Kyrgyzstan Costs and Development

It was only when I was talking with E about why Bishkek hotel and rental prices are so high (the lack of serious competition, related to the relatively small number of people with enough capital for investment) that I realized that there are no large-scale development projects in the country, despite all the money governments and NGOs seem to be pumping in as aid. When I look around, at the projects headed by MercyCorps, by the Soros Foundation, by The Eurasia Foundation, all of them seem small-scale, personal: one school, a few villages’ wells, a few students, individual micro-credit loans to small shop owners. The intention, as I understand it is to cultivate a new generation of leaders who will then go on to transform their country. Not to change it for them, but give them the motivation and skills to change it on their own.
Even so – even if they succeed in training a few score of brilliant minds, in cultivating village leaders – the material these people have to work with is almost insurmountable different. In the villages and small towns of the south, this may be different – smaller capital is needed to start projects, with smaller populations and communities even little changes have a larger impact. But in Bishkek – home to approximately 20% of the nation’s population – change isn’t so easy to instigate. Major, structural changes need to be made first, before these new leaders have material they can work with – the breaking of monopolies (on gold, the housing market, grocery chains), accountability in the police force and for government workers, a system that discourages grade-buying from teachers – and availability for capital.
For Bishkek – I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be a free-market economy (as there’s little government interference in the economy) – but there’s a real lack of competition, which stagnates economic growth. Take the housing market for example – Bishkek is dominated by inefficient and undesirable housing. In summer the sun is *hot* – even yesterday was nearly unbearable during midday, and I thought back to traditional courtyard houses in the south, where people pull out tables under the vine trellises to sit in the shade in summer, and to apartment complexes with expansive gardens where I’ve lived in China. Bishkek has old courtyard houses (run down and specially inefficient, but somewhat more comfortable), boxy new houses in the tree-barren suburbs south of us, ugly dilapidated soviet blocks (specially efficient, utterly uncomfortable and unappeasing) and a few, a very few modern apartment blocks (relatively expensive, more modern, but with minimal to no attention to outdoor spaces).
In summer our southward-facing apartment is *hot*, and with no balcony, and but a few benches by the parking lot to sit on outside, there’s really nowhere to go, unless we hop in the car and drive to a park or an outdoor cafe. And yet the complex we live in is considered one of the nicest in Bishkek. Why? And why do they have no incentive to build outdoor spaces, to create comfortably livable urban communities? Simply because there’s very little competition. Capital for our complex came from Korea; most malls and bigger stores are financed and run by businessmen from Turkey. On the northern and more recently-developed end of Foshan, where I lived two years ago, all the apartment complexes boasted pools and basketball courts and small convenience stores and well-crafted gardens – spaces for people to relax and enjoy, especially in the hot summer months.
But investors didn’t build these out of the goodness of their hearts – but because there were four apartment complexes on every major corner, and competition thus raised the standards of what was expected (while simultaneously lowering the prices, especially for rent). It’s because few people or corporations in Kyrgyztsan have the initial capital for investment that competition is rather low, and new spaces are developed at minimal cost – without much outdoor landscaping, without macro-plans for parks and trees and sensible streets in the city’s developing districts. And while Kyrgyzstan will eventually develop, and more people and corporations will eventually accumulate enough capital to invest in the city’s development, by that time it may be too late, as the available central space will be eaten up by chaotically placed blocky apartment buildings and boxy McMansions rising out of the perpetual dust, with hardly a tree to be seen.

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