Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Today I took a trip to Nookat, a primarily Kyrgyz small town about an hour outside of Osh. The drive there was beautiful. A thin layer of green covered the rolling mountains and flowering trees lined the barren landscape – purple pistachio trees and peach apricot trees. When we entered the town, I saw many more of these trees planted in small square individual homesteads.

I asked my companions, our driver Malan, regional manager Damir, and employee Mirlan where the protestors came from. Most of them were rural and I wondered if they came from Nookat.

“Most came from the Uzgen region,” Malan said. “They had a deputy who didn’t win the election.”

“I heard that everyone who protested was paid 500 som a day ($12) by the opposition leaders,” Damir said. That’s 5000 som for 10 days.

Malan ran the figures through his head. That was more than his salary as a driver. “Not bad,” he said. “Maybe I should protest.”

They talked about the new political leaders. Osh region has a new governor and the city has a new mayor. All Nigora knew about the governor was that he was really ugly. I asked if they knew any more.

“He’s my friend’s uncle,” Malan said, “and I’ve been to his house several times. He seems like a nice guy. He also ran for parliament in Kara-Suu and lost.”

“Were the protests in Kara-Suu on his behalf?” I asked.

“No. No one protested for him. Because whenever he met with people he told them upfront, “I’m not going to be able to buy you anything. I don’t have that kind of money.”

They said that the new mayor of Osh is a young and good-looking man. And Damir said that a staff member of his bank in Bishkek had been named to an important economic position.

“Will all these people also change after the presidential elections in June?” I asked.

“Yes, they are all temporary.”

Everyone seems to be holding their breaths until the end of June. If a new president can be peacefully elected, then life can truly go on with an expectation of stability. Until then, everybody waits for June, as interested parties scramble for power and influence and the rest of the population hopes their lives, businesses, and families can continue to operate in peace.

I hired two new people in Nookat. In Nookat it’s hard to find people who speak Russian. One of the people I hired not only spoke fluent Russian, but fluent English. I asked him why he studied English (given that there is almost no use for it in Nookat).

“I wanted to study in the law faculty,” he said. “But my father advised me to study world languages. He had an acquaintance whose son had studied world languages and was able to do well for himself. And I would never go against my father. I don’t regret it. I’ve found that knowing languages doesn’t interfere with any other profession. I can work in any field and I will still know English.”

While he could probably find opportunities in larger cities, as the youngest son of his family, he is committed to the tradition of staying with his parents until death.

“I’m the youngest son and will never leave my parents,” he said. “I will always take care of them.”

For the last year he’s been working for $50 a month. Before that he made less than $20 a month as an English teacher. Given that he is talented and motivated and stuck in this little town, it felt good to be able to offer him more money and more perspective.

The second person has dreams of moving to Bishkek. When I asked the local staff if they thought he’d move to Bishkek soon after being hired they said, “He wants to go to Bishkek because he can’t find a good job here and he thinks he’d have a better chance in the capital. But if he’s able to find stable, good work here, he will probably stay.”

Our employees make between $50 and $250 a month, depending on their position, how long they’ve been working and the quality of their work. From a Western perspective, that seems really low. And it is possible to find higher pay, but usually only with international organizations (which are hard jobs to get) or if someone has the capital to run a successful small business. Almost invariably, I find that these low salaries are more than candidates have been earning in the past and they are also attracted by the fact that the salaries are stable – they are actually paid every month, where in many jobs that’s not the case.

While we were in Nookat, it began to rain, then snow. The snow falling on the flowering pistachios, cherries and apricots may well kill them.

“Fruit will be expensive again this year,” Damir said.

We returned through an entirely different landscape than the one we’d arrived through. Cows, sheep and goats grazed on multilayered mountains, the red and black soil visible through the thin layer of green, all the colors sprinkled with a cover of white.

A policeman stuck out his red baton at us at the exact same place where we’d been stopped on the way to Nookat.

“What, did they forget they just stopped you earlier today?” I asked Malan.

“I don’t know,” he said, sighing.

He returned, shaken. “Something’s happened,” he said. “I asked the officer what he was doing standing out in the rain. Why doesn’t he go home and be warm. He said that the head of a department in the police was shot last night as he was entering his home after work. He said that they’ve been ordered to stay out and try to find out information and he asked if I knew anything.”

“Do you think he’ll find out anything?” I asked. It seemed like a long shot, stopping every car traveling between Osh and Nookat. If the shooters headed of town, they probably would have done so immediately.

“Probably not,” he said. “But who knows.”

That started a discussion about crime, a topic I’m pretty ignorant about since I don’t have access to local news. They told me that during the unrest, some protestors forced a taxi driver out of his car and and took his car for a ride.

“Poor driver,” said Malan, understanding that a taxi driver’s car is their source of income and is usually about all they own.

And Malan said that for the past three days a taxi driver and his car have been missing.

“Sometimes they kill the driver, then take the car,” he said.

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