Tuesday, January 27, 1998 Published at 22:16 GMT
Chill wind in Kyrgyzstan
The demise of the Soviet Union has had a variety of consequences for the republics which were once a part of it. Some are prospering now that they have control of their own natural resources. But others regret the severing of ties with Moscow. Kyrgyzstan, sandwiched between Kazakhstan and China in central Asia, is one of these. Emily Buchanan, who's just been there, says going it alone has had a catastrophic effect on the Kyrgyz economy and the health of its people.
There are few sights to compare to the Tien Shen mountain range in winter as the dawn sun hits its peaks, turning them pink and mauve. It's a fairy tale landscape - an Arctic fox on the prowl, chestnut horses pawing the snow for food, a farmer with his ruddy Oriental face, large coat and fur hat, trotting by on his long-haired pony. Kyrgyzstan emanates an atmosphere of magic and total isolation. But behind the staggering beauty is a country struggling with its identity and survival.
Kyrgyzstan was always part of the old Soviet Union. Once it had been collectivised and subdued by Moscow it seems to have suffered fewer of the hardships endured by other parts of the empire. There weren't the shortages or the queues that had marked the decline of Communism elsewhere. Here bondage with Russia meant a continuous supply of all necessities - fruit and vegetables for the harsh seven months of winter, and medicines for the hospitals. It's no wonder there little bitterness about the past, and now no wish to obliterate it. Travelling south, on the road to China, we passed through a deep gorge in the mountains. We were greeted by a giant wrought iron silhouette of Lenin's head perched on top of a rocky promontory. The faster Kyrgyzstan moves to a market economy, the less likely it seems that anyone will want to take it down.
Even memories of the Great Patriotic War are not obliterated. We passed a mountain on which a giant swastika design stood out. It was entirely made of fir trees - it turned out to have been a practical joke by a German prisoner of war who was sent out to plant trees as a punishment. No one noticed the shape he had made until long after the war and no one has bothered to chop it down.
The lack of anger about Soviet oppression is a reflection on the harsh realities of the present. So called "transition" from communism seems to become longer and longer, and many fear the social fall-out will go on forever. In the years after independence, the economy with is umbilical chord to Mother Russia severed, almost died. Gross National Product halved, factories closed and the numbers living in poverty soared. The President, the most progressive in Central Asia, is banking on the economy turning around before the social costs become too high. But whereas before the social indicators were level with Sweden, and there were no street children, and no malnutrition, now the capital Bishkek is filling with little urchins in rags begging or scraping a living selling in the markets. Malnutrition, in particular iron deficiency amongst pregnant mothers is reaching crisis proportions. The effects are, not only underweight and premature babies, but the lowering of IQ as well. The country is creating its own self-inflicted brain drain.
At Bishkek's main paediatric clinic they see anaemic children every day. We watched them being weighed and measured. A few pounds and a few inches below average every one. No one can calculate the impact that will have on the development of the country.
At high altitudes amongst the mud houses and old grey Soviet style housing blocks, lack of iron is life threatening. Up at 4,000 metres people need more red blood cells to carry oxygen to the brain, but without iron the body can't make those cells so the brain simply can't function properly. People become listless and unmotivated, and children are more vulnerable to disease. Chronic anaemia is not going to help the entrepreneurial spirit the country needs to escape poverty. The village of Eki Naryn is littered with disused farm machinery. Since the collective farms were abolished and processing factories closed, there's little for people to do. After decades of being told not to think it is hard for them to be galvanised into activity. Most are just subsisting, killing off their valuable livestock and hoping for better times.
The old Soviet love of impressive statistics has now been turned on its head. Here officials instead of boasting of the achievements of the latest 5 year plan now reel off the statistics of social disintegration.
Dr Akmatbekov, the Chief Physician of the Naryn region sat in his office at the hospital reciting the liturgy - 60 per cent unemployment, 60 per cent of women with anaemia, less than half the funds needed coming from the government, five hours a day with no electricity. As his voice carried on the room became darker. Some he was almost invisible behind his large desk. There was no power that day, and as the outside temperature dropped to -25 a chill wind blew under the door.