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Kyrgyzstan's Thorny Road to a Better Future - 2004-08-10

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the small Central Asian republic reluctantly embraced independence. The transition has been painful, but the nation has made some progress. Analysts say this progress may now be in jeopardy. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

Bishkek, the capital and industrial center of Kyrgyzstan, is probably the only city in the world named after a wooden plunger used to churn fermented mare’s milk. Even though the country is more than three-qarter Muslim, this mildly alcoholic beverage, available only in spring and autumn when mares are foaling, is widely consumed.

The Kyrgyz capital likes to boast that it has more trees per person than any other Central Asian city, but when the wind blows in the wrong direction, smog from the industrial plants in northern Kyrgyzstan can still hurt your lungs.

Radio-active, biological and chemical waste sites, left behind by Moscow’s former communist regime dot the landscape of Central Asia. Soviet uranium-processing plants in northern Kyrgyzstan closed down in the 1990’s, but the clean-up process is very expensive. It will take a massive international effort to avert potential environmental disaster.

Anders Aslund, director of Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says with the fall of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan lost the financial aid from Moscow and most of its industries became obsolete.

“You can say that few, if any, of the post-Soviet countries were so badly hit by deteriorating terms of trade as Kyrgyzstan -- that it had very little to export,” says Mr. Asland.

Except for some gold mines and sheep, Kyrgyzstan has very few economic resources. Tucked among neighbors such as China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and cut off from the much friendlier Russia, after the fall of the Soviet empire, the tiny mountainous republic was forced to strike it on its own. It elected physicist Askar Akayev as president and embarked on radical political and economic reforms.

Mr. Aslund says the country can boast several important achievements: “It particularly succeeded in stabilizing its currency quite early. It has been surprisingly successful in attracting foreign capital, given its location. In particular, it benefited from a big gold-mine investment by a Canadian company, which you can say got much of the economy going. But most of all, Kyrgystan has benefited from an early and radical land reform that has got agricultural growth very strong, about eight percent a year, for many years from 1996.”

President Akayev looked at several different models for his nation and Switzerland appeared to be the most logical choice. Like Kyrgyzstan, it is small, surrounded by mountains, multi-national and has few natural resources. But it is prosperous because of the quality of its products and services, its openness and long lasting peace.

President Akayev vowed to achieve the same for his country. Under his ten-year rule Kyrgyzstan became the first post-Soviet Central Asian nation to join the World Trade Organization. After the September-eleven attacks, it gave permission to the United States to open a military base there to fight terrorists in Afghanistan. And it made foreign investment relatively easy.

But Ainura Cholponkulova, a professor of international relations at the Kyrgyz National University, says President Akayev did not live up to his promise of democratizing the society.

“Kyrgyzstan, as its neighbors, is becoming more authoritarian with exclusively strong presidential power, centralized management, relatedly weak parliament and poor governance,” says Professor Cholponkulova.

Despite massive foreign aid, Kyrgyz economy, which began to grow in the mid-1990’s, has failed to curb poverty. Eighty percent of Kyrgyzstan’s four-and-a-half million people live on two dollars a day or less. Persistent unemployment has forced many people to seek jobs in the West. This state of affairs has caused dissatisfaction nationwide. Members of the Communist Party attempted to force out the government, albeit unsuccessfully. Islamic groups in the south have become more active and somestarted to resort to violence, while ethnic tensions between Uzbek, Russian and other minorities and the Kyrgyz majority have increased.

Cory Welt, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. says as the country prepares for next year’s elections, the future of Kyrgyzstan is uncertain: “They have a parliamentary election and a presidential election next year. (President) Akayev, according to the constitution is not allowed to run for president, but it is entirely unclear who the leading candidates are going to be to take his place, or if he’ll even respect the constitution and stand down.”

Mr. Welt says independent Kyrgyzstan has made big initial strides toward its goal of becoming the Switzerland of Central Asia, but has now veered from that path. What happens in the next year will determine if it can return to its previous course.