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Central Asian countries were ‘granted’ so called independence in the early 1990s as the former Soviet Union was dismantling itself of expensive appendages. I say granted because there was no revolution or fight as would typically happen. With independence came also the departure of skilled Russians including technicians, teachers, economists, engineers. Many of Russian heritage stayed because this was the only home they had ever known; and others stayed because there were not welcomed back to the motherland. Gone also was the cradle to grave security via jobs and pensions.

I do not know what Kyrgyzstan – or in this case, Bishkek as a city – looked like then, perhaps not so crumbling and decaying. Certainly the massive structures, sculptures and wide avenues were prevalent….but what did it look like I wonder?

When we were here five years ago I reported that for all the years we lived in Africa, I never witnessed the economic poverty that I did in Kyrgyzstan, and today it is worse. President Ackiev was overthrown in 2005 in what was called the tulip revolution. Ackiev was considered a pro-Western President, a friend of the US and also very corrupt….like too many of our ‘friends’. Although free and fair democratic elections are preferable in all cases, sometimes coups bring hope of positive change, and this was no exception. Only now matters are worse. Everywhere I go I am told the local economy is in ruins. One example: while once there were 30-50 factories employing many people, today there are none. I know of one widower who is living on her late husband’s pension of 60 soms a month (about $1.50 a month) and garbage she filters off the streets. Another couple I know have it ‘better’ off….together their pension is $50 a month, but their utility bills consume all of that. They are resigned to working the remainder of their lives realizing that their earning power will continue to decrease as the cost of living goes up.

When the Soviet Union dominated the region, relations with the ‘outside’ world were prohibited. When the iron curtain was lifted, many in the region wanted to forge relations with Western countries, and most especially the United States. That is one of the reasons I am here. While here five years ago I started an American Studies in Central Asia symposium because educational and cultural exchanges provide some of the very best opportunities to foster positive relations between geographical and cultural divides. It is now in its sixth year and ready for the next level….and I was invited back to help envision and create that next step. Very exciting!!

When we were here 2003-2004 there was little positive talk about the Soviet Union which on paper no longer exists. There was talk about previous economic and social security….but no desire for a return. Still hope for improvement….the Kyrgyz are incredibly resilient people!

Today there seems very little hope. Jokes abound about the economic conditions…what we would call gallows humor. For example, the electricity is shut off daily to conserve energy (and then people’s food spoils in their fridge and during the winter people were reported to have died from the cold conditions) so when lights flicker, the jokes turn on.
The new President is not very ‘pro Western’. On his own, while still on a State visit to Moscow, announced that the US had sixths months to remove its Manas US air base which we strategically used for military flights in and out of Iraq….overall not a very popular war in this region (or most regions!). This is not the wish of most people I talk to, but there is a growing nostalgia for what is called the ‘Soviet times’.

‘Soviet’ is an adjective that has long been used to describe something from that period. I will post on Global Visits and facebook a picture of a stationary bike that was in our apartment that would have been considered a relic of the ‘Soviet’ time. Once you see it, you will get it! Cars, electronics, clothing, toys…..those articles from the Soviet time that appear crudely built to perform basic functions.

‘Soviet’ in this case is only an adjective… is important to separate the Soviet Union from Russia. But ‘Soviet’ time also meant economic security and less crime. That one could grow old with dignity and raise children with less fear. Also a memory, although a bit dim, of a flourishing cultural society of musical and art associations. Gone from memory perhaps is that only the ‘Soviets’ were allowed cars, not the local Kyrgyz….so the car was an ultimate symbol of power that today runs over pedestrians because it can. For those who can afford a car, that is.

Kyrgyzstan is in conflict. The people I meet here in Bishkek have a healthy cynicism and fear of Putin, who is the replacement adjective for ‘Soviet Union’. But also the people I am meeting do not represent the norm….they come from the educational sector. They want strong relations with the US. I am heading south today to Osh. That is where this year’s symposium will be held. Osh is close to Uzbekistan, which is another story altogether….not close allies of the US and I am told to be careful of anti US sentiment. There are more terrorist cells likely in this region. Will be interesting. Share

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