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Poor grow wary, weary of leaders

Many people blame ousted President Askar Akayev for corruption and poverty that touches millions.

Associated Press
Published March 29, 2005


DARDOI, Kyrgyzstan - Jumatai is 8 and looks much younger. He can't walk. He can't close his mouth, so he can only eat mashed food. The state should have treated his disability, his grandmother says, but instead it turned its back on ordinary people.

Across Kyrgyzstan, frustrations such as these fused into the street protests that climaxed last week with crowds storming the presidential office building and driving out Askar Akayev.

"The government made such a mess of things," said Aiymkan Baitasheva, the grandmother. "I wish that just once Akayev would have driven past here. Right now I am feeling so much anger. What can I do?"

The family lives in Dardoi, an impoverished market town just a 15-minute drive from the president's office. Their unheated home, with no gas or running water, is typical of conditions on the outskirts of Bishkek, the capital, where thousands migrated from the countryside hoping to cash in on post-Soviet capitalism but instead live in slums.

Before 1990, when Kyrgyzstan was still a communist republic, it offered free health care and housing, and even then it was one of the poorest Soviet regions, with 32 percent of its people living in poverty. Today the U.N. Development Program estimates that about 44 percent of Kyrgyzstan's 5-million people live in poverty.

The poor blame Akayev, who came to power in the Soviet era, for corruption, the collapse of the communist social safety net and the rise of cutthroat capitalism. They have seen Bishkek fill up with cell phones, Mercedes-Benz showrooms and ads for Versace sunglasses, while Baitasheva's 11-year-old granddaughter isn't in school because the family can't afford the $16 enrollment fee or the transportation costs.

Baitasheva, her two daughters and seven grandchildren live on about $170 a month. The daughters get up at 3 a.m. to sell cigarettes, chewing gum and toys at a nearby market and bring home about $2.50 a day. A son-in-law is a trucker earning about $100 a month, and isn't home much. A quart of milk costs about 60 cents, a piece of flatbread, 25 cents. Rent on the family's barely furnished two-room hovel is about $40 a month.

Baitasheva says it cost her $75 to be treated by a doctor for a heart ailment.

The children spend the day on the thinly matted floor, wrapped in blankets, hands ice cold. Water is fetched from a pump outdoors in the snow.

The grandmother said she tried to get the boy into a home for disabled children near Bishkek but was told to take him south to her home town, Jalal-Abad, in the poorest part of the country.

Venera Kojemkylova, 15, lives next door, crammed with her mother, uncles, aunts and cousins in a three-room house of mud and straw.

Kojemkylova's father died when she was 4. Her mother, Anara, operates a fast-food stall in the market, bringing home $5 a day.

Erkin Moldaliyev, who sells used clothes at the Dardoi market, was among the demonstrators who forced Akayev to flee to Russia. Echoing a complaint heard widely across the country, he said Akayev was corrupt.

"He and his family took everything. They kept everything and left nothing for the people," he said.

He was cautiously hopeful.

"We hope the new government will be different and that everything will be transparent," he said. "But we don't know for sure because some of the same people are there, and we hope that we have not exchanged one set of bad people for another set of bad people."

Political situation settles down

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan - Prospects for political stability rose Monday as most major political leaders agreed on which of two competing parliaments had the right to rule, and the winning chamber quickly endorsed an interim president.

The breakthrough, four days after the elected president fled amid a huge street protest, left Kyrgyzstan with a makeshift government fashioned from incongruous parts.

The new executive branch is dominated by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who led the protests. The legislative branch will be filled by the parliament whose disputed election this month sparked the uprising in the first place. The old body's upper house remained defiant Monday, but its 45-member lower chamber suspended its activity and called on the upper house to do the same.

--Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

[Last modified March 29, 2005, 01:32:11]


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