Akaev's plans to have all public sector workers kitted out in uniforms provoke resentment
A presidential decree, forcing all civil servants to wear a uniform to work from September this year, has riled government employees and been ridiculed heavily by the public.
Reports of the recent decree, which have been circulating in the press since June 16, have led critics to attack the logic behind investing so much money and effort in new clothes for civil servants, while other education and social welfare programs are catastrophically short of funds.
"Has our president become a clothes designer or a trend-setter?" asked Bermet Bukasheva, editor of the independent newspaper, Litsa. "I think this is a politically irresponsible move."
The uniforms, which are different for men and women and include a badge for identification, have already been designed. The government has defended the move, saying it will boost the image of public sector workers at a time when recruitment is falling.
Government jobs are often a last resort for young Kyrgyz, most of whom prefer to find work with private businesses or foreign organizations, which pay better wages than the 50 to 70 US dollars the average civil servant takes home every month.
According to official statistics, Kyrgyzstan has 10,000 civil servants. All of them, with the exception of staff at defense, internal and justice ministries, will have to be kitted out in the new uniforms.
Working for the government already carries a certain stigma in Kyrgyzstan, where citizens frustrated with excessive bureaucracy and crumbling public services routinely single out civil servants as the source of their misery. There are now fears that the uniform will make these scapegoats all the more visible.
Karai Karabekov, a deputy of the Zhogorku Kenesha legislative assembly, said the new uniform would lead to public sector workers being "singled out like lepers". One civil servant privately admitted that he planned to bring a change of clothes to work every day, so that he could relieve himself of his uniform. "Otherwise people will attack me because they know I work in the government," he said.
"I have my own style of clothes," insisted another government official. "I don't want to look like other people. Different people work here, a few of them are quite useless and I don't want to look like them."
However, the government is convinced it is doing its employees a favor.
Adilet Erkebaev, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's office, told IWPR, "Young people do not aspire to join state departments because of the low salary and work conditions. But now officials will gain the responsibility of people who are dressed in uniforms."
The head of the president's press office, Uran Botobekov, offers another reason behind the new uniforms - they will make it harder for civil servants to skive off work. "An official in uniform cannot sit in a cafe, or go to the sauna or casino," he said.
But as the Kyrgyz government looks for a contractor to make the uniforms and works out the finer rules and regulations governing the use of badges, criticism is mounting.
"I would say this is an attempt to move towards a militarized system - it reminds me a great deal of Soviet times," said Emil Aliev, a member of the Arnamys party.
Meanwhile, the Foundation for the Development of Democracy, an NGO group, lambasted the president and said the new policy was reminiscent of North Korea.
The association of communism with uniforms is a powerful one, even though Kyrgyz civil servants in the Soviet era were not required to wear them.
Klara Ajybekova, leader of the Kyrgyzstan Communist Party, told IWPR, "Quite honestly, I'm amused to see today's democrats returning to the old traditions of 12 years ago, but in completely distorted forms," she said. "Additionally, no one provided us with clothes in Soviet times, we bought them ourselves because we were paid well."
Karabekov, however, finds the military overtones behind the new policy distasteful. "Badges are already bad enough, but the uniforms are terrible. This isn't the army! We want a civil society, not military discipline."
Jumabek Dyldaev, from the Kyrgyz parliament office, says the government should stick to clothing the impoverished army, "It's shameful to look at our soldiers: they wear old camouflage even at parades."
Kyrgyz deputy Oksana Malevanaya was equally scathing. "School uniforms are one thing, but [those] for grown men and women are something else entirely…. I can't imagine the state secretary, the Prime Minister and other ministers [wearing them]," she said. "Our taxpayers have more important issues than financing uniforms."
By Asel Sagynbaeva,
IWPR's Reporting Central Asia, June 20, 2003