government violence in Uzbekistan, and attacks on the US and Israeli embassies in Tashkent, which killed two Uzbek security guards. These may have been the work of the IMU or the international Hizb-i-Tahrir network.

Tajikistan, with a legacy of civil war, a long border with Afghanistan and a history of cross-border insurgency, is the most flammable country in the region. However, the main Tajik opposition is not likely to support the Taliban. If the Taliban gains ground, and fighting increases in northern Afghanistan, it is possible that we will see a repeat of the 1990s, with renewed ties and cross-border operations between ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Afghan fighters and the remnants of the Tajik opposition. Such a situation is hardly ideal, but as the contexts of conflict in Afghanistan and Tajikistan are fundamentally different, civil war in Afghanistan is not a direct recipe for conflict in Central Asia. Terrorism is a real issue in Central Asia; however, the risk of Islamist takeover has been exaggerated.

Counter-Terrorism and Government Repression

The Tajik Civil War, fought from 1992 to 1997, pitted members of the communist elite and their clients against a collection of Islamist and democratic parties who largely draw support from the mountainous center and east of the country. However, despite elements of Islamic ideology and the ties the opposition developed with former mujahideen groups in Afghanistan, it would be a mistake to assume the war was fought on religious or ideological lines; rather, it was a fight between regional elites for political representation and spoils.

This distinction is crucial to understanding the situation today. Most of the opposition leaders who signed the peace agreement in 1997 have gradually either been co-opted into the government of Imomali Rahmon, or have been arrested or assassinated. Sporadic outbreaks of fighting – in the Central Tavildara region in 2009, and in the eastern regional capital of Khorog in 2012 – have marked the government’s attempts to exert its control over the remaining pockets of opposition.

While the Tajik government usually describes such activity as combating drug smugglers and terrorists, in reality, these attacks are deeply political. Though the government has been effective in maintaining control, each show of force reduces its legitimacy in these regions. Tavildara retains the atmosphere of a town under siege. Locals there told me that media reports of a firefight between the government and a local warlord were highly exaggerated, obscuring what was really an arrest and summary execution. In Khorog, the government (apparently, making use of US equipment and training) cut off all contact between the city and the outside world before moving against local opposition. While those it targeted certainly may have been involved in the drugs trade, the effects of the operation, and the civilian casualties it caused, destroyed much of the good will the government had slowly been building up in the region through its programs of patronage and propaganda.

There is a long history of governments, in Central Asia and beyond, using the existence of terrorism to justify oppressive security arrangements. The Uzbek government massacred as many as 700 civilians in Andijan in 2005 supposedly in reaction to unrest instigated by the IMU terrorist organization. The modest US condemnation of this incident was criticized by both a group of US senators, and the British ambassador to Uzbekistan; however, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld lobbied against an international investigation of the incident. The US security agreement with Uzbekistan, signed in 2001, allows the use of bases in the country, and proclaims Uzbekistan as a partner in the fight against international terrorism. Robert Blake, the US State Department’s top official for Central Asia recently commented that Uzbekistan’s cooperation with US “raised their profile with international terrorist organizations, who may want to target Uzbekistan in retribution. So, it is very much in our interest to help Uzbekistan defend itself against such attacks.” Not only has this policy put the US in the uncomfortable position of supporting and funding a repressive dictatorship, it lends tacit support to Uzbekistan’s draconian anti-terrorism practices, which, according to Human Rights Watch, involve torture and the widespread use of false confessions.

Creating Enemies?

These repressive tactics, and similar abuses in Tajikistan, may prove counterproductive, undermining the legitimacy of the regimes. In a Gallup poll published last December, 52% of Tajiks said the fall of the Soviet Union had done more harm than good, while 27% said it was beneficial. When I asked a similar question in Tajikistan in 2010, the one group who said life had gotten better since independence were observant Muslims. I interviewed a father and son in the southern city of Kulob, who described how they had had to hide religious texts during the Soviet era. Now they were proud to show off the new mosque they had helped to build, and bragged about the imam who had come from Pakistan to preach there. This is the kind of religious revival that is often described as posing a threat to security in the region.

