We met on the plane to Washington, D.C., at the very end of August 1993. Both Ilyas and I - as well as about a dozen other students from the former Soviet Union - were on our way to U.S. universities for a year-long exchange program funded by the U.S. government and administered by American Councils, a U.S.-based educational exchanges NGO.
I was 19, very nervous and heartbroken, with no idea of how I was going to survive a year without my parents and other loved ones. And I was out of cigarettes.
Ilyas was the only smoker in our group, and I spent the whole flight to D.C. bumming cigarettes from him (yes, at that time smoking was still allowed). We chatted at the back of the plane: he was older than me and looked quite mature; it took me a while to memorize his name (by analogy with the Russian name 'Ilya'); I was studying to be an ESL teacher and he had just graduated with a degree in translation.
In D.C., we walked around with our group for a while, but it was so unbearably hot and some of the guys in the group were so silly that I don't really remember much about this walk, except for the dress and the shoes I was wearing. We returned to the hotel and went to dinner: I ordered pasta and everyone else ordered pizza - I do remember that because no one was aware that the right thing would have been to order a few slices, and they all ended up with enormous, totally unconquerable dishes in front of them, which was very funny.
After dinner, I went to the room Ilyas was sharing with another boy, and we sat there till very, very late, drinking really delicious Kyrgyz balsam that Ilyas had brought with him. It was really the two of us, because Ilyas' roommate - a boy with longish, curly, blond hair and eccentric, round, glasses - was lying in bed, covered with a huge blanket up to his nose, suffering from stomach problems mixed with the beginning of a culture shock. He whined for a while about wanting to go back home already and then fell asleep.
I remember asking Ilyas a stupidest question, one I'm still ashamed of: I apologized first, in advance, and warned him that he would probably be mad at me, but - "How do you guys tell each other apart? How do you know who's Kyrgyz and who's Chinese and stuff like that?" Ilyas laughed, not offended or anything, and that was such a relief to me that I don't remember whether he then answered my question or not. (Four years later, I confronted my dearest Malaysian Chinese friend with the same question, and she replied she had no idea how to tell "themselves" apart, except that whenever she saw a heavily made-up and dressed-up Asian woman on campus, she knew that was a Korean.)
Ilyas and I spent part of that night sitting in front of the window, looking at the moon - it seemed so much higher up than the moon back home - and at the apartment building across the street. There, in one of the apartments, was a man who, we suspected, was on the verge of committing a suicide: he kept pacing back and forth, to the window and away from it, sitting down, then jumping up and pacing restlessly again. At some point, we started making up stupid stories about the guy, imitating the Soviet-time propaganda: like, how this evil capitalist society was driving people nuts. That was our first night in the States and we were kidding, of course.
When we finished up the wonderful Kyrgyz drink, I went back to my room, which I must have been sharing with someone from the group, only I don't remember that person at all, somehow.
In the morning, Ilyas said good-bye and left for Austin, Texas. I was the only person in the group who didn't have to fly that day - I was taking a train to New Brunswick, New Jersey.
I probably remembered Ilyas all these years - 12 years - because he was really nice, not because he was the only Kyrgyz I've known. So today I decided to google for his name.
I didn't know his last name. So I entered his first name, and the year 1993, and the words 'Kyrgyz' and 'Texas.'
Here's what I've found:
KYRGYZSTAN DAILY DIGEST
KYRGYZ NEWS - 8 FEBRUARY 2001, THURSDAY
6. PRESIDENTIAL INTERPRETER BECOMES PRESS SECRETARY. President Askar Akayev appointed on 7 February Ilyas Bekbolotov his press secretary. Bekbolotov, 29, graduated from the foreign languages department of the National University in 1993. Then he studied at the Texas University in the US in 1994 and at the Central European University in Hungary in 1996. Since 1996, he worked at the presidential administration and served as presidential interpreter sometimes. He speaks Kyrgyz, English, Russian.
I'm not 100 percent sure that this is the Ilyas I've known - but I doubt I'm wrong. Still, I wish I remembered his last name.
I haven't been able to find a picture of him - though it wouldn't be of any use anyway, because it's been 12 years and, moreover, the light-blue shirt he was wearing on the plane is, for some reason, something I remember best about his appearance.
Other things I've found about Ilyas Bekbolotov:
- Before becoming Akayev's press secretary, he worked for some USAID project and also translated for the World Bank in Kyrgyzstan;
- On Nov. 21, 2002, Akayev made him head of the protocol service of the presidential administration - whatever that means;
- A media monitoring organization that now seems to be extinct wrote this about him in 2002:
According to the local analysts, as the press secretary, I. Bekbolotov was known for one of the most loyal attitudes toward the independent press in Kyrgyzstan.
- A site called Nomad mentions Ilyas in the text about Kyrgyzstan's political clans (in Russian).
