In Central Asia, a Soviet Past Recedes as New Influences Fill In

Kyrgyzstan's humble and sometimes bumpy progress in recent years has come with investment from Turkey, which is viewed favorably and gratefully here, and from China

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Youths wave Kyrgyzstan national flags as they take part in a procession to commemorate State Flag Day in Bishkek / Reuters

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Kyrgyzstan is the low-hanging fruit of Central Asia. Its leaders are not eccentric buffoon-monsters, as Presidents Niyazov and Berdimuhamedov have been in Turkmenistan. It does not have any significant stores of oil like Kazakhstan (or natural gas like, again, Turkmenistan). It is not famous for torture, massacres in the street, or hosting ethnic boogey-terrorists like Uzbekistan. And it was not the sight of a horrifying civil war, like Tajikistan. No, Kyrgyzstan is just Kyrgyzstan -- small, humble, sort of functional, but still maddeningly Central Asian.

What's most striking about this place, even on the 30 kilometer drive from Manas airport to downtown Bishkek, the capital, is the sharp disparity between the relatively small enclave of well-off people in this city and the truly appalling poverty in the countryside. The famously beautiful Kyrgyz countryside is also desperately poor: no electricity, rundown shacks for houses, muddy ruts where there should be a road, and sometimes-extreme isolation. Bishkek, on the other hand, is leafy and dense; downtown is an endless parade of Mercedes Benzes, Lexuses, and Audis. The buildings are newer, mostly, despite a few Soviet-era monstrosities.

Bishkek is gearing up for the October 30 presidential election, the first since April 2010 protests ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The hotels are filling up with Europeans who've arrived to monitor the election. The streets are crowded in by gigantic billboards featuring a half dozen faces of presidential candidates, with their websites (and, occasionally, their twitter feeds) listed underneath.

The city is a remarkable blend of stereotype-breaking images. Kyrgyzstan is 80 percent Muslim, but the girls wear skinny jeans and absolutely vicious heels. One American here told me that she was amazed, even after nearly two years in the country, at how some Kyrgyz women walk on top of wintry, ice-packed streets in four-inch stilettos. Forty percent of the country may be under the poverty line, but in downtown Bishkek the streets swarm with smartly dressed young people jabbering on their smart phones. There's even an authorized Apple reseller pitching iMacs, iPhones, and MacBooks to the locals.

Bishkek is in many ways a very modern place, even if the architectural legacy of the Soviet Union overshadows much of the skyline. The city's infrastructure can feel like a competition between the monumentalist old Soviet planners and the new Kyrgyz politicians: big, empty squares filled with statues to official cultural heroes, workers, and peasants, strung with wide streets teeming with cars. Many of the cafes, restaurants, clubs, and other hang-outs offer free wifi; there are Persian, Lebanese, Italian, and even Mexican restaurants. Friends here tell me they are mostly new, and quality varies considerably.

Surprisingly, though China is one of Kyrgyzstan's biggest trading partners, there is very little Chinese influence in the city. China's few companies here are run much like those it has in Africa and Latin America: from top-to-bottom by Chinese, with little spillover into local society. Turkish companies, on the other hand, are everywhere. In department stores, washing machines and stoves are advertised, in English, as being "Made in Turkey," and the biggest bank in town is Turkish-owned DemirBank.

A local friend joked to me that this is normal behavior for Turks. "If we ever land on Mars," he said, "we'll probably find the Turks have already set up a shopping mall." They're renowned here for their business sense. They also build and operate schools, including the largest university.

For nearly two decades, Turkey has been trying to exert a soft power of some sort over Central Asia. Their thinking seems to be that, because most of the countries in Central Asia speak distant cousins of Turkish (the whole family of languages that include Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Turkmen, and Turkish are called "Turkic Languages," while Tajiks speak a variant of Persian), perhaps Turkey can guide their cousins into the bright prosperous future.

Turkey hasn't had the best of luck with that policy. The Turkish taxi drivers I met in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2003, are no longer there, long since replaced by Kazakh drivers. Turks have made little headway in obstinate Uzbekistan, where change often comes slowly. As for Turkmenistan, a notoriously repressive country run by a severe and autocratic government ... well, no one here really goes to Turkmenistan by choice. That leaves Kyrgyzstan. You can see the Turkish presence everywhere, and many of the people seem to welcome it. At least in the downtown core, Kyrgyz speak warmly of Turkey, and say they enjoy vacationing in Istanbul.

Away from the downtown core Bishkek, the city is much more Soviet, much more familiar to people who have traveled through this region during the 20 or so years since the Soviet Union collapsed. Gorbachev is still reviled for ruining everyone's lives with Perestroika, as many blame their current economic and political troubles on the fall of the Soviet Union. "If he hadn't screwed things up," a middle-aged Russian woman named Yelena told me, "We would be much better off today." Things aren't horrendous, but they aren't great either: the suburban grocery stores sell lots of potato products and mayonnaise but not much else. The restaurants serve traditional Kyrgyz and Russian food: sour milk balls, fermented milk soda, grilled meats, bread, bizarre cheese, and garlic concoctions scraped over crusty bread. And on every street corner, inside every underpass tunnel, near every place vaguely international, you can see homeless people -- not aggressive or nasty, but omnipresent.

On Thursday, I was walking down a main street here with a friend, when a filthy elderly man, reeking of booze and missing several teeth, grabbed my shoulder. He asked us for money to buy bread because he was hungry. My friend noted that he had several loaves of stale bread slung over his shoulder. After an interminable pause, the man guffawed, "I'm not a drunk -- I'm no Russian swine!" My friend and I laughed, and apologized, and shook the man's hand. And then he stumbled off to beg someone else for money.

That's Kyrgyzstan. Weirdly functional even though it's not, where people do their best to get by but don't always make it. It's a confounding place, but utterly compelling at the same time.