The revival of Islam is unlikely to be dangerous, however, unless it is repressed. If the Tajik government cracks down harshly on religious freedoms, it will make enemies of the one group (other than drug traffickers and government officials) who have seen life improve under its tenure. Unfortunately, the government has not gotten this message. In recent years it has passed legislation censoring sermons, restricting religious education and even, according to one report,harassing men with beards.

Will the War on Terror narrative continue to dominate the Western attitude to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan? The risks of the Taliban spreading into Central Asia have been greatly exaggerated; however, the narrative of a terrorist threat is a boon to regimes justifying oppression of domestic opposition. Uncritical support of ‘anti-terrorist’ operations therefore risks increasing the real threat to stability – the radicalization of opposition groups, and the loss of government legitimacy. Will the reduced need for bases in the region free up the international community to criticize Central Asian governments, or have developments in Egypt and Syria again made the West cautious about promoting opposition movements in Muslim countries?

2014 will not be a year of drastic change in Central Asia, but change will come eventually. Backing repressive ‘anti-terrorism’ measures is only likely to make the change more violent and less democratic when it does arrive.

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Bus stop coming into Bucharest
 My dad always says ‘its like Eastern Europe’ when its really cold and grey in Maine, and I’m always like, no Eastern Europe is great. This trip made me realize that I’ve only ever been to Eastern Europe in the summer, and Romania is, in fact, like Eastern Europe. However, it therefore holds that a lifetime of Maine winters is good preparation for December in Bucharest, and this was true.
I arrived with a group from LSE on Friday afternoon, and taking the bus from the airport, the flat space around Bucharest was filled with tilled fields, furrows of bare brown earth interspersed with a low layer of frosty green. This was dotted with squat houses, outbuilding and walls, metal roofed and concrete, some gapping empty, others cluttered with car parts and laundry drying. The closer we got to the city center, the more this landscape gave way to car dealerships, contractor suppliers and an IKEA – the new and shiny, covered in logos, but also somehow abandoned-seeming.
It was disorienting arriving in Bucharest at dusk, without knowing the layout. It was orientation-by-Christmas-lights, since each of the boulevards had a different scheme. Bucharest was grander, but also emptier-feeling, then other Eastern European capitals I had been in. We took long cold walk to find dinner, only to see that the restaurant was in the midst of a Christmas party and had no space for us; nonetheless, they gave us free mulled wine, and we found the strength to push on and find “Bistro High Life”, a perfectly lovely Italian restaurant.
We were up early the next morning to walk to the train station. I love train journeys, especially in first class, and it was perfect to look at the fields as we went out of Bucharest slowly becoming hills and then suddenly jagged peaks as we passed into the Carpathians.
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Bran Castle in the snow
In the train station we were approached by a tour guide, and though I might have ignored him, it turned out he was recommended in the Lonely Planet, and about half the group decided to take a small risk, and accept his services to drive us to Bran and back. It was an illustration of the good and bad of traveling in a big group: safety in numbers vs the difficulty of reaching a decision. Going with Gabriel turned out to be a good idea – we got to Bran and back in a convenient way without having to figure out the bus. His car was a held-together-wth-string-and-prayer Dacia, which he drove through the drifting snow and sun-glarey roads, overtaking trucks, and telling us some eccentric facts about the history of Dacians and Romans and Saxons, and making sure we were very clear that gypsies are NOT from Romania. I enjoyed the whole experience immensely, surreal conversations with slightly-racist taxi drivers being a fond memory of travel in Tajikistan.Bran castle was lacking in vampires, unless you count some wooden ones and a hilarious poster in an anteroom, which described the legends and gave the useful advice that “vampires can look like ordinary human beings, who are endowed with extradinory sex appeal, but also like animals”. I did eat a garlicky langos (Hungarian fried dough claiming to be a Romanian specialty) so I was prepared to…breathe on Dracula. The castle itself was wonderful, fairy tale turrets dusted with snow, secret stairs and the trappings of a 19th century royal hunting lodge. I am a big fan of the couch-bed built in around the wood stove, though this might have been wishful thinking since I was so cold!In the Brasov town center, we had to get warm, and found a spiffy lounge with plush couches, which served pizzas, cheesecake, and good coffee. The snow had started coming down heavily again, and I watched the fat flakes fall in front of the green buildings. The Black Church closed early in the winter, but we circumnavigated it, drinking mulled wine from the Christmas market.

