Bishkek: Relative Luxuries, Uncertain Economy

Back in Bishkek, it again feels like we’re living in the lap of luxury. All I have to do is look across the street to a block of sad soviet apartments, or walk to the corner where women in cheap polyester headscarves haggle over the price of cucumbers and tomatoes.
There’s a feeling that everything is a luxury in Bishkek, even really normal everyday things, even discount things sold on the streets outside of cheap shops in small Turkish towns or the bargain aisles of some American superstore. Even non-brand Tupperware containers, bathrobes, desk lamps, are luxuries – the things of Target and IKEA. What in America are the markers of lower-middle class are here unattainable for most.
Sometimes it’s the relative price in Bishkek. Taking an ordinary loaf of bread as the judging standard, some prices are shocking – especially when we consider that, at 17 som/34 cents, this loaf of bread is not much cheaper than one in Turkey at 1 Lira/46 cents. As many imported goods in Bishkek come from Turkey, the loaf of bread standard is a good comparison.
Yesterday I went to the grocery store to get a few basics, and spent 172 som on a jar of raspberry preserve (it’s quite good with local dark rye bread toasted with a sliver of butter); that’s ten times the price of white bread in a store, seventeen times the price in the bazaar. In Turkey there’s a mere three-five times price difference between the two items. An electric toothbrush that costs $15 in Turkey is 2000 som ($40) here, comparable with a week’s rent in an older home – or a hundred and eighteen loaves of bread. Plastic and glass food containers – also comparatively quite expensive. A locally-produced school child’s notebook – twenty som. A stack of three brittle plastic sandwich containers – a hundred and twenty. Even decent-quality toilet paper is relatively expensive – scratchy brown locally-produced TP sells for 6 som a roll at the bazaar. Decent TP imported from Turkey is 215 for a pack of four, or about 54 som a roll, or about four loaves of bread or nine rolls of local stuff. Basically anything that can’t be produced in Kyrgyzstan is comparatively quite expensive, thus out of reach for the majority of the population, thus garnering them “luxury” status.

Sometimes it’s that things just don’t exist in Bishkek, or that we only have low-end makes. A lot of the food sold in the city’s few ‘fine’ European markets are actually cheap brands abroad. Five dollar mustard? It’s from “Shop Rite”. That jam I bought this morning – like a lot of other imported preserves (apparently, despite their abundance of seasonal berries and fruit, Kyrgyzstan has yet to develop its own line of preserved fruit products…) is a low-end German brand, the kind a penny-counting pensioner would buy. It’s also the best in Bishkek (unless someone has spotted better jam?). And there are a million small things that are all but impossible to find – collapsible camping chairs, lint rollers, ukuleles – because apparently there isn’t a large enough market to warrant their import.

All this is particularly strange to me because I’m coming directly back from Turkey. E’s family lives up the hill from an area in Ankara where there are a lot of middle to lower-middle class residents, and streets full of shops that advertise their wares – and discount prices – on the sidewalks in front of their shops. These things – they aren’t expensive; they don’t belong just to the rich or white-collar professionals. The prices are on par with the budgeting capacity of most sectors of society. But take those same things and put them in Bishkek – and suddenly they’re luxury goods.
Kyrgyzstan needs to develop its own (non-environmentally-damaging) manufacturing sector soon while simultaneously working to raise wages and production quality in all sectors. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. The country has potential – natural beauty (tourism), natural minerals, natural water resources, natural trade routes. But sometimes it seems like those pulling strings at the top are just content to gather what profit they can skim without developing the country as a whole.

Do people need things? No, I’m not saying that. But there is a great disparity between the basics and even simple modern goods that make life a little easier, an uncrossable gap between subsidence living and the middle class.


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