1st December 2017
By Wouter Bouma
In October 2017, Silba went on its first ever mission to Kyrgyzstan. For the reader less well-versed in geography, Kyrgyzstan is the smallest of the Central Asian countries, bordering China in the east, Kazachstan in the north, and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the (south)west. It has six million inhabitants, and being a former Soviet republic, it gained independence in 1991. As this was the first Silba mission to Kyrgyzstan, or even a Central Asian country, the participants were all rather excited. And indeed there was much to be excited about, as Silba was there to observe the first presidential elections in the country since those of 2010, which were surrounded by violence and unrest. Needless to say, these elections gave way to a very interesting and eventful Silba EOM.
After a stopover in Istanbul, the author arrived in Bishkek, capital of the Kyrgyz Republic in the early morning. Full of excitement, awe, and sleep deprivation, we were met by several of the participants, before meeting the rest of the group at a group dinner in a traditional Kyrgyz restaurant. Despite sleep deprivation from the long flights, the group quickly got along as we discussed the mission and the programme, which would start the next day. With a kitchen turned lecture hall in our hostel, our programme had been filled with lectures and meet-ups with relevant organizations and stakeholders, so as to give us a comprehensive view of the political, cultural and social environment surrounding the elections we were about to observe. Amongst others, we met with journalists, human rights NGOs, an LGBT rights activist, the EU representation, and the local UNDP office. As the days progressed, the participants started to get acquainted more and more with the country, its hospitable people, its proud culture, and its beautiful nature. Moreover, we learned about the ins and outs of Kyrgyz politics, besides acquiring a comprehensive who’s-who in the presidential race. We of course had time for sightseeing as well; what struck me most was the Osh bazaar, with an atmosphere only described as beautiful chaos. Surrounded by colours, smells, and products of many kinds, the locals bought, negotiated, and chatted their way through the market.
By this time, however we had not yet received observer accreditation. Therefore, we were divided into groups, which had as tasks to focus on certain groups or stakeholders, and report on the position of those groups vis-à-vis the elections and its candidates. With election posters spread throughout the city, Bishkek showed that the upcoming elections were a hot topic in town. Then, on the second-to-last day before Election Day, we got the word that our accreditation had been authorized, making Silba the largest NGO observing the Kyrgyz presidential elections. As we all roared in excitement, our cheering was soon dimmed by the announcement that several of our programme activities were to be crammed into the remaining two days. The prospect of observing, however, was enough to get everyone fired up for Election Day. After two more days filled with meetings, Q&A sessions, and discussions, we received our final briefings, were divided into our observer teams, and met our translators over dinner.
Then, early in the morning, we gathered for breakfast, discussed our deployment plans, and left for our first polling station, in order to observe the opening procedures of the polling station. After a hectic drive, with our taxi driver frantically trying to avoid roadworks and potholes, we arrived at our destination – an old Soviet-era bus depot at a dusty edge of town. As the polling station was set up, we got acquainted with the staff, and witnessed the opening, which included the ceremonious singing of the national anthem. After having observed here for about an hour, we moved on to our next polling stations. In each of them, we observed, noted down and commented on our checklists. While each of them had their peculiarities, staff appeared friendly in each of them, and were, once formalities had been done and the ice had been broken, more or less happy to see us, yet excitement was most clearly visible on the faces of voters. In the afternoon, it became clear that some irregularities had been observed, but that overall the elections were a success. After observing counting procedures, which in most cases ended around midnight, we got back to our hostel, said goodbye to our translators, and went for a much-needed nights’ sleep.
After a final evalutation in the next afternoon, the participants sadly had to say goodbye to each other, and returned to their respective, and might I add, many, home countries. I look back to a very successful mission, with great participants and an even greater coordination team. If you read this and are considering joining a Silba mission, I urge you to do so, as wherever it may take place, it will leave you with an unforgettable experience!