Democracy is…

…Not what I’ve found in Kyrgyzstan.
Regardless of whether you define democracy as participatory government or a system that equally represents the interests of all (direct or indirect democracy, Kyrgyzstan is often neither, despite being hailed as the only democracy in Central Asia. From what I’ve experienced, Kazakhstan is more of a democracy. Sometimes even China has a more democratic process, depending on where and what policies you choose to examine. Just because a country has a democratic constitution does not mean it is an acting democracy.
While we see it in many aspects of life in Bishkek, this discrepancy between form and practice became apparent when I bought a new phone the Sunday before last. Unfortunately for us Americans, our fancy-shmancy electronics don’t work in the rest of the world (my contract-less Samsung S4 is hardwared to work only in the US and, curiously, Japan), and my $80 phone from China had finally died, so we finally trekked off to Tsum to help me connect with the rest of the modern world. (A side note – if you happen to be just travelling through Central Asia or stopping temporarily and need a phone that will probably last you a few months, both the basement level of Tsum and the electronics market at the Osh Bazaar have second hand phones and tablets for decent prices – we bought E’s niece a used Samsung Galaxy Note for under $100 and three months later it still works fine)
We had decided to get an iPhone 4, as then we would be on the same system, and the 4 is sturdier than the 5. Samsung and HTC are the big players in Central Asia, and most iPhone shops are now selling just the 5 and 6. So after wandering around for a while we located a shop still selling new 4Ss. Looked at the phone, agreed on the price ($334), and confirmed that it came with a standard one-year warranty before paying.
Two days later the wifi stoppe working, and the battery started plummeting – I would open two web pages and it would fall 50%. E looked online and confirmed that this was a standard problem with that hardware in some iPhone 4s phones, and apple didn’t know how to fix the problem yet (but, at least in Turkey and the US they were replacing/switching out defective phones with iPhone4s phones that didn’t have the same problem). Worrying that this problem might persist, we decided the best bet was to go back and trade in the phone (plus $140) for an iPhone 5. The next Saturday – not even a week after I had bought the phone – we went back to the store in Tsum, Russian-Kyrgyz-English-Turkish-speaking local friend and PhD research fellow in Communications in tow.
The phone had nothing on it, but the young guy manning the shop really didn’t know anything about phones, and kept saying that we must have dropped it. He brought it over to another person, who confirmed exactly what E had seen online – hardware problem. The worker really didn’t want to switch the phone or give us a refund. Never mind the one-year warranty; our store contract stated that if a customer was dissatisfied with the merchandise, they could return it within two days for a refund of 80%, or within three days for a switch. Apparently his boss was “in Dubai”, and thus not available to take the heat. After an hour of haggling (“you must have dropped it” x 50), he finally said that they would take it in for diagnostics for a week and let us know if there was a problem with the phone. Problem with this is that first of all we have no promise of what they will do after the diagnosis, and second, they could easily switch the wifi chip and ‘fix’ the phone so it works for a week or a month – and then refuse a refund or a replacement at that later day, again because we would have presumable ‘broken’ it. According to the apple warranty, we had every right to demand a replacement or a refund (and if we switch it out for an iPhone 5 plus pay the difference the store isn’t really losing). But, as our local friend noted, once you hand over your money you lose all of your rights. The security guards have no policing power/refuse to meddle in such disputes, and Tsum itself has no management office where you can lodge complaints (even China is more democratic on these accounts). In short, people who stamp on the rights of others aren’t held accountable for their actions, and there’s very little mechanism for (here, consumer) protection. You can bring your case to court – and after two months you might get a verdict, if the accused party doesn’t slide in a bribe or pull some connections first.
So as a consumer, there’s literally nothing you can do – unless you know someone who knows someone. E called a friend who works at the American Embassy, who happened to know a manager/shop owner at Tsum, who then went to talk to this shop, and E also called an older police officer he knew who used to work at the university and – voila! magical transformation of my defective iPhone4s (plus some cash) to a fully functional iPhone 5! But this isn’t democracy – having to pull at strings and find the right people in power just to cover basic rights. This isn’t democracy, where civilians and other residents can’t lodge a complaint and expect action. Even international firms with international court cases ruled in their favor can’t collect from the government, so I guess it’s pretty obvious that individual’s can’t expect much, and we might want to stop calling the country “Central Asia’s Island of Democracy”.

For more details on the woes of ‘democracy’ in Kyrgyztsan, there are plenty of resources. Some simple ones are here, here, here and OMG HERE.

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