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Poverty and migration in the Fergana Valley

[Kyrgyzstan] picture overlooking the town of osh showing the fergana valley and the alai mountain range in the background. IRIN
The city of Osh
On the side of a small hill overlooking the town of Osh in the Fergana valley, stands a small tomb-like structure said to have been built five centuries ago by a son of the valley named Babur. From the front of the otherwise unimposing building the vista stretches down across vermilion fields before rising to the Alai mountain range to the south. Beyond these mountains a route opens up which takes the traveller through Tajikistan into Afghanistan to Pakistan, and finally to India. History does not record whether Babur planned his route of conquest - that was to culminate in the establishment of Mogul empire - from this very spot, but it is easy to imagine how the young man was tempted to look away and out of the topographical confines of the valley for the realisation of his military and political goals. And, in many ways, Babur’s legacy continues today, as tens of thousands of Kyrgyz citizens, stifled by a collapsing economy and an attendant lack of opportunity, are migrating both within and away from the valley in search of a better life. Some are moving away from the villages and into the towns, others from smaller towns to bigger towns, others still are moving out of the country altogether - north to Russia, east to China or southeast to Korea. Some are lured away with the promise of jobs and better pay, but most are simply being driven away from their homes by force of circumstance and fierce competition for the precious resources of the valley floor. In his sparsely decorated, but neatly turned out family home, Kamchy Zakirov is taking time out from his wheat fields in the village of Uch-Kun. A white woollen hat, typical of the area, frames a face sculpted by hardship. The Asiatic features of his face are more sharply defined than those of his neighbours gathered together cross-legged in a square around him, or the children who dart runny-nosed around the room. Zakirov explains that he and his friends have gathered to discuss problems on the farm - how to fix the tractor when there is no money to buy spare parts, why the price of cotton has collapsed in the last 18 months, and how they are going to cope with having to pay for health care for the first time in their lives when a new law comes into effect in July. "We just don’t know what will happen to us," said Zakirov, who, like many of his neighbours and friends, are still reeling from the shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic difficulties that that trauma brought with it. "During Soviet times, life was easy. We knew where we were and where we were going, and there were certainties in our lives that we could depend on." Certainties like a guaranteed salary so long as agricultural plans were fulfilled, and bonuses when targets were exceeded. There was the assurance that if a tractor broke down then a mechanic would be on hand to fix it or procure spare parts if needed. The village had a small clinic with medical staff and a school for the children. "All these things were here," said Sabyr Mamytov. "Now they are gone." At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan was one of many heavily subsidised states that depended on the Union’s largesse for survival. When it collapsed, exposing in the process the gross inadequacies of its economic system, the newly independent Kyrgyz government embarked on a helter-skelter policy of privatisation which won plaudits from the outside world and its international financial institutions, but which only served to deepen the trauma of withdrawal for its 4.5 million inhabitants. Now, after paying land tax, water tax and social tax, Zakirov reckons that the one hectare piece of land he was given following the break-up of the Soviet Union and its state owned collective farms, earns him a profit of a little over US $50 a year - hardly enough for his family of 10 to live on. Zakirov’s neighbours nod their agreement, explaining that this was why so many people have left their village in recent years. "At least 30 percent of the total population has left in the last few years," said Mamytov, "and 70 percent of the young have gone." Zakirov said he too would like to leave, but has neither the money to do so nor a place to move to. Even the cotton crop, which for decades has been the staple of production in the Fergana valley no longer fetches a subsistence income. "In the last two years, the price of cotton has fallen by more than half," complained Zakirov, who suspects that he and his fellow cotton growers are being swindled by local middlemen making vast profits on the international markets at their expense. Mamatemir Ergeshev had been working in an internet café in Osh for the last year and was proud of the US $30 a month that he now earned. "This may not seem like big money to you," he said, "but when you compare that to what I could earn in my village, then you will see me as a rich man." Ergeshev turned