 

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Brasov with its Hollywood-style sign

After a leisurely dinner in an art-nouveau-styled restaurant, we took taxis to the station, only to find that the train was delayed. The low-tech departures board didn’t say by how much, and we couldn’t understand the Romanian announcements. And it was cold. So cold. Even in the station, but especially on the platform. The cloudy sky must have been reflecting street lights, but it appeared reddish and evil – if this was a horror movie, or Scooby Doo, that would have been when the vampires came out. Finally we recognized the utility of the many tiny kiosks on the platform that the locals were heading to to buy vodka. I have seldom been so relieved as when I saw that train pull in, and knew I had three hours of relative warmth, comfort, and lack of responsibility for getting to the next place.

Back in Bucharest, a few of us went out to a club, against my initial better judgment. I was shaken from my complacent clubbing-is-the-same-everywhere-so-why-exhaust-yourself-in-a-new-city attitude – this one was pretty cool. It was in the basement of an abandoned historic building, in a series of vault-like rooms, one with a bar, one with a ping pong table, and one with a DJ playing mash-up samba music. It was a creative claiming of space, bringing fun and energy to the same street that had seemed so empty to me the night before. Bucharest, too, has its hipsters, and their a cool bunch.

Sunday morning, bundled up and fortified with pastries, we went on a walking tour of the Old Town. It took us to many of the sights I had gone past before, but this time with an explanation of their significance. I liked that order for the weekend – I had time to get lost and form my own impressions about things (even though many of my assumptions were wrong) before getting the official version. The tour started at the Palace of the Parliament, formerly called the Palace of the People, the world’s second-largest government building (after the Pentagon). We admired it from a distance, and heard the devastation that its construction wrought on the city – the people moved into matchbox flats on the edge of the city, forced to abandon their dogs (the source of Bucharest’s very visible wild dog problem), the historic market destroyed, and the political prisoners brought in to do the construction in harsh conditions. Bucharest is partially the legacy of Ceausescu’s admiration for Mao and Kim Jong Il, and his desire to replicate North Korean city planing. But the character of the city is a weave of older imitations. I was struck by the lack of an old center with narrow winding streets, like Ljubljana, Bratislava, Riga or Budapest. It was not only Ceausescu’s bulldozers, but an earlier generation’s admiration of the French that resulted in the city’s wide boulevards and grand palaces, built to imitate Paris.

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Empty fountains looking toward the Palace of the Parliament

Romania and Bucharest were unlike anyplace I’d ever been, and yet I can’t put my figure on a single thing that was uniquely Romanian. Its likely that two days was not enough time to appreciate a country, but I have had day trips where I instantly recognized a unifying identity behind a place and the physical manifestations and its culture and history. Even after the very educational tour, that sense was still missing for me in Bucharest, which seems odd in the 6th largest city in the EU. There is a running joke in Bucharest that every visitor, from Michael Jackson on down, says “Its so nice to be here in Budapest”. Beyond simple rhyming confusion, there’s an existential problem in that misunderstanding – a city that people don’t recognize even when they are there. I liked Bucharest – but I don’t understand it.

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Three faces of Bucharest

The walking tour ended at the Atheneum, a lovely classical building constructed by the royal family with contributions of ordinary citizens, and now home to the National Orchestra. Our guide ended with a plea that this building, not the monstrosity at the other end of the boulevard, be remembered as the true Palace of the People. For a city still reimagining itself, reclaiming that thirst for culture is a lovely idea. I’m determined to come back to Romania in the summer, and take a longer trip with more time to explore in Transylvania and Moldavia. I’d like another crack at Bucharest, too. The manager of our hostel was an American who came on vacation five years ago, and fell so in love with the city that he never left. I’d like to see what he saw.