A Beautiful Place: The Tales and Realities of Life and Poverty in Bishkek

Posted on June 22, 2012

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I have had the most pleasant, peaceful past couple of days. In fact, at this moment, I am writing in the most serene and quiet, yet urban and connected, place I’ve found to work in over the course of our entire trip. At the moment, I’m sitting on a little wooden terrace, nursing a cup of light, fruity tea, listening to a fountain somewhere past the park of small, spindly evergreens just beyond this chaikhana (teahouse). I am, if you had no clue, currently writing from Bishkek, and this city is nothing like I thought it would be … which is perhaps a study in my own ignorance, preconceptions, and inborn prejudices.

With an introduction like that, I think it prudent to mention the things I knew about Kyrgyzstan before I came across the border from Kazakhstan a couple of days ago. Actually, I feel comfortable in saying that this is what most people in the West know of Kyrgyzstan if they know it at all, and I can even confirm that these notions were shared by many of Kyrgyzstan’s competitive Kazakh neighbors to the north. So let’s do it, let’s run through the information:

Kyrgyzstan is the most poor and economically hopeless of the Central Asian nations. Though the arbitrary, Stalinist borders of Central Asia gifted Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and even Uzbekistan with an abundance of trade routes and natural resources, it left little for either Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. But while the latter has succeeded, however you see it, in developing an economy in trafficking and mafia-style politics, the Kyrgyz Republic could not do the same. Similarly, whereas the Tajiks were gifted with a few Soviet industries to be reclaimed and retooled after independence, the Kyrgyz nation, mostly mountainous and hostile territory that resisted collectivization and retained a high degree of nomadism into the modern day, developed little industry under the Soviets.

Kyrgyzstan limped by on World Bank and International Monetary Fund programs and now plays host to the most NGOs of the region. It does the most spectacular political backflips to imitate the frameworks and notions of successful behavior dictated by Western donors. But little has worked and it remains crushingly poor.

That poverty compounds with one of the least rational political borders of the region, with the most potentially profitable zone, the Ferghana Valley in the south, largely disconnected from the politics and infrastructure of the north and pocketed with small villages that technically belong to neighboring Uzbekistan, which straddle roads and confuse trade and transit. Meanwhile, the large towns of the region are split almost evenly between Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations, which has resulted in ethnic violence, mainly in the southern town of Osh.

Together, poverty and ethno-political confusion have led to two post-Soviet revolutions over the span of 5 years from 2005 to 2010, deposing and forcing the re-writing of two constitutions (the present form of which many are discontented with). In total, the news and our popular ideas about how poverty and revolt work in the world paint a picture of Kyrgyzstan and its capital of Bishkek as nations in shambles, indigent and discontented, seedy and dangerous. And we were warned by Kazakhs before crossing the border that this place would be more wild, less developed, unpredictable, and generally sketchy.

Now for what we’ve observed here over the past few days:

Yes, this is a poor nation. But the images of that poverty are not bony children and beggars–food is rather plentiful, and subsistence living helps to keep stability without leading to the physical desperation that can cause true human tragedy. Commodity prices are low, and there is little here that could be described as luxurious. The food is hearty as in Mongolia, with little spice or variety, but plenty of filling meat and bread. Most of the cars are old Ladas or Russian Jeeps or second-hand sedans. The buses are old Nissan minibuses gutted of seats and Daewoos, passed down from more affluent nations. Infrastructure is limited, but small population sizes help to keep down health problems, while an abundance of fresh springwater melting off of the Kyrgyz Ala Too mountains just to the south helps keep Bishkek lush, green, and comfortable (although much more hot and humid than I’d expected a mountain capital to be).

Poverty is expressed, rather, in the guttering out of the nation’s eternal flame. A gas-lit flame at a WWII memorial in the center of the city, such a feature is common in most Central Asian cities, but here in Bishkek it receives far less fanfare. In fact, it’s an obscured monument mainly because within the last year the government came up short on money owed to a Russian gas company to keep the flame lit. The government could not find $6,000 in its budget for this symbolic gesture, and so the flame went out.
Likewise, inside the Central State Museum, the government cannot afford to construct national monuments out of bronze. Everything within is a concrete sculpture done over with bronze spray paint, just as most of the national monuments that litter the city are also rough-hewn concrete concoctions. And just as the government has little money for the nation, so it seems that the NGOs that have powered much of the town’s economy are losing steam as well.

