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  • Writer's pictureSyed Akhtar Mahmood

In Bishkek.... where all the streets are not straight!

Bishkek, in summer, is a balmy beautiful city. The first thing that strikes you in this city of just under one million, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, are the wide boulevards, with tall trees on both sides whose branches fold in to form canopies over the wide streets. Not that you need the shade - the temperature in May was in the pleasant low-seventies - but the beauty in the greenery is soothing. And, after you have spent some time driving around the city, you realize that the roads have been laid out in a grid-like structure, much like Manhattan, but with wider streets, tall trees, no skyscrapers and buildings with much more space between them.


And then there are the parks. There is a large park that cuts across a large part of central Bishkek and, as we stood outside the main complex of government offices, one of my Kyrgyz colleagues pointed out that if I wanted I could reach my hotel, several blocks away, just by walking through the park. There were many smaller parks too, laid out between roads, adding to the greenery of a drive.


Kyrgystan, or Kyrgyz Republic if you go by the official name, was the first of the Soviet republics to become independent. It was also the only central Asian country not to have an ex-communist party boss as its President; Kyrgystan’s first president Askar Akaev was an academic who found himself catapulted to the highest office after the communist leaders failed to get the requisite votes in the first rounds of the election in 1991. Akaev was a progressive president who liberalized the country both on the economic and political fronts and the country became an oasis of democracy in the generally authoritarian environment of Central Asia.

But all was not well. The land of the Kyrgyz started having its share of corruption, insider deals and intrigues. The President had his children, and in the course of time they, of course, grew up, and realized that big money was to be made by using their privileged position. Even if they did not come to this on their own, there was no shortage of opportunists and cronies, the proverbial bees that gather around the honeycomb. So the kids got spoiled, the dad turned a blind eye, and the inevitable happened. A mini-revolution occurred in 2005 when Akaev was in the 15th year of his rule, the streets of Bishkek and other Kyrgyz towns erupted in protests. To call it a revolution may have been a stretch but the people nonetheless gave it a colorful name, the “Tulip Revolution”. Apparently, in a moment of over-confidence typical of rulers who have lost touch, Akaev had used that term in a speech where he boasted that, unlike in Georgia and Ukraine where movements bearing such colorful names had recently overthrown governments, no such thing was going to happen in his country. The revolution only helped changed the leadership but not much more. The cycle repeated with bloodshed, another President fleeing the country with his family, and another change in government in 2010. Following an interim administration which oversaw an election, a new coalition government took over late last year. As often happens with a change in government, there is enthusiasm in the air. There a number of people in government genuinely feeling the need to deliver. In particular, there is much emphasis on creating a conducive environment for business, the subject that I was working on during my last week’s trip to Bishkek. But there are many challenges. Unlike the streets of Bishkek, the roads that Kyrgyz businesses travel are neither straight nor lined with soothing, graceful trees. And there are no parks where you can take a break and recharge your batteries. Bringing about the changes will not be easy but the dividends will be huge. And that is what makes it all interesting and worthwhile!


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