[promoted to the frontpage by BooMan]
There have been several diaries about Kyrgyzstan in recent days, and I have read all of them with great interest as I lived in that region for quite a while, and was in Bishkek for at least a week out of every month for over two years. These diaries brought back many memories, some very pleasant, some not so much so.
Here’s one of them.
It was just a one paragraph news story in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, on 3 December 1997:
The article gave only a hint of the events of that day, barely mentioning his wife almost as an afterthought.
I first met Peter Svoik in October, 1997, when I took over a regional democracy project in Central Asia, and then only through his wife, Natalia Chumakova, who headed an NGO called The Center for Support of Democracy in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Peter was well known in the region, because he had been a cabinet minister in the Nazarbayev government who resigned, and co-founded an opposition political party, Azamat. As you might imagine, this did not endear him to the powers that be, and he and his colleagues endured a steady stream of physical abuse, harassment, arrests on trumped up charges, etc.
His wife, Natalia, is everybody’s picture of the kindly grandmother – plump, silver gray hair, an engaging smile, and a sense of humor that would melt your heart. You meet her, and you instantly think of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven.
That charming and gentle facade masked a very dedicated and committed democracy advocate, and a serious taskmaster when it came to implementing projects. She once told me that she spent the first two years after the breakup of the Soviet Union reading all of the books that had been banned during Soviet times – she didn’t know what they were, but she just knew they existed, so she asked the Soros Foundation people to bring them in, and they did.
She and Svetlana Eseybaeva (who shall get her own story told one of these days) had formed the CSD in order to be able to apply for grants to implement small scale democracy projects, and we met because she wanted to work in cooperation with the organization that I headed in Central Asia. Natalia was passionate in her presentations, and very clear about her goals and how she was going to achieve those goals. It was clear that this woman had the ability to move an audience with her determination.
I did decide to provide support for CSD’s activities, particularly in organizing and training independent election monitors, and we engaged a number of joint projects. She became influential not only in Kazakhstan but throughout Central Asia, as we helped her connect with fledgling groups in the other republics. She was tireless in providing guidance to the other groups, and building networks across the borders of the republics.
It was this work that brought her to Bishkek on 1 December 1997. She and Peter were scheduled to present at a small conference there, at which would be present representatives of a number of civil society NGOs from across the region, and several of us from the international community. I had gone down to Bishkek several days earlier to attend to other business, and she and Peter wound up traveling by bus from Almaty.
The organizers of the conference had made arrangements for presenters to stay in a government owned guest house, which were always the cheapest accommodations available. I had an apartment in Bishkek, so I did not get to see them before their scheduled presentation on 2 December.
They did not show up at the conference in time for their presentation, and within a few minutes, we realized that something must be wrong. An envoy was sent to the guest house, and he quickly returned with the message that Peter and Natalia had been attacked during the night, and were in hospital for treatment. Because I knew her well, I was asked to go to the hospital, to provide “cover” for them, and to see if there was anything that was needed.
I never made it out of the room, for Natalia and Peter chose that moment to walk through the door – heads heavily bandaged, black eyes, bruised all over the place, and looking just awful. They were extremely worn out, but related that they had been in their room when 4 men crashed through the door at about 1 AM, and beat them both with truncheons for about ten minutes before leaving. Peter and Natalia then managed to drag themselves to the guard desk in the lobby, and he summoned an ambulance. Note that this was a government guest house, guarded by Kyrgyz police 24 hours a day – there was no way for the 4 attackers to enter the building without cooperation from someone inside. I looked around the room as they were speaking, and saw several people with their heads down, and realized that they must have heard the ruckus and were now embarrassed that they had not done anything to stop the beating.
Peter and Natalia were well and truly exhausted, in quite a bit of pain, and begged off from the conference. I spoke with them briefly as they were getting ready to leave, and was horrified to learn that they planned to take the bus back to Almaty. I told Peter that I thought that there was a very significant danger that they would be accosted again while on the bus. He agreed, but said that there was no other way.
Yes, there was. I had my vehicle, and Victor, my driver. I arranged for Victor to drive them to Almaty, and went with our driver from Bishkek to follow them to the border, in case there was to be trouble in crossing. I didn’t cross the border with them, because the presence of an expatriate in the car might be enough to trigger a stop, if for nothing else than to collect a “tax”, but locals pretty much crossed the border at will. As we hoped, they crossed the border with no problems -the border police didn’t even give the car a second glance, and waved it through. I then went back to Bishkek, while Victor went on to Almaty with our friends. Did I mention that Victor – my driver, my “fixer”, my friend – was a former member of the Soviet national wrestling team? No worries about their arriving safely once we got them across the border.
I went back to Almaty a few days later, and called on Peter and Natalia to see how they were doing, and they had improved a great deal. Natalia laughed heartily as she described the fact that 2 Kazakh security officers had shown up at their apartment shortly after their arrival, demanding to know how they had gotten home from Bishkek. Natalia told them by bus, and they said they knew better. Natalia just laughed and slammed the door in their faces.
Lots of noise in the local press in both cities about the incident, and multiple “investigations” launched, all of which came to the predictable dead ends.
A post-script. Because it was clear that forces within the Kazakh government were involved in the incident, the US Embassy was loathe to get involved. Those of us working on US grants – and there were several organizations – were quietly advised that it might be best if we maintained our distance from Peter and Natalia, so as not to cause embarrassment to the Kazakh government. To their everlasting credit, not one single organization capitulated; if anything, we all racheted up CSD’s involvement and their profile in many events. Natalia and Svetlana, and their colleagues, became regular fixtures at my office over the next two years.
Peter did go to the Embassy for help – he asked them to help get their two teenage daughters out of the country, perhaps to safety in schools in the states. He knew that it was the one way that the bad guys could get to him and Natalia, by threatening the daughters. The embassy declined, and when Peter disclosed this in an interview a few days later, as well as the fact that international organizations were being advised to distance themselves from him and his wife, the uproar was something to behold. The embassy strongly denied Peter’s assertions, but he stuck to his guns, and so did we, and in the end the embassy apologized.
To the best of my knowledge, the attackers have never been caught.
Peter and Natalia continue their efforts. Two very special people.