Friday, November 05, 2004

A surprise protest

Yesterday, while walking to work, I noticed a rusted, old trolleybus sputter by, packed so tightly that the bus tilted to the left and the wheels were barely visible. I marveled that such an ancient contraption could still run and could attract so many passengers. I wondered why I didn’t notice before how full they were.

A few hours later, I sat in the car with Malan, the Uzbek office driver. He poined out the large crowds of people standing on the sides of the street.

“There are no marshrutkas today,” he said. “They are on strike.”

Marshrutkas are minivans that seat about 14 people and serve as the main source of public transportation throughout Kyrgyzstan, both within urban areas and between cities. Drivers register for a numbered route and post the number in the front window. People can stand along the street anywhere on the route and wait for their number to come along in the endless flow, like waiting for a lottery number to be drawn, or the final number to be called on a winning bingo card. When they see it, they wave the marshrutka down and the drivers swerve over to pick up as many passengers as they can.
“Why are they are on strike?” I asked.

“I think they want to pay less taxes.”

“I watched the local news last night. Why didn’t I hear anything about this?” I’d seen all kinds of footage of Kyrgyz President Askar Akeav shaking hands and smiling, and similar footage of the President of Kazakhstan. Why wouldn’t they mention that the city would be without public transportation?

“Because this isn’t America,” Malan answered. “If you talk too much, people come for you in the middle of the night.”

Back at the office I asked Anton, a Ukrainian coworker if he knew more about the situation.

“Due to the high price of gasoline, the drivers want to raise the marshrutka fare from four som (10 cents) to five som (12.5 cents). But the government doesn’t agree.”

His answer to why it wasn’t announced in advance was that maybe the drivers decided to strike just this morning.

I asked a few people whether they thought the drivers demand for a five-som fare was just. In Bishkek the fare is five som.
One student in my aerobics class said, “Given the high price of gas now, five som is fair. But during normal times, it should go back down to four.”

Gulnara, our 24-year-old office manager, thought that five som was too much to ask. “Salaries in Osh are low,” she said, citing the example of her friend who got a job teaching English after graduating from the university and was paid $20 a month. When she moved to Bishkek, she was paid $50 for the same work.

It wasn’t until I asked a third person, a taxi driver, about the strike that I got a complete picture. “Four som isn’t enough for the drivers because they are being asked to pay very high taxes. So they need five som to compensate for the taxes.”

Most people reacted to the strike by either walking or taking the stuffed, slow trolleybuses. Since the trolleybuses get their power from electric wires, they aren’t dependent on gas prices.

Vika, the same student who bathes after aerobics in order to access hot water, told me, “I live near the Kyrgyz National University, where I study, so I didn’t hear about the strike until I was already at my classes. My classes end at 3:30 and then I have English at a different institute at 4. I had to walk 45 minutes there and was late for my lessons.” She told me that she planned to walk the hour and a half home after aerobics.

“Isn’t it dangerous at night?” I asked.

“No, because my friend is waiting for me. His lessons end at eight and we’ll walk home together.”

I had planned to take a taxi home, but when she exclaimed how close my neighborhood was, I felt bad about my easy ability to afford a dollar for a taxi and decided to walk and feel what it’s like to not have transportation available. Other than the close glimpse I got of a rat running alongside a building and under a door, it was actually a nice walk, especially since there were more people than usual on the roads.

The strike continued into the next day. In the morning, it was clear from the large number of pedestrians on the street and the occasional trolleybus passing by, stuffed to the edges, that the marshrutkas still weren’t running. By afternoon, the first drivers returned to the road and quickly filled their vehicles. As I watched people piling in, well beyond where one might think the minivan was full, I was glad to know that people would have a safe means of returning home in the evening. Whether or not the drivers achieved their demands, I still don’t know. There was no mention of it on the evening news.

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