Bishkek Kyrgyzstan — Natalia had to sell her cow last week. In the warm months the cow could graze along the roadsides on the edge of Bishkek. It gave enough milk for her three children with some left over to sell. But since the winter freeze, Natalia had to buy hay for her, and the family couldn’t afford that any longer. She tried to sell the cow to her neighbors, but they couldn’t afford hay either. So the cow went to the slaughterhouse, and her children now get an occasional bottle of milk from the store.
Another example of Third-World poverty and unemployment? Not really. Natalia is a senior instructor at the National University of Kyrgyzstan, employed full time. Under communism, her salary met her family’s basic needs, including hay for the cow. Now, as a by-product of free-market reforms, her real income has dropped to the level where it won’t support a single person.
Kyrgyzstan, a country of 4.4 million in Central Asia, isn’t Third World. It is one of the former Soviet states making rapid economic and political progress, according to Western experts. The optimistic forecasts, however, don’t show the human costs of the transition. Materially, most people are worse off now than under communism. The average standard of living has plummeted during the changes of the past five years.
Nevertheless, the country just re-elected the principal architect of these changes, President Askar Akaev, with 72 percent of the vote. One of the most Western-oriented leaders in the Commonwealth of Independent States, Akaev has been at the forefront of the economic restructuring. These policies have brought so much hardship, however, that he is not popular here. Interviews with voters who supported him show almost no enthusiasm. What they repeatedly say is, We can’t go back to the past.
The newly renovated Communist Party, now decked out in democratic regalia, made the decline in the standard of living the main campaign issue. Their candidate won 24 percent. Most of his strength came from his home region in the south of the country.
In rejecting the communists, Kyrgyzstan went against recent trends in Russia, Poland and Belarus that show reds in the resurgence. The Kyrgyz reinforced their Western orientation. They haven’t given Akaev a mandate — the changes they are enduring are too unpleasant for that — but they have given him the go-ahead to continue with the transformation.
Akaev ran a defensive campaign, pointing to projections of higher employment and prosperity to come. Most people, despite a 70-year overdose of promises of bright futures, felt he was their best chance. Voter turnout was high, over 86 percent.
Akaev, with advice from Western free-market economists, is in the midst of transferring the state enterprises to private investors. The program’s biggest success to date has been the clothing manufacturer Edelweiss, which has increased production and is paying a dividend on its stock. Most of the other former state companies are either shut down or limping along with the help of government credits.
The transition has been an ordeal for the population. Huge numbers of people have seen their incomes pushed below the subsistence level they endured under communism. Three groups in particular — the unemployed, pensioners and public employees — have had to pay a high price for free enterprise.
The official unemployment rate is 20 percent, but a glance around Bishkek indicates the actual figure is higher. Groups of idle men cluster in vacant lots and doorways throughout the capital, talking and smoking, faces blank with depression. Unemployment benefits are negligible, as are programs to retrain workers with obsolete skills.
Some of the unemployed, though, are taking entrepreneurial initiative by selling items they make. Women on street corners offer freshly baked cakes, often with the Kyrgyz versions of Happy Birthday or Happy Anniversary written in icing. The more established vendors have a folding table and chair; the novices stand with inventory in hand. They smile because cakes are for happiness. Few people buy them, though. Most Kyrgyz can’t afford them now, and most foreigners with money are afraid to eat things from the street. In the evenings, then, the merchants take their unsold goods home, and when the cakes are stale, the family eat them for dinner. Marie Antoinette would be pleased.
Pensioners are particularly impoverished. Inflation has turned what was previously a pittance into almost nothing. Since social services have also evaporated, many have no alternative but begging. Old people sitting on steps with outstretched hats have become commonplace. Fortunately, there’s a frequent flutter of small change into those hats, often from people clearly in need themselves.
To heat their homes this winter, some of the more hardy pensioners are out with sledgehammers, wedges and wheelbarrows, breaking up tree stumps along the city streets for firewood. Again fortunately, the supply is ample, for Bishkek is a city of many trees.
The other hard-hit group is public employees. Since the government is virtually broke, its civil servants have to cope with increased workloads and paychecks below subsistence.
Not everyone is worse off, though. Some have managed to snare a share of the Western currency flowing in. Snazzy BMWs stand out among the drab Ladas in the traffic. Satellite dishes sprout from some apartment balconies. Casinos are flourishing.
Many people have eagerly adopted the Western model. Some become Herbalife distributors, buying an expensive supply of diet powder and vitamins and attempting to sell them to their friends and neighbors. Others become free-lance taxi drivers and set icons of prosperity such as a bottle of Rich Man cologne on the dashboard of their decrepit car. Others get gratification from chocolate bars whose wrappers are replicas of US hundred-dollar bills.
There are also successes — people with skills needed by Western consultants now lead better lives and are able to help their relatives and friends survive. Many an interpreter, computer specialist and masseuse is supporting a network of the needy.
Despite his victory, Akaev’s support is not strong. His program to lure foreign investment has made him less liked at home than abroad. People resent the generous tax breaks given to business, blaming these for the lack of funds to pay unemployment benefits, pensions, and salaries for public employees. They also object to lax enforcement of existing tax laws. Akaev gets credit for dismantling the totalitarian state structure, but now the government is so weak it can’t collect taxes that are due.
Communist voters, particularly the elderly, feel nostalgia for the old days. The security of having their basic material needs met now seems like a lost treasure. Non-ironic references to the Golden Age of Brezhnev crop up in conversations.
Natalia teaches foreign language at the university. Since she has 19 years of experience, she hasn’t been laid off. Her real income, though, has dropped disastrously — before the changes her monthly paycheck would buy 720 loaves of bread. Now it buys just 90, an eight-fold decline.
Her husband, a construction worker, has worked only occasionally in the past five years. When he does, it is for barter, usually wood for cooking and heating their home, which has no running water or gas.
Other expenses for their children, ages fourteen, nine and six, were more urgent than milk, so they sold the cow. It brought 1500 soms, more than five months of her shrunken salary. When that’s gone, they don’t know what they’ll do.
Natalia and her husband, unmotivated by the candidates, didn’t vote in the election.