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A GMJ Q&A with Neli Esipova, Gallup Regional Director, Former Soviet Union Countries”What we need is a Stalin for five years.”
That’s what Gallup’s regional research director for the former Soviet Union countries, Neli Esipova, was told during the focus groups she conducted recently in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Esipova was in Bishkek collecting data in the former Soviet countries as part of Gallup’s worldwide research. She was interviewing people who had survived the brutal ethnic clashes in Osh and Jalal Abad that took place in 2010.
The memory of those days has not dimmed for these survivors, nor for those in the rest of Kyrgyzstan, a country of 5.5 million people in Central Asia that was formerly part of the Soviet Union.
Hundreds of people were killed and thousands were wounded or lost their homes during the clashes, and the long-term effects of the violence may be colouring people’s beliefs about their current and future government. “The Soviet regime gave most people a miserable life,” says Esipova, “but it was secured misery. There was food, work, healthcare, free education, pensions, and peace.”
In the following interview, Esipova discusses the data Gallup collected and the stories she heard, giving us all a window into the attitudes of Kyrgyzstan’s citizens.
GMJ: My first question might sound cynical. Kyrgyzstan is a small country with about the same population as greater Toronto. Why should anyone outside of Central Asia care about what happens in Kyrgyzstan? Why should the West care? Why should the whole world care?
Neli Esipova: First, it would be wonderful if the whole world would care about the whole world. I really hope for the best for this country; I hope they get another chance at democracy. And second, if you want a pragmatic answer, the whole world should care about Kyrgyzstan because of its strategic location. For example, Afghanistan is very close to Kyrgyzstan.
GMJ: What happened to Kyrgyzstan when the Soviet Union dissolved?
Esipova: When Kyrgyzstan became independent, the workforce changed. Moscow had sent educated people to Kyrgyzstan to help build its industry, but when Kyrgyzstan became independent, a lot of the specialists went back to Russia.
It was a big problem for Kyrgyzstan because it quickly lost many of its highly educated workers, such as engineers, from its workforce. During the Soviet era, having engineers allowed the country to participate in major Soviet industrial projects. Kyrgyzstan hasn’t recovered, and it remains very poor. It’s mainly a rural country; only about one-third of its population lives in urban areas. Even the capital, Bishkek, has fewer than a million people.
GMJ: What is the current job situation like?
Esipova: A lot of people are not in the workforce. Some people have given up on finding a job. Many others have to work abroad. According to our 2010 data, 20% to 29% have full-time jobs for an employer, 5% to 9% are unemployed, and 15% to 24% are underemployed. In 2010, 24% said the economic situation is getting better in their communities, which is down from 36% in 2009.
GMJ: Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan is no longer subsidized by the Soviet Union. Does it have much of an economic infrastructure?
Esipova: No. Kyrgyzstan’s GDP per capita is $860, in comparison with $47,084 in the U.S. According to our 2010 data, 18% of households say someone from their households is working temporarily abroad. That’s down from 30% in 2008. Most migrant workers, 88%, worked in Russia, but the world economic crisis has affected Russia too. So a lot of Kyrgyz workers had to come home from Russia. It’s not a healthy situation when one country depends so much on another.
Also, about 11% of the population has higher education, but when we look at Kyrgyzstanis who are temporarily working abroad, 21% of them are highly educated. So when more educated people are going abroad for work, there are two main problems. First, it causes a temporary brain drain when the overwhelming majority of those who stay in Kyrgyzstan have much less education. Second, this situation decreases the motivation to develop a good educational system. As it is, many of the educated in Kyrgyzstan would just move to Russia.
GMJ: There has been tremendous political upheaval in the 20 years since the Soviet Union dissolved, and the political situation remains uncertain. How has that affected the country?
Esipova: Following times of great violence, which so many lived through, people are thinking it’s better to live in a strict regime.
At least they know that they will be fed, their kids will get a decent education, and they will get healthcare. In our 2010 survey, we asked Kyrgyzstanis which political system was most suitable for their country.