M.B., the man we are staying with, lives with his partner in a southern neighborhood in the city as one of the only openly gay men in Kyrgyzstan. His beautiful apartment acts as a safe house for queer-identifying individuals in the region, and he himself is a lovely and intelligent man. For years he was a leader in the NGO movement at HIV/AIDS prevention in this increasingly-afflicted nation. But a little while ago money for advocacy and action ran own. Now M.B., as is the case with many involved in aid and development in the nation, has been out of a job for some time.

Kyrgyz men and women are very intelligent, informed and resourceful. Both our taxi driver and the man who sells samosas at the end of the street have a college education and speak fluent English, but the jobs for their skill sets do not exist. So most men run taxis and kiosks while most women go to work in the open markets. This entrepreneurial economic work keeps them alive and well, but it’s a mismatch of skill and potential to lifestyle and activity that drives most Americans to populist rage. It’s severe underemployment, as we like to call it.

But there’s not that much anger here, so far as we can tell. I’ve tried to draw out the rationale for political violence in Bishkek in 2005 and 2010 and most locals describe it as a matter of elites, not of the populace, or in the case of elites, as a matter of pure politics, democracy, and liberalism rather than of economics. The violence remains a bit obscure in origin to me, and I find all of the explanations offered a little shallow and wanting, but this place does not seem like a powder keg. People here are relatively philosophical about their nation, calm in their politics, and pleasant in personal interactions. Old men wearing tall ak kalpak caps speak fondly of the communist era and the wealth it brought and the region’s usual healthy disrespect for capitalism is evident, but there is no popular acrimonious spirit of discontent or revolution, at least not to the naked eye.

The discontent and ethnic strife in the south, though, I cannot even speak to yet. One of the fun facts we’ve learned is that the south, led by the city of Osh, to which we will travel tomorrow, is a functionally independent nation. The mayor of Osh rarely obeys the laws passed in Bishkek, the environment and economics and character of individuals varies greatly. Perhaps we will learn more about all of that later, but for now it would seem that Bishkek at least does not harbor as much antipathy towards Uzbeks as B.M., an Uzbek man in Almaty, suspected it might.

There is bile here, but it is not directed towards the excesses of the West or the former rulers (the Russians) as one might expect. There’s just a sense of resentment towards the Kazakhs to the north. All of the Kyrgyz we have met here have taken great pains to stress that the Kazakhs are an invented peoples who were once identical to the Kyrgyz, but invented their own history side by side with post-independence prosperity. Though there is no commensurate economic wealth, the Kyrgyz nationalists take pride in their history, which they call more rich and true, touting Osh as a city older than Rome and their national hero, Manas, and the epic poetry associated with him as the greatest historical and traditional figure of Kyrgyz and Kazakh peoples alike. (However, it is worth noting that Bishkek itself is just a Soviet-era fortress town, once known as Pishpek, but renamed to a similar sounding Kyrgyz word, which means “a plunger with which kumys, a national drink of fermented mare’s milk, is made”.) Even that rivalry, though, is largely jovial and light.

As usual, I’ve somewhat overdone it with history and theory, but here’s the take-away: Bishkek is not a city of political discontent and indigence. It is a poor place, and one without much apparent hope, on a slow descent into greater poverty as the West loses interest in sending aid money and the local economy begins to show signs of sputtering. But the town itself is naturally endowed with greenery and beauty, with health and serenity. It’s full of wide open space, pleasant parks, public art, talkative and friedly residents (even the microdistricts are like this, not just the city center, unlike in other towns), intellectual buzz, and cheap, hearty, but plentiful food. It’s not happening, per se, but it is a nice place to spend a few days, and likely the last such place we will encounter until we leave the mountains at the beginning of July (coincidentally, not sure how often I will be able to blog over the next 1.5 weeks).

I will worry about this place, and the challenges it faces. I’ll worry about its ability to fend for itself on the global stage and against the pressures arrayed around it. I’ll worry about the unity of the country and what may happen in future revolutions. But god, it is a damn pleasant place, for all its grit and wild, it is damn peaceful.

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