The nice guys of Asia: Hugh Pope reports from Bishkek on Kyrgyzstan's encounters with some of capitalism's more dubious operators

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE UZBEKS may be tough, the Kazakhs proud, the Turkmen hardy and the Tajiks volatile, but the Kyrgyz, most agree, are doomed to be the nice guys of Central Asia. Their trusting openness is both a blessing and a curse.

'It's a historical peculiarity, I suppose,' said President Askar Akaev, a genial 49-year-old elected in 1990 to lead this former Soviet oupost, the size of Hungary, on the Tien-Shan mountain border with China.

The President's open face and ready laugh do much to dispel Kyrgyzstan's isolation, its increasing poverty and long, cold winters in a country of mountains rising over 22,000 feet (7,000 metres). As one of his aides put it; 'We'd like you to think of Kyrgyzstan as your country house'.

The open-door policy has brought much to Mr Akaev's 4.4 million people. His political tolerance and adoption of free-market rhetoric have made his country a favourite test-bed for International Monetary Fund policies, American aid and European Union loans in a region still largely run by its former Communist leaders.

On the other hand, diplomats say Kyrgyz navety has laid them open to any number of con-men wanting to run off with their country's silver - or rather their gold, their only important hard-currency-earning resource. Similar stories are heard all over the old Soviet fringe, but no state seems as accident-prone as Kyrgyzstan.

'It's like 19th-century Persia, with people dashing around, seeking concessions and then trying to market them,' said Tom Unwin, a 70-year-old veteran of many international aid projects and representative of an EU technical assistance programme.

The independence thrust upon the Kyrgyz two years ago caught them completely unprepared. Until recently a mainly nomadic shepherd people, they had had no experience of separate relations with the outside world or even their neighbours.

When their big neighbour, Uzbekistan, declined to send cotton yarn to a spinning mill even though they had been paid a billion roubles for it, weak Kyrgyzstan had no recourse to higher authority. Few Kyrgyz understand their currency, let alone the world of international finance.

'At least once or twice a week, there's a new group of people in town, offering loans of millions of dollars if the Kyrgyz can only put up a half per cent commission in advance,' said one of the few foreign officials posted in icy Bishkek, built by Tsarist military engineers just over 100 years ago.

Blanket concessions granted by corrupt elements in the bureaucracy and government have sometimes put off reliable international firms, and the overflow from those scandals that have been uncovered have even threatened genuine contracts with endless parliamentary inquiries.

The most publicly aired scandal surrounds a company called Seabeco, at one stage so close to the Kyrgyz government that it became the official point of contact in literature distributed at international economic conferences. Now Seabeco's name is abhorred. Local press reports speak of more than a ton of Kyrgyz gold being spirited off to Swiss banks in a Seabeco jet and question what was gained in return.

'People who don't work don't make mistakes,' was all Mr Akaev would say. 'Sometimes we were in a hurry. At least we admit our mistakes and try to learn from them. Some of my (Central Asian) fellows consider themselves infallible. The real mistake is not to change.'

The government then had to fight off an attempted scam offering a share in 20 years of interest in dollars 2.3bn ( pounds 1.55bn) of United States government bonds. Proponents of the deal managed to hoodwink Kyrgyzstan's most famous author- turned-ambassador into being its sponsor.

Then they toured provincial leaders and soon the Kyrgyz press was lambasting the government for rejecting a golden goose.

'On paper, it was hard to see anything wrong. Even when the national bank hired detectives and found that two of the men had been convicted of fraud in the United States, many people wanted to go ahead,' the foreign financial specialist said. 'I kept trying to explain that nobody gives something for nothing, but people could not understand.'

More than ever, Mr Akaev is under pressure to show results from Western-inspired economic policies that have sent prices rocketing towards international levels as salaries stagnate. He has called a referendum on his presidency for the end of January, in practice a vote of confidence that the country should not give in to a resurgence of nostalgic Communism.

Almost completely reliant on outside aid, his job of choosing his Kyrgyzstan's partners in his struggle will get no easier. Only seven foreign embassies are installed in Bishkek to offer advice. His only hope is that love of the Kyrgyz has made diplomats unusually sympathetic to his plight. As one ambassador put it: 'The Kyrgyz are so open and willing, you just want them to succeed.'

(Map omitted)