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Central Asia Struggles to Reconcile Tradition with Progress


A car making the 12-hour mountain drive from Osh to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan approaches a tunnel. Suddenly, a young Kyrgyz on horseback rears up in front of the car. Not tolerant of obstacles, the driver shouts to him to get out of the way. The horseman calmly replies that we must wait, And wait we do until a herd of sheep and goats, followed by horses, pass leisurely through the tunnel.

And that, in essence, may represent Central Asia today. Progress in contrast with tradition, the old with the new and how in some way to blend them.

Many Central Asians are impatient. Bolot Shamshiev, a filmmaker whose films are banned in not too repressive Kyrgyzstan, says it is very hard to break with Soviet tradition, but his country is fully capable of it:

"The Kyrgyz are not xenophobic. They are open to foreigners, to westerners. Americans can help build a foundation for democracy here that will prevent the establishment of a corrupt, criminal state replacing communism. Americans in Kyrgyzstan understand the problem."

One of the prime movers of democracy in the region is the NGO or non-governmental organization, staffed by both local citizens and foreigners, often Americans. Kurmanbek Bakiev, a former governor and prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, plans to run for president:

"Without judging NGOs individually, I think each NGO in its way helps develop democratic society. And the very fact that there are so many NGOs here in Kyrgyzstan shows that democracy is a priority for development."

Thanks to Soviet Dictator Stalin's manipulation of borders, three nations - Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan - share the Ferghana Valley, heavily populated and the home of strong Islamic movements. As Stalin anticipated, quarrels among the countries are frequent.

Mercy Corps, a U.S. funded NGO, works to resolve these disputes. Sardor Turabaev, a member of the organization, explains how it works on various projects involving natural gas pipelines, drinking water, school construction:

"We try to involve the community residents from the very beginning. So once they select the project, we start the implementation process. We divide what should be done by Mercy Corps, what will be done by residents. For the drinking water project, they dig the trenches where the pipes will be buried and they prepare the areas for the water wells."

The people of the valley seem to appreciate the help because their life is difficult. An elderly man who drove a tractor for a collective farm for 30 years now rests in his walled home. In the courtyard are the family sheep and goats.

He says little has changed over the years except for a new road crossing the mountain:

"In general life is not bad. But the Ferghana Valley is a very densely populated region. We have a lot of unemployed people, unfortunately. And so far they have been going to other countries, to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. We hope it is temporary. We hope our government will do something to find job opportunities for these people."

His wife describes some improvements that are needed:

"The families are doing their best to educate their children, but the schools are not well equipped. Families with many children cannot afford to buy books for all their children. There are not enough desks and chairs at some schools."

Surveys indicate that HIV-AIDS is increasing faster in Central Asia than anywhere else. That is the concern of Robert Gray, project manager of the NGO PSI or Population Services International. He says the lethal disease is largely spread through needles shared by drug users:

"The heroin supply comes directly from Afghanistan, and drug users in central Asia have rapidly adopted the use of heroin and specifically the injection of heroin. There is a very low level of awareness in central Asia that sharing of needles is one of the primary causes of HIV transmission."

Allison Gill, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, credits the U.S. Government with funding and supporting NGO programs that build toward a civil society in Central Asia:

"The U.S. Government has been quite generous in funding civil society and democracy programs here. There are a lot of U.S. Aid implementing partners on the ground. The U.S. Government has given support to local NGOs and local activists, and that support is invaluable. Without that kind of funding and support, it would be an even more challenging environment for civil society."

Allison Gill hastens to add that the challenge is indeed growing for NGOs in Central Asia. The regimes, Uzbekistan in particular, are tightening restrictions on these organizations and banning some altogether. Their members operate in increasingly risky terrain with their idealism, it would seem, unimpaired.