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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago




[27.05.2OO2] Poverty drives ex-Soviet "Switzerland" to riots. By Dmitry Solovyov

TASH KUMYR, Kyrgyzstan, May 27 (Reuters) - Snow-capped peaks, lush mountain pastures, crystal-clear torrents and a modern motorway snaking through stunning gorges, glaciers and tunnels. Switzerland? No. Poverty-stricken Kyrgyzstan.
 
The contrast is soon evident. The ex-Soviet state saw a wave of violence which left five dead in March, followed by political instability which led to the fall of the government last week and even fears of civil war. Poverty is seen as a root cause.
 
The Central Asian state's main north-south highway, a high-quality Western-funded road, is thick with cow dung rather than traffic. It was blocked for most of May by thousands of anti-government protesters.
 
Cattle are more common than the occasional dilapidated Soviet-era car or quaintly painted but heavily polluting truck.
 
Mountain dwellers squat glumly beside the road, trying to make a few cents selling fermented mare's milk or honey. In the valleys, mud huts with plastic sheeting instead of windows remind visitors of the squalor of nearby war-ravaged Afghanistan.
 
When five protesters died and dozens were wounded in clashes with police in southern Kyrgyzstan in March, officials called it an opposition coup attempt and President Askar Akayev vowed to use all means at his disposal to guarantee order.
 
The protests, sparked by the arrest of Azimbek Beknazarov, a parliamentary deputy from the Dzhalal Abad region in the south, spilled over into a blockade of the north-south motorway earlier this month, culminating in the government's resignation.
 
Beknazarov has been conditionally released and is being kept in hiding. It seems his arrest may yet be a catalyst for new outbursts of simmering social discontent in the south.
 
"The problem is many people can't even make enough to eat," said the owner of a run-down and rarely visited tea-house in Tash Kumyr, a bleak township of power workers in a gorge some 420 km (260 miles) south of the capital Bishkek.
 
He said many of his fellow villagers, traditional nomadic herders, could earn only enough to buy maize flour to bake a gluey bread, and had no money to protect their cattle from frequent scourges like foot-and-mouth disease.
 
"Kyrgyzstan is a Mecca for tourists," screamed a nearby roadside poster as twilight fell and the settlement, standing next to a huge hydroelectric power plant, plunged into darkness.
 
NEW PROTESTS LOOM
 
The motorway blockade was lifted last Friday, allowing Reuters to visit Tash Kumyr at the weekend.
 
But Begimkul Seyitkulov, a Beknazarov aide, said in the nearby village of Karasu that it would soon be renewed.
 
"We will have a rest until May 31 and then will resume our protests," he told Reuters. "We want Akayev to leave."
 
"When we elected him, he promised to turn us into another Switzerland in two or three years, but life has only become worse," he said of the rule of the 57-year-old leader who has run the nation of five million since 1990.
 
The poverty in the south is even more striking than in the north where monthly salaries average just $40.
 
Seyitkulov complained that, like many of his neighbours, his family could not survive by working the tiny allotment they had been given during a recent land privatisation drive.
 
He said he was making at most an extra 600 soms ($12) a month by carrying loads for his fellow villagers in a rickety Soviet-era military jeep.
The already electric atmosphere in the mutinous Dzhalal Abad region is getting still more charged as even village elders, deeply respected in Central Asia, call for war with Bishkek.
 
"Calm won't reign here any more," said an old woman in Tash Kumyr. "Don't quote me by name, but we will continue protests until those guilty for the March bloodshed have been punished."
 
Reuters, May 27, 2002

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