My students played a game of charades in German speaking club last week. They put names of famous people in a bag. In the first round, they had to describe the person with as many words as they liked, in the second with just one word, in the third with pantomime. Some famous politicians ended up in the bag, Trump, Putin and Kyrgyz president Sooronbay Jeenbekov.
I had to write “Kyrgyz president” there because you might not know who he is. That’s because you might be a foreigner. I was a little surprised to find out he’s not much better known among my students.
“Who’s that?” a student asked when he picked Jeenbekov in the first round, squinting at the little piece of paper. “Aah, the president! So, this person is president of Kyrgyzstan.”
In the second round, another student tried to describe Jeenbekov with just one word. He said “president.”
“Trump!” his team shouted. “No,” he answered.
“Putin!”- “No, no.”
“Aaah, then Jeenbekov!”
When Kyrgyzstani students hear “president”, they don’t immediatley think of their own president. To me, this has significance in two ways.
Firstly, in Kyrgyzstan the president is not some god-like figure whose portrait is hanging in every office, like in the neighbouring countries. People joke about him all the time. Like this summer, when pictures of him vacationing were published. On a beach. Alone. In a suit. The internet meme machine went to work.
Either not caring or joking about the president is part of the comparative freedom Kyrgyzstani citizens enjoy. The situation is very different in countries like Tadjikistan, where the president’s portrait and quotes are everywhere, or Turkmenistan, where students are forced to stand beside the streets for hours when he vists town.
One of the reasons is that Jeenbekov has only been president since November 2017 and that he’s already the fourth one since 1991. Kazakhstan’s president has been in power since 1990.
Secondly, as a friend who studied political science at Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek explained to me, many Kyrgyzstanis imagine the world as divided into an American and a Russian sphere. All other countries must belong to either one and none are really independent. When my students shout the names of the American and Russian presidents before their own, they show those leaders matter as much to them as as their own president.
I can’t remember ever seeing a portrait of Jeenbekov in Bishkek. But in the class room of a language school close to my house there’s a Putin portrait with the quote “Knowledge is the currency of the 21 century”. Last year there was a “Trump shoarma” shop on Sovjetskaja street, but the American embassy made the owner take down the sign. Because of copyright issues. There still is an Obama grill in town.
My friend thinks Kyrgyz citizens should have more confidence in their country’s independence. I agree but since my students are the next generation, I think there’s still a long way to go.
Anyway, the game was fun.