The Kremlin wheeled out its soft power machine this week to make the pitch for Kyrgyzstan to join its Customs Union trade bloc. But if a recent talk by Kremlin evangelists at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek was anything to go by, the machine could use some grease.
The main speaker at the February 19 event was Semyon Uralov, editor of a website close to United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party. While Putin has tried to assure potential members that the Customs Union – Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia – is not a Soviet Union redux, Uralov seemed to do the opposite. Quoting Engels, Marx and Lenin during a forthright speech in which he extolled the virtues of state-sponsored industry, Uralov responded to a complaint about his tone: “I don’t hide it. I am an imperialist.”
And like Customs Union officials, he did little to address economic questions.
Moral and social degradation was a key theme in Uralov’s presentation. He described seeing people bribe a customs official at Bishkek’s airport for the privilege of flouting the building’s non-smoking policy. “Now tell me,” Uralov asked, “would it be possible to reach that kind of an agreement with a Belarusian customs official? A Russian customs official?” The assembled students murmured that it probably would be. “Well, clearly not for 20-30 soms [40 to 60 cents],” Uralov retorted. (Curiously, Belarus, with its highly inefficient command economy centered on manufacturing stood as something of a role model for the Russia-born, Ukraine-educated Uralov. In Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, Belarus ranks 123th, Russia 127th and Kyrgyzstan 150th out of 177 countries.)
Political leaders in Kyrgyzstan tend to have their roots in the atheist, Soviet past, and thus are prone to be skeptical of religion. Yet unlike their counterparts in other Central Asian states, they have been relatively tolerant of Islam’s revival.
As her six-year-old daughter prepares to start school this September, Alina Bilyaletdinova says that sifting through online chat forums and scouring media reports of disgraced school principals has become “a full-time job.” With limited funds, trying to find an acceptable school in Kyrgyzstan’s shabby public education system, full of informal and semi-official financial arrangements, has been daun
The Year of the Snake has been full of unpleasant surprises for Chinese living in Kyrgyzstan. Against a backdrop of rising economic nationalism and weak law enforcement, Chinese migrants complain they’re being targeted for robberies and extortion, especially by law-enforcement officers who are supposed to protect them.
Sitting in his office, surrounded by marketing materials, Dastan Omuraliev voices lots of confidence in his new startup: “Kyrgyzstan has some of the best fruits and vegetables in the world,” he says. Once processed and packaged into colorful three-liter boxes of organic apple juice, “they can compete anywhere.”
On a warm autumn day in early November, pedestrians in downtown Bishkek met an unusual sight: a 500-strong crowd of hijab-sporting female Muslim activists riding bicycles, heading to a state hospital to donate blood. “Passersby were in shock,” laughed Jamal Frontbek kyzy, whose organization Mutakallim helped organize the event. “We wanted to dispel stereotypes.
China is striving to forge Central Asia into a streamlined conduit for its regional trade and energy ambitions. But Beijing is finding that domestic insecurity and fractious bilateral relations among the region’s five former-Soviet republics have created a web of obstacles.
Outside Aslan Arlozorov’s cottage in suburban Bishkek three people discuss their ailments as they wait in line. One has asthma; a second has a stomach ulcer; a third, cancer of the liver. The last patient is turning to Arlozorov, a practitioner of herbal medicine, or a “travnik,” out of desperation.