Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Osh Celebrations Fall Flat

A stupendous birthday party for the city of Osh does little to cheer its long-suffering residents
By Alla Pyatibratova

The lavish celebration of Osh's 3000th anniversary earlier this month has infuriated much of the city's population


The equivalent of 15 million dollars was spent on the event on October 4 - money locals believe would have been better spent on reviving the city's decimated industry and improving local housing.


There is no historical reason to celebrate Osh's birthday this year in particular, and some suspect President Askar Akaev may have held the event to bolster his chances in leadership elections later this month.


His decision to use the occasion to declare the city the country's second capital tends to support this view.


There's little doubt that the birthday celebrations have brought benefits to the city. Over the past four years new schools, a boiler house, a museum and television centre have been built. But it took loans and sponsorship to make possible what the government has been unable to achieve in years.


But the cost of the event and the means used to raise the money have left the people of Osh with much to complain about. As opposition leaders point out, such lavish celebrations were inappropriate when the country is struggling with a $1.5 billion national debt.


Osh's factories are at a virtual standstill. Industry has been decimated. The city used to boast famous silk and paper factories. All are on the brink of closure - which has infuriated workers.


Then there was the scandal of the lottery set up by Osh's former mayor to raise funds for the party. So much money went missing the police were called in. But in the end, to no one's surprise, the criminal investigation was halted and no one prosecuted.


Taxpayers were obliged to "donate" part of their monthly income towards the Osh lottery. Despite only earning the equivalent of $7 per month, nurses were made to buy two or three tickets at a time. These "voluntary contributions from patriots" often amounted to a day's wages for many workers. Even nursery school children were roped in.


Private companies would regularly contribute to the "jubilee kitty" to buy themselves some peace and quiet. Some managers even "donated" monthly salaries and quarterly bonuses.


Three months ahead of the October 4 party, trolley buses received a new coat of paint. Houses were whitewashed, flowerbeds planted and streets asphalted. But only in those places likely to be visited by important guests. Elsewhere Osh was left untouched, crumbling and grubby.


Just like in Soviet times, the media began running stories about more people being healed and improved teaching standards.


Schoolchildren were told to take the day off so they could line the guests' route like a "living, ecstatic corridor". They spent three days in cold and rain rehearsing their party piece.


With two weeks to go, Osh was treated to hot water, a luxury only normally available for two months a year. Many residents, unable to afford the cost, had to pass.


On the great day itself, the people of Osh were able to enjoy their first decent loaf of bread in years.


In return, people were asked to donate money, food and clothes to Kyrgyz soldiers fighting in the Batken region. They were also called upon to provide accommodation for the visiting dignitaries and guests, even though most were excluded from the 500,000 som ($10,000) welcoming ceremony.


Alla Piatibratova is a regular IWPR contributor.


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