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Page last updated at 06:43 GMT, Saturday, 12 June 2010 07:43 UK
Kyrgyz reflections

Lenin statue
Lenin's statue in Osh is said to be the biggest in central Asia

By Edward Stourton
BBC correspondent

The name Melis is mellifluous - and it was a relief to find someone with such manageable syllables after so many Kyrgyz tongue-twisters. But it is in fact an acronym: there is a senior official in Bishkek, the letters of whose name stand for Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.

There are also men in Kyrgyzstan today whose parents proudly gave them the first name Sovietbiek, as in Sovietbiek Stourton, for example.

Imagine growing up convinced that your name stood for all that was good and true, only to discover, with the collapse of communism, that the system it honoured is widely repudiated as one of the most catastrophic ideological experiments in human history.

The Soviet legacy is no joke here. We saw its ugly side in Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second city.

It is in an area of great beauty, although very poor, and after several days of eating local food, we felt ready for something more familiar.

At the city's one international restaurant we were shown to a table on the terrace. It was a balmy evening. Merely reading the menu was a pleasure. But our absorption was interrupted by an embarrassed waitress who whispered to our Russian-speaking producer: the other group on the terrace did not like us to sit so close, she was very sorry, but we would have to move.

Most of the people in the group were men. They wore shiny suits without ties and they had a half-eaten banquet laid out before them. They were drinking vodka toasts and laughing heartily. And, more to the point, they were being looked after by a bunch of 'heavies'. We moved.

I asked our Kyrgyz driver whether humiliation like this was usual on an evening out. He shrugged and identified our fellow diners: an officer from the security forces, a local politician and a group of mafia bosses.

He had heard them debating how to stitch up this month's constitutional referendum. That is the school of politics the Soviet system left behind - it gave Kyrgyzstan its last two presidents who were both kicked out for ripping off the country to enrich their families.

Roza Otunbayeva, the current president and the woman driving the democratic project here, wants a parliamentary democracy so that future presidents can not pillage the public purse. And - a smart move this - she has ruled herself out as a future leader so that people will trust her good faith.

But she is running against the past because this country has been on the receiving end of history for a long time.

After the Russian revolution of 1918, the Soviets took over where the Czars left off. The Kyrgyz simply had to accept the system developed and enforced by those acronymic heroes from thousands of miles away - Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.

The collapse of Soviet communism was not a Kyrgyz idea either. That drama was played out in places like Berlin - on a different continent.

Kyrgyzstan came into being simply because the Soviet Union disintegrated around it.

And they have not taken down the Lenin statues here. He looks down from plinths in provincial Culture Houses and bookshelves in government offices.

His statue in Osh is said to be the biggest in central Asia. When we asked about its exact dimensions we were told, after a several fruitless phone calls, that all the men who knew its height are dead.

Dead they may be, but their cold fingers are still around this country's throat. Perhaps, after two revolutions within five years, they can be prized away by voters at the ballot box.

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