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Kyrgyzstan’s crumbling Soviet legacy

Balikchy has become a byword for industrial decay and ruin swissinfo.ch

On the outskirts of Balikchy – a bleak industrial city on the shores of Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk Kul - lies a picture of desolation and ecological decay.

This content was published on December 25, 2003 - 13:42

Amidst the crumbling factories, silos and a disused railway line, the city's 45,000 inhabitants struggle for survival.

During the Soviet era, Balikchy thrived thanks to bustling shipbuilding and fishing industries. Goods from the city were sent to all parts of the Soviet Union.

But after independence in 1991, Balikchy’s industries and factories were forgotten, sold off and left to rot.

“The Soviet time was much better. Everything was strong and in order,” Sadko Satarov, a former factory worker, told swissinfo.

It’s a refrain heard all over Central Asia, where the transition to market capitalism has often been brutal.

In its first five years of statehood, Kyrgyzstan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) halved, hyperinflation was rampant and unemployment soared.

Hardest hit were the country’s 4.9 million people, most of whom had been born into a world in which the central state took care of everything – from health care and education to jobs and a pension.

Destitute

Satarov, in his late 60s, works as a security guard outside the pencil factory where he once drove a forklift.

“I used to work at the plant, and had a pretty good position. But right now I’m nothing,” Satarov said.

The factory was closed down in 1993, leaving 1,500 people without work. Last year, the factory’s equipment and machinery were sold to a Turkish businessman.

“We don’t know what happened to the money,” Satarov said.

“There is absolutely nothing left of the old plant. It looks like a Second World War concentration camp,” he said.

Satarov blames the sale on government bureaucrats who enriched themselves at the expense of ordinary workers.

“I see my homeland being destroyed. Our president [Askar Akayev] is a smart guy, but the officials around him are bastards,” he said.

Truckers, vodka and prostitutes

With its industries in ruins, Balikchy has little to fall back on.

For most inhabitants, there is little prospect of real work. Unemployment is endemic at over 70 per cent.

A guidebook describes Balikchy as a “town of truckers, vodka and prostitutes”.

The only hope is the region’s natural beauty and its ongoing popularity as a summer holiday resort.

Surrounded by the snow-capped peaks that form the border with China, and a lake ten times the size of Switzerland’s Lake Constance, the region now relies heavily on tourism.

“Jewel” of Central Asia

Once frequented by Soviet workers and dignitaries, Issyk Kul remains one of the former Soviet Union’s best-known recreation areas. Kyrgyz proudly describe the lake as “the jewel of Central Asia”.

Its popularity continues to this day, with visitors drawn by the resorts’ warm weather, sandy beaches and clear water.

The local airstrip was recently expanded to accommodate charter flights from Russia and Kazakhstan.

But the tourists who flock to the area in the summer are unable to sustain the population through the cold winter.

Satarov says the town is in urgent need of new investment.

“It would be possible to engage in some activity and production here. Human power is available,” he said.

swissinfo, Jacob Greber and Philippe Kropf in Balikchy

In brief

Balikchy is a bleak industrial city on the shores of Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk Kul.

It was once a thriving hub of industry and now lies in ruins.

After independence in 1991, most of its factories were closed, forgotten and sold off.

45,000 people live in Balikchy, where unemployment is believed to be over 70 per cent.

Former factory workers say they have seen none of the money made from factory sell-offs.

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Key facts

Kyrgyzstan
Population – 4.7 million.
70 per cent either unemployed or “underemployed”.
Gross National Income per capita is around $290 (SFr382).
More than 50 per cent of workforce occupied in agriculture.

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