his back on his village, because he simply could not earn enough to support his family. He too said that 30 percent of the people in his village had left in recent years. "Some of the people in our village have done well and become rich growing and selling cotton, wheat and vegetables, but they are not many," said Ergeshev, adding that in the old days neighbours would help one another out in times of difficulty. "These days that doesn’t happen. One thing I’ve noticed is that the more money people get the less they are prepared to give." Two blocks away in the Slavyanka café, Oleg runs a towel along the spotlessly clean bar. An ethnic Russian, Oleg is a trained and experienced radio engineer who cannot find work in his field of choice, and so now tends bar instead. "Life under the Soviet Union was 100 times better," he says. Four of the five members of his family are now working and, by pooling their resources, they manage to get by, but, says Oleg, most of his Russian friends have now left Kyrgyzstan for Russia, taking with them the education and precious skills that are essential to development. Oleg, like most people in the valley recognise that the economics of the Soviet Union were unsustainable, and acknowledges that in prodding its people towards a market economy the government of Kyrgyzstan made the right decision. But, like everyone else, Oleg struggles to accept the arbitrary outcome and harsh realities of capitalism. "It’s good that we have private business now, but very few are benefiting from it, and for most people life gets more difficult each year." If it continues to worsen, Oleg is thinking of applying for a Russian visa and heading there in search of qualified work. And in this predicament Oleg is not alone. Many of his customers passing the idle hours of a warm Sunday morning sipping vodka under bright red parasols are either out of work or earning salaries incommensurate with their qualifications. Erkinoy Azimova, for example, a 26-year-old English teacher, teaches secondary school students full-time, earning $8 a month. She only survives because her husband spends 10 months of the year working as a migrant labourer in Russia. Asked what she would do if her husband lost the opportunity to work abroad, a look of perplexity crosses her face. "I honestly don’t know," she says. Although she does not mention it herself, perhaps she would be forced to do what her fellow teacher Olga Sadritinova says is now common practice in the schools of the Fergana valley. Sadritinova teaches university students for a better monthly salary of US $20, but says she only gets by because her parents help her out. Many teachers who do not have that luxury are forced, says Sadritinova, to write student papers and exams on behalf of their students in return for a prearranged fee. "Capitalism has brought us many difficulties, and forced people to lower their morals in order to survive," said Sadritinova, before starting to tell the most worrying story of all. Last year, a local and newly established firm had started spreading the word that they were recruiting girls for work. Sadritinova herself and a number of her friends were approached. "They invited us to a meeting, where they told us they were looking for girls to work in bars in Korea. They told us that it was a good job, but I knew that it was to become prostitutes, so I immediately left the meeting." Some of her friends, however, did not and Sadritinova says she has neither seen nor heard from any of them since the day they left. In his well-appointed offices in the centre of town, Naken Kasiyev loosens his tie and sinks back into a voluminous leather chair. Kasiyev is the governor of Osh and is, he says, determined to tackle the problems confronting his district. He is the first to admit that mistakes were made in Kyrgyzstan’s race to privatise, and that the transition to a market economy has been and continues to be difficult. But, he says, the problems facing Kyrgyzstan and the Fergana Valley in particular, are no different from those facing every former Soviet state. Kasiyev justifies his government's privatisation policy by drawing what he clearly believes is a clever analogy. "If you are suffering from a disease [communism], the quicker you seek treatment for it the quicker you can cure it." He is also quick to point out the few success stories, like the growing micro-credit and loan schemes, which, he says, will issue loans to a total value of $20 million this year, and which accounted for a six percent reduction in the number of people living below the poverty line last year. But, according to United Nations Development Programme statistics, that still leaves a staggering 55 percent of people in a trap of debt and dependency. "I am the first to acknowledge that these problems are very real, but I don’t want to only focus on the negative. We are making progress, and we will continue to make progress. We are on the right track," said Kasiyev. The people of the Fergana valley are hoping that he is right.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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