Kyrgyzstan ?Eternal Flame? Debacle Sheds Light On Economic Struggles In Central Asia

 @JaceyFortin on April 27 2012 7:15 PM
Kyrgyzstan Eternal Flame
Young people wave Kyrgyzstan national flags as they take part in a procession to commemorate State Flag Day in central Bishkek on March 3 of last year. Reuters

Kyrgyzstan's Eternal Flame, an outdoor gas fire that burns in honor of the soldiers who fought against German Nazis during World War II, was extinguished on Wednesday due to an unpaid gas bill.

The flame had burned continuously since 1985 in a plaza called Victory Square, which is in the Kyrgyz capital city of Bishkek. The state-owned utilities company supplying the fuel, Kyrgyzgas, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that its bills had gone unpaid for three years. Outstanding debts at the time of the shutoff amounted to about $9,400.

It is unclear who was responsible for settling the bill, and that issue was debated among municipal and federal officials. Still, the flame was back on by Thursday -- Kyrgyzgas apparently covered the cost after nobody stepped up.

It was especially important that the flame be operational by May 9, or Victory Day, an annual holiday celebrated by several countries in the former Soviet Union to mark the World War II victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. Kyrgyzstan marks the holiday with parades and ceremonies, and the eternal flame is a central element in those observances.

The temporary shutdown of the symbolic flame was covered by media outlets around the world, shedding light on the challenges currently facing Kyrgyzstan. The country, located amid the mountain ranges Tian Shan and Pamir, is struggling financially and has few natural resources. Corrupt governmental practices since the mid-1990s have caused the Kyrgyz economy to crumble. What little profit is made there is often linked to black-market enterprises involving organized crime or drug trafficking. Today, Kyrgyzstan is one of the former Soviet Union's poorest nations.

Compared with its neighbors, however, Kyrgyzstan got off to an excellent start when it gained independence from the Soviet Union. It established a democratic system with multiple parties and a functioning electoral process, unlike many surrounding countries that slipped quickly into authoritarian systems of government.

Unfortunately, the mid-1990s saw Kyrgyzstan's then-President Askar Akayev become more and more corrupt. He was overthrown in the 2005 Tulip Revolution, only to be succeeded by the equally crooked Kurmanbek Bakiyev. But Bakiyev was also deposed after another wave of bloody protests in 2010.

Just as the Victory Square eternal flame was extinguished but quickly restored, there is hope that Kyrgyzstan's past years of poor government may turn out to be more of an isolated period than a continuing pattern. After the ouster of Bakiyev and a brief aftermath of violent clashes, there was a relatively peaceful political transition to a democratic system. Parliamentary elections were held in 2010, followed by a presidential election in 2011.

Current President Almazbek Atambayev has worked on resisting the lingering undercurrent of governmental corruption, fighting the drug trades, and strengthening Kyrgyzstan's relationship with Russia.

Still riven by ethnic divisions and struggling amid economic woes -- which are not helped by recessions hitting major economies around the world -- Kyrgyzstan is far from stable. But, with its vocal and uniquely progressive citizenry, there are worlds of potential for this young Central Asian nation.

For now, at the very least, the gas has kicked on, and the eternal flame once again burns in Victory Square. 

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