I was not surprised that 25% said they wanted a Soviet-style system, and 16% wanted an authoritarian regime. So essentially, 41% wanted a government that is very strict.
And if you add the 24% who wanted a system that had a lot of similarity to the Soviet one but is more democratic, it’s basically the majority of the country.
GMJ: What, then, is Kyrgyzstanis’ attitude toward Russian leadership? And why do they feel this way?
Esipova: They love Russia. When we ask if they approve of the job performance of the Russian leadership, 85% say they do. Also, remember, the Soviet regime gave a lot to Kyrgyzstan, and the people are still grateful for this. For example, before the Soviets came, Kyrgyzstanis did not have a written language, and many were nomads moving from place to place with their sheep and horses, living in yurts. The Soviet regime gave them a better educational system, helped to build industries, and created security.
GMJ: And that brings us to the clashes last year between the two main ethnic groups, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Hundreds were killed or hurt; thousands lost their homes. Do they want to discuss what happened, or do they want to just forget it?
Esipova: No, both groups — Kyrgyz and Uzbeks — want to discuss it.
GMJ: What do they want to talk about?
Esipova: In the focus groups I conducted, I didn’t ask them about the clashes, but they all wanted to describe the horror, the experience they had. It felt to me like they needed some place to process it. And they also talked about how little the government did to resolve the situation. When I interviewed Kyrgyz, they said the only thing the government did was fly the wounded back to Bishkek. Basically, government officials dropped them at the airport and didn’t even take them to the hospital.
GMJ: When you were conducting your focus groups, did you have Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the same room?
Esipova: No. That’s impossible. Let me tell you a story. We scheduled the focus groups so the Uzbek and Kyrgyz groups would not be there at the same time. When the Uzbek group walked in, the oldest one there, an 84-year-old man, led the group and took his place at the head of the table because in Kyrgyzstan, elders are revered and shown a great deal of respect.
When the focus group was over, the Uzbek group was leaving just as the Kyrgyz group was arriving early, both groups with their oldest person in the lead. I thought the elders would nod to each other or something as a sign of respect. But if looks could kill, theirs would have. That’s the only way I can put it. My heart just dropped. It shows just how far they are from peace and forgiveness.
Later, I found out that the elder Kyrgyz had been caught in the riots; he was wounded, and half of his body is paralysed. He went through all imaginable hell there. A lot of people did. I don’t think I will ever forget what I heard, but these people have to live with it.
GMJ: Did they tell you different kinds of stories about what happened during the riots?
Esipova: Absolutely the same.
GMJ: No matter who you talked to, Kyrgyz or Uzbek?
Esipova: No difference at all. I don’t think anybody now can find out how it started, and in some ways, it’s not important anymore. It’s beside the point now. When something like this happens, people basically become like animals. That’s what’s scary: the feeling that people can live next to each other forever, and then suddenly everybody goes crazy and starts killing each other. For many years, they lived next to each other with tension, but quietly. And then — bodies in the street and no way to resolve the hatred. Now, they don’t see a way out, except what they told me: “We need another Stalin for five years.”
GMJ: Now, Kyrgyzstan has a presidential election scheduled at the end of October.
Esipova: Yes, and I don’t know what will happen. 80-three candidates filed to run in this election; it’s down to 20 now. But what Kyrgyzstan wants is security. You see, economics, freedom, all that comes later; right now, people want to be alive and safe. Most people don’t care about the other stuff until these basic needs are met.
Very few of these people have been alive long enough to remember how it was, of course, in Stalin’s time. They don’t remember how many people were put in prison by Stalin. And it’s not possible to bring a Stalin back for five years and expect him to leave after that. Stalins don’t leave after a few years of ruling; they stay in power until they die or are deposed.
So it’s basically a hypothetical situation, but what it says is simple: Many people don’t see any other way. So let’s hope the candidate they elect at the end of October is the right person and will help this country prosper.
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