Independence woes create nostalgia in Kyrgyzstan

April 16, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

PISHPEK, Kyrgyzstan -- North of town, the land is flatter than Kansas, and seems to stretch on forever, but the border is nearby so not much of it belongs to Kyrgyzstan.

South of town -- by a matter of yards, not miles -- the mountains rise up, to 16,000 feet or so, and they march steadily southward and upward, hoisting the whole country as they go, until they reach China and India and join the Himalayas.

Pishpek sits on Kyrgyzstan's tiny brim of arable land, a flange of usable space. It used to be an unexciting administrative center, a provincial town. Now it's the capital of a nation -- a reluctantly independent one, but a nation all the same.

Here they threw the Communists out in a way unmatched in Central Asia and installed a tolerant, outward-looking government. But here, too, there are more than a few mixed feelings about Moscow.

Emil Zhumoshev, a proudly independent farmer and father of seven who believes in hard work, knows those feelings. So does Kanem Dzholdosheva, alone with her 18-month-old son, overwhelmed by her new poverty.

And Askar Akayev, the mild-mannered physicist-president who began to doubt the benefits of communism when he read the Federalist Papers in Leningrad 30 years ago, understands those feelings as well: The Russians actually did some good in this tiny, mountain-tossed republic stuck deep in the center of Asia.

The Russians built highways, they developed the uranium and aluminum mines, they brought schools and institutes and a semblance of equality for women, and they provided a market for the wool of Kyrgyzstan's 9 million sheep.

"It was better to live in the union," said Ms. Dzholdosheva. "People helped each other before."

But the Soviet Union fell apart, and now Kyrgyzstan is almost on its own. The old links are broken, and its economy is turning stone cold, and contracting accordingly. But with little control over its own economic affairs, it's still buffeted by the convulsions of its giant neighbor.

"Inflation in Russia hits our small republic like an Atlantic hurricane," says President Akayev.

The problem is this bad:

Agricultural production is down 18 percent in the three months since the Soviet Union officially broke up and Russia ended price subsidies, said Esengul Omuraliev, the minister of industry. Industrial production is down 12 percent to 14 percent. Both will drop further.

The sheep have been depleted by a third over the past 18 months.

Kyrgyzstan must import 90 percent of its gas and oil, and more than 80 percent of its manufactured goods. But now, as an independent country, it has no way to pay for them.

"Money doesn't work," said Mr. Akayev. "We have to rely on barter. These are very difficult times."

But there's a difference between hardship and despair.

"I'm an optimist," said Mr. Akayev. "In a year or two, the question of food here will be taken care of. The number of businessmen is rising day by day, like mushrooms after a rain."

"It will be difficult, but the lack of oil doesn't destroy everything," said Mr. Omuraliev. "The situation won't get any worse."

"The only answer is to work hard," said Mr. Zhumoshev, the farmer who, at the age of 52, has children ranging in age from 27 years to 2 months. "It's not as hard now as it was for my parents right after the war. They had nothing. This isn't the end. The country will live. Look, I'm not hungry yet."

President Akayev hopes to ensure his country's future by turning outward to the rest of the world. India has opened a commodities exchange here. Two Chinese delegations came through. The United States was welcomed as the first country to open an embassy in Pishpek (until recently known as Frunze). South Korea has talked about further development of the uranium mines.

"Since ancient times, Kyrgyzstan was a land that was open to the whole world," said Mr. Akayev, the only liberal democrat to lead a Central Asian republic. "There is no other way. The Kyrgyz mind has both Western and Eastern features."

But the country that is gaining influence the fastest here is Turkey.

The Turks and the Kyrgyz are from the same ethnic stock and speak related languages. The Turks already have moved in to help the republic convert to the Latin alphabet from the Russian Cyrillic. The Turks have offered 100 scholarships for study in Turkey, and several different ministries have sent delegations here.

Umit Yardim, the second secretary of the Turkish embassy in Moscow, cautions that significant trade relations will take a long time to set up. "For us, the cultural dimension of the relationship is much more important," he said.

But President Akayev's government is welcoming the Turks in part for just that reason. It sees Turkey as a modern, secular, Muslim state -- as opposed to Iran, Pakistan or Libya, all of which have also expressed an interest in Central Asia. An Iranian delegation here made a $1,500 donation to the Pishpek mosque.

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