Idyllic Communities: Kyrgyzstan

When we moved to Kyrgyzstan, we want to believe in the sweetness, the goodness of it’s people. Fresh faces, cold mountains on a bright winter morning. And another Lexus screaming through the light.

Some people try to maintain that idyllic view, to hold on to the construction of a perfectly happy people, the old romance of nomadic poverty and winds whisping over the mountains. Admitting Kyrgyzstan’s faults is as hard for some as finding those strands of goodness in the Beijing government. Every summer the Kyrgyz couchsurfing queue fills with French and German travelers-to-be gushing, “I have been thinking of visiting this country for 3 years now and finally I’m happy to explore the beauty of Kyrgyzstan!”.

And while Kyrgyzstan is beautiful (as a former couchsurfer from Ukraine put it, “Kyrgzstan is 98% one glorious giant national park, and two percent, eh…um… well.), no country is without its faults. There is poverty – and poverty is ugly. Poverty is squalor, poverty is missed chances, poverty is potential that may never be filled, poverty is grimy, resistant, reluctant. There is a thirst for wealth; there is corruption. And all of these are interconnected, a formidable triage blocking true development. There is, of course, a desire for change. I think no one likes the status quo – everyone wants to see their country develop, or their own living standards go up. There are a number of advocates for change – women journalists who take a stand for honest reporting, women entrepreneurs who set up micro-loans and train women in business acumen, local NGOs like Foundation for Tolerance International working on nonviolent conflict resolution. There are people who care. But…

The problem is though, that efforts are not concerted, and many, many other people will sabotage plans that would gradually improve the country or the city for the good of all for short term, individual gain (a post on how we can see this just in traffic behavior here). There are countless more who support positive change, but are too afraid of the risks, who don’t trust their countrymen to take the step with them. For if people don’t step together, then almost every plan will fail. And so development is stunted, hindered by the people it would help.

No country is perfect, nor are its people.

This morning I got a rather hard-edged response to an old post, a woman [who I actually met last week at BIWC, though I don’t think she made the connection when she posted] who objected to my occasionally negative (nuanced…) assessment of the country’s capital:

How about mentioning how the Kyrgyz people and government are working to design & implement systems that overcome corruption? For example, nowadays you can pay your fines on the spot with an ATM swipe. The police carry a machine to run your ATM card for the penalty amount, the money goes directly to the government, and you can carry on with your day in an expedient & timely manner. Fantastic idea. If only the police didn’t claim their card reader was broken every time.  

Besides, the only times I have been pulled over by the police, I deserved it. One time it may have been considered a speed trap by how quickly the speed limit changed from 60km to 40km, but I was speeding. Another time, a person really was in the crosswalk. Speaking Russian with me, the genuinely concerned officer took the time to ask me to be more careful. I appreciate that police enforce rules such as cars stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks here – what a way to enhance community values!

That’s a laugh. If only I could count the number of times I’d almost been run over while crossing a crosswalk on one hand, how many people have honked and called me a whore because I dared to not wait or dash. Yep, fantastic wholesome community values. I’d love it if there were actually police at the crosswalks enforcing pedestrian rights.

Usually though the police officer stationed at the crosswalk or a road repair is standing half hidden ten yards past – to jump out and flag down offenders. We’ve also had people run at our car as we were driving over the crosswalk. When I was working at Manas it was the same person three times in the same spot at the same time, and the same police officer at the same place demanding the same bribe.

Kyrgyzstan isn’t some demon haven stuffed with corrupt police officers, rude old women with hardswinging purses, and awful children in the elevator. Nor is it a pastoral playground of sweet babushkaks, charming children and the rugged honesty of plain folk. It has all of those elements. Most of all, it has a lot of people struggling to survive and improve their chances, a lot of people who place little faith in their fledgling government, and even less faith in the intentions of their fellow countrymen, especially, especially in the capital where community bonds are more recent and far weaker.


Did you try to really understand? Did you ask the driver where he was going? If so, in which languages? And anyway, why does he have to answer to your judgements of him? Who are you to judge again? And why should he have to bare the burden (extra work) of explaining himself and his country to you? As an extended guest, you bare the responsibility to put in the work to respectfully better understand the people, local system, and this country.

I’d ask the same to you (and all visitors who romanticize the country): were you really looking honestly, or were you afraid of what you’d find? For we can solve no problems until we address them first. To find a solution, solutions that really work, we need to first understand and acknowledge every angle of the issue. Ignoring it, or calling out my expat ignorance, is no favor to the population you wish to protect.


2 thoughts on “Idyllic Communities: Kyrgyzstan

  1. Isn’t it common online etiquette to respond in entirety to my initial comments on the site of the initial comment? & Of course I realized it was you – another American living in Djal with a Turkish University Professor & Cats? At least I use my name online, but then again, I’m not so scathingly (nor nuancedly rude) to my warm host country that I would need to hide in anonymity. Rather, I work to create solutions – after examining issues from various angles.


    • Dear Maureen,
      I have no wish to spat online. I assumed that you didn’t know it was me because few people will say things online that wouldn’t be deemed acceptable in person if they actually know the person they are addressing. It seemed you missed my point – that (at least for me) it’s of foremost importance to be objective, to state what I see and search out the underpinnings explaining that phenomenon. I trained in history; that’s how I approach any issue, any place. I wonder what you’d have me say instead – that Bishkek is all roses. There was something constructive lacking in your comment.
      As for the names – I have a right to my anonymity, to separating personal from professional. It was also absolutely necessary when living in China. I think that’s enough. See you at the next meeting, where we can perhaps have a discussion in person.


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