Taxis, marshrutkas (minivans), private drivers – the vast majority of Bishkek drivers are terrible, selfish people once they get behind a steering wheel. This is why I almost always take the trolleybus – even if a taxi here is the price of public transportation in the states, even in the marshrutkas come much more often. Because once in the bus (most of them are trams, really, and run along a fixed wire line) I have no interaction with the drivers outside, can’t see what jerks they become with a few tons of horse power in their hands. The bus is solid – no one’s going to cut it off, nudge it out of a lane, or play chicken by driving down the wrong lane into oncoming traffic. It isolates us from the chaos outside – a poor man’s haven. But outside the world rages – every driver putting himself above the pack, even if saving himself twenty seconds means inconveniencing a legion of cars and backing up traffic for blocks.
Some of the more common things we see in Bishkek:
In our cramped parking lot people park sideways or in the middle of two spaces, because they can’t be bothered to take the ten seconds to park properly and let someone else slide in next to them.
When there’s a back-up behind a red light, one or two cars will always fly over the yellow line to budge in the front of the line. If they don’t get there in time, they sit in the middle of the road, blocking half of oncoming traffic.
Likewise, people always try to get through or turn left on orange/red lights, which can create huge backups in the intersection, as then people with a green light can’t go. And they honk, and they honk, and they honk.Honk.HONKHONKHONK.
Pushing people off the road, cutting in front of them, weaving in and out of traffic (including driving in the opposite lane), squeezing in between two cars in a two-lane road, and generally participating in erratic, uncivil, bad driving behavior.
In short, it’s a barrage of unchecked, petty selfishness. And the police – for a ‘democratic’ state, Kyrgyzstan has the least helpful police force I’ve ever seen. Occasionally (?) they direct traffic. Mostly they just hide out around the corner, waiting to catch people for a fine (pocket bribe).
Unfortunately, this isn’t a singular phenomenon. How people behave on the road directly correlated to the country’s (and citizens’) approach to democracy and civil society as a whole.
Even when I was working with an iNGO, I rarely heard anyone lower than a project manager talk about the actual people who would be helped/affected by their work. Office talk revolved around upcoming vacations, the car they wanted to buy, jewelry they were looking at online, this gossip or that. There was no sense of building up society. For them it was just a job, one better paid than a position in a national firm. Last spring I was talking with a girl from Naryn after class at the university. She had written a book of poetry in Kyrgyz when she was in High School, and she wanted her next book to be in English, to bring Kyrgyz literature onto the world stage, to make it more accessible for the international community. But in the next comment she shocked me. Her ultimate goal wasn’t building up her people’s modern national heritage – she was currently saving money to buy a car, never mind that she was 19 and her parents still lived in poverty. A car was power and modernity. Time and time again I see the same attitude in Bishkek (though I certainly can’t speak for the country as a whole): Individual advancement before community development, individual advancement at the expanse of the community, and the expense of everyone weaker. The same is true for companies, short-term individual profit that often hamper long-term economic development.
And yet Bishkek is basically an epicenter of microfinancing, home to countless NGOs and a giant UN House, among other organs and organizations. There should be a lot of community-backed development here, there should be a wave of local citizens banning together to create a better state. But a lot of people helped out by those NGO’s don’t turn around and give back to their community. Some do. Some people do truly care. But I feel their efforts are practically trampled out by the legions of people rushing through the last second before the red light.
Maybe enforced respect would make Bishkek a better place. Maybe better education. Maybe laws that were actually enforced across the board, maybe a sense and show (from the government down) that might (and the size of your SUV) doesn’t make right, maybe a democracy where everyone was held responsible for their own actions.
I’m currently reading The Tyranny of Experts, sent to me by my father – perhaps that’s why I made the connection between bad drivers and the demise of local democracy. The basc premise of the book (a longer review can be found here)is that real development requires real liberty, democracy and respect.
It’s not the first time that I’ve thought (or heard) that Kyrgyzstan receives a ton of aid, and yet civil society is going to pieces a huge part of the population is possibly economically worse-off than they were in soviet times. It’s going to be a long time before Kyrgyzstan is stable – the country has a lot of issues to work out.