According to this text, Ilyas is the nephew of Misir Ashyrkulov, Akayev's longtime friend and former head of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council.
Here's more on Misir Ashyrkulov, from a June 1, 2004, article by Leila Saralaeva of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting:
Opinion is divided about whether the apparent defection to the opposition of a leading ally of President Askar Akaev is a blow to his regime, or a clever move to subvert his political enemies.
The May 20 announcement that Misir Ashirkulov, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, was to lead the Civic Union for Fair Elections left many confused about the future of the opposition-led group – and about the motives of a man regarded as a close friend as well as political ally of the president.
Akaev dismissed Ashirkulov from the Security Council four days later. [...]
The coalition was launched on May 20 by six leading opposition politicians together with Ashirkulov. They included four opposition party leaders – Omurbek Tekebaev of the Ata Meken Socialist Party, Emil Aliev, acting head of the Ar Namys party whose head Felix Kulov is in jail, Melis Eshimkanov of the El party, Almazbek Atambaev of the Social Democrats, and leading parliamentarians Adakhan Madumarov and Marat Sultanov.
For the moment, the emerging political grouping has not put itself forward as a coalition that will field candidates in next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections. Instead, it says it wants to put in place mechanisms to try to ensure the elections are fair, that the authorities do not try to rig the vote, and that there is no violence.
Many are puzzled why Ashirkulov – a man with such solid ties to the regime - should suddenly choose to identify himself with opposition politicians who bear little love for the president.
As political analyst Abdylda Syrgakov wrote in the newspaper Obschestvenny Rating, “Putting Misir Ashirkulov in the same team as Ar Namys – whose leader ended up in jail through the efforts of the then National Security Service head Ashirkulov – is politically Jesuitical in the extreme.”
Now 58, Ashirkulov has been friends with Akaev for 40 of those years, since both were students in Leningrad, now St Petersburg. But he became a political heavyweight only in the late Nineties, appointed minister of security in 1998 after serving as deputy minister since the previous year. He was then put in charge of the presidential administration before becoming head of the Security Council in 2001.
In autumn 2002, he survived an assassination attempt, serious enough that he still has 18 grenade fragments in his body. A man said to have thrown the grenade is about to go on trial, and Ashirkulov has said that while he is certain the right person has been arrested, the attack was orchestrated by someone else.
“It was my own personal initiative,” he told IWPR. “Just like civil society, the authorities are interested in ensuring that the parliamentary and presidential elections proceed in a transparent and fair manner, in line with the constitution and election law. And no rose or velvet revolutions.”
Opposition activitists are deeply divided over Ashirkulov’s move and the motives behind it.
Those involved in the coalition are in favour, and believe the former security chief has burnt his bridges with the government.
Moya Stolitsa Novosti’s chief political editor Rina Prizhivoit sees Ashirkulov’s dismissal as “punishment for cooperating with people whom Askar Akaev deeply dislikes”. “With one stroke of the pen he rehabilitated Ashirkulov in the eyes of those who saw him as someone sent to infiltrate the enemy camp,” she said. “It’s now beyond doubt that the Civic Union is not the creation of the [Kyrgyz presidential] White House political technologists.”
Others are not so sure, with some critics picking up on Ashirkulov’s comment about warding off a Georgian-style “rose revolution” as a sign that the authorities want to control or neutralise the “fair elections” movement. That leads them to conclude that his defection to the opposition was orchestrated by the president’s camp.
Human rights activist Tursunbek Akunov agrees, but goes even further, suggesting that the real end-game is about preparing the way for a presidential succession. Akaev, who has led the Kyrgyzstan since independence, has repeatedly said he will not stand for re-election in 2005, and Akunov believes that either Ashirkulov is himself the anointed successor, and will use the Civic Union to promote a separate political profile, or else that he has been charged with preparing the ground for some other candidate.
Ishenbay Kadyrbekov, a parliamentary deputy who has declared himself as a presidential candidate, sees ambiguities on all sides.
“I wouldn’t rule out that it is a multi-move gambit by the president,” he said. “It is quite possible that both sides know about it – each getting some advantage from it. The opposition gets to show that there is disarray in the presidential camp that people are defecting from it and that’s bad for the president – so they tolerate Ashirkulov’s presence.
“For his part, the president find its useful to know what the opposition is planning, so that he can take preventive action.”
IWPR has learned that Ashirkulov is currently out of the country. According to Eshimkanov, he left because he was concerned about his “personal safety”.
Go figure, is all I can say, as usual.
I wanted to title this entry "A Kyrgyz in My Closet" (similarly to an earlier one, "A 'Jesus Look-Alike' in My Closet" - which I have removed on request from someone whose request is totally justified), but then I realized that Ilyas doesn't really belong in my "closet" department: he doesn't qualify - because I've known him for no more than 24 hours, nor does he fit in there - all that's going on in Kyrgyzstan is no joke, obviously.