Kyrgyz Capital Gets a Makeover

Residents complain that they have been told to foot the bill for sprucing up Bishkek for a major meeting of regional states.

Kyrgyz Capital Gets a Makeover

Residents complain that they have been told to foot the bill for sprucing up Bishkek for a major meeting of regional states.

When leaders from Russia, China and Central Asia gather in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on August 16, all eyes will be on the big geopolitical stories – is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation shaping up to be a serious regional defence grouping? Are its intentions towards the United States and NATO friendly or otherwise?

But for Bishkek’s residents, the upcoming summit has a different and more immediate significance. The authorities have decided the city looks too untidy, and are asking residents to spruce it up before the foreign presidents arrive.

The Kyrgyz government has earmarked 250 million soms - around six and a half million US dollars – to the Bishkek authorities to fund the refurbishment.

However, Daniyar Shabdanov, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the budget had not been finalised, and it was imperative for the work to be done now rather than later. He did not make it clear whether anyone would be recompensed out of official funds once the budget was approved.

Residents and businesses are complaining that they have been ordered to renovate their buildings and clean the streets, without regard for whether they are physically able do the work themselves or find the money to pay for it. Some say they are being forced to take out private loans to foot the bill.

Hotel owners complain that they are now being pressured to cancel bookings in order to make way for summit participants, even though the meeting was arranged a long time ago.

On arrival at Manas airport, the presidents of Russia, China, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will be whisked into the city, passing the Prigorodnoye suburb along the way. Residents of Prigorodnoye whose houses flank the main highway say they have received an official order from the Alamuddun district planning department giving them ten days to renovate and whitewash homes and other buildings, mend and paint fences and gates, clear away rubbish and cut the grass verges.

“Where am I going to find the money to replace my roof, as they’re telling me to?” asked local resident Lyuba Plotnikova.

Like many others along the road, pensioner Yelena Kravchenko has also been told to get a new roof for her house.

“My roof has a sheet metal covering, which is better than slate, but I am being forced to change it. I don’t have the money or the energy to do so,” she complained.

Kravchenko said she could not understand why she had to give her house front a makeover even though it was in good shape . “I’m still having to paint the shutters and window frames. I don’t understand why – everything is fine here. And who’s going to paint them, my 72-year-old husband?” she asked.

Suyunbek Arabekov is not only chief architect of the Alamuddin district which includes Prigorodnoye; he is behind the entire proposal to tidy up the capital.

He said it was essential to carry out the work in anticipation of the Shanghai summit.

“After all, if we’re receiving guests at home, we put our house in order,” he said.

But Arabekov insisted no fines would be levied if people did not carry out the orders.

Shabdanov said that technically speaking, Bishkek residents were legally responsible for keeping the area around their homes clean and tidy, under an ordinance issued by the city council in 2003.

“Every citizen, every organisation and every company is expected to make improvements to its space. Everyone has their own area to work on. We should help the city we live in,” he said.

Meanwhile, private businesses say they too are being pressured to contribute to the effort.

One businessman, who introduced himself as Kalmat, said he had been visited by officials had come to talk to him. “They told me I’d have to lay tiles on 100 metres of pavement next to my small grocery kiosk. That’s a lot of money, and I’ll have to go into debt,” he said.

But like many business owners, Kalmat did not even consider refusing to obey the instruction, for fear that the authorities would close him down.

“They’d find some excuse to close my kiosk, and it’s my only source of income, on which I feed my entire family,” he said.

Another businessman, who gave his name as Samat, also planned to paint his shopfront even though he saw no need for it.

“I don’t understand them; it all looks fine anyway, but whether I want to or not, I’ll have to paint everything again to refresh the paint and show how eager I am,” he said. “I don’t expect the authorities to help. That would be pure fantasy.”

Travel agents in Kyrgyzstan are also anxious about the prospect of around 4,000 people – politicians, staff and journalists from the SCO members and also those countries that have observer status in the grouping – descending on the city.

Vladimir Komissarov, the chairman of the Silk Road tourism association, has warned that the summit may damage the travel and hospitality business.

Interviewed by the AKIpress news agency, Komissarov said hotels and travel companies were under pressure to cancel existing hotel reservations to make way for the SCO guests.

“Hotel reservations made by several tourist agencies have been cancelled to make space for delegations from the SCO members and observer states. Imagine what will happen if a group of tourists arrives and we can’t find a place for them to stay,” he said.

According to Sergei Bogdanov, a journalist with the Tribuna newspaper, even if everyone knuckles under and carries out the facelift successfully, the underlying social problems in the city will not be covered over so easily.

“I can’t believe the Kyrgyz authorities are so naive that they hope to hide the poverty and dissatisfaction of the people behind a surface gloss. Are they hoping that foreign journalists won’t walk around the streets of Bishkek and talk to ordinary city dwellers?” he asked.

Some of Prigorodnoye’s residents are already turning the tables on the authorities by using the clean-up campaign to embarrass them over the generally poor state of public services. A letter written by a group of women living in the area complained that three streets there have had no drinking water for the last six months.

“Despite our appeals, everyone brushes us off, saying they don’t have time for us. And this is at a time when the temperature is reaching 40 degrees,” said one of the women.

Nevertheless, the instructions still stand and people are getting out their shovels and paintbrushes to improve the city’s façade.

Bek Omarov is the pseudonym used by an independent journalist in Bishkek.

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