Kyrgyzstan’s capital was paralyzed by a transport collapse on April 2 after drivers for the ubiquitous marshrutka minibuses, relied on by countless people to get around the city, went on strike. (Photo: Tilek Beishenaly uulu)
Large numbers of passengers stood in line at bus stops in the hope of squeezing onto one of the trolleybuses plying the affected routes, but many were forced to wait for hours on end. Private taxi companies worked overtime, but only a select few passengers were able to get calls through. (This photo and all following by Danil Usmanov)The marshrutka drivers refused to work in protest at recently adopted measures, effective as of April 1, to fine minibus operators for failure to take out insurance policies. Insurance can cost around $45 per year.
“We are already fined by traffic police all the time. The guys go out at 5:30 a.m. and work until 11 p.m. If you make 2,000 som ($30), you have to give 1,000 som to the marshrutka owner, so you end up taking home only 700 som. If we have to pay for insurance, what money will we be left with?” one driver, Bakyt, told Eurasianet.
The drivers are asking that the authorities push back the insurance requirements by at least one month as they scrabble together the money.Some drivers were reportedly resistant to join the strike, which involved around 2,700 vehicles, but did so anyway out of fear of reprisals from colleagues.With commuters forced to get to work by one means or another, a large number appear to have opted for the car, which plunged the city into an almost complete state of gridlock.
The intense demand was a mixed blessing for taxi companies.
“We have an app in our taxi company and the map shows up as purple in areas of peak demand. Today I woke up and I saw the entire city was purple,” Joomart, a 40-year old Bishkek taxi driver, told Eurasianet.
But even once they picked up their fares, the taxis had to negotiate the jammed city streets. A member of parliament tried to ease the burden by organizing 400 som payments, to cover the cost of fuel, to drivers willing to take around passenger stranded by the strike. The drivers put numbers in their windshield to show what route they were following. A few dozen people took up the offer.
“Some people are cold, some have children, it’s hard, some people have difficulties, so I wanted to help out,” said Nurlan Akbayev, a student who took part in the MP-organized effort.
Insurance isn’t the only grievance at play. Marshrutka drivers are also demanding they be allowed to increase their rates to 15 som from the current 10 som for a ride. That isn’t going down well with Bishkek residents.
“What are they, nuts? They should get rid of these marshrutka altogether,” said lawyer Kanat Hasanov, arguing that it would be preferable to switch over entirely to regular buses.
This is not an uncommon view. Marshrutkas are widely deemed a menace to public safety, often veering recklessly amid traffic. Accidents are commonplace and oversight is feeble in the extreme.
For the indefinite future though, marshrutka drivers hold the whip hand, as the traffic crisis has shown.
“Trolleybuses and buses are not enough. The marshrutka drivers have shown that the city depends on them,” said Ilyana Zhedirgerova.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a journalist based in Bishkek.