Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Hopeful Young Turkics

By David G. Young

Moscow, October 2, 2002 --  

Ask teenagers in the former Soviet Union if early post-independence buildings are old or new, and they will invariably respond with "old." Nearly all of their awareness comes from the days after the end of the Soviet state.

It is this generation of new adults that will decide the direction of what the West sees as newly independent nations. Young adults are free of the baggage of their parents and grandparents, who expected the security of state largess -- in factory jobs, pensions and other benefits. The youth are much less conservative and more optimistic about the future. And they are now coming of age across thousands of miles of former Soviet territory.

In Central Asia, it is the non-Slavic people in this group that are best poised for the future. They are not as heavily invested in the decrepit industrial economy and trading system that collapsed in the early 1990s. The Slavs, who disproportionately served as industrial managers and factory workers, have largely departed for the lands of their ancestors. Many of those that remain are among the most destitute. Without the tight family bonds that provide a social safety net among Central Asia's Turkic people, Russians both old and very young are more likely to seek aid begging on the streets.

But the young Turks -- or more precisely the young Turkics -- have been partially insulated from the collapse. The Soviets never fully stamped out the traditional ways of life, and the lifestyles that most closely resemble those of pre-Soviet times are the least affected by the economic collapse. Shepards in eastern Kyrgyzstan and fruit growers in Uzbekistan's Fergiana Valley are doing much better than former factory workers in Tashkent. Turkic families tightly integrated with the Soviet system still benefit through ties with more distant relatives who retained pre-Soviet lifestyles.

But traditional lifestyles are also disappearing in the post-Soviet world. In Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, the population has grown substantially since independence. Poor villagers cannot turn a blind eye to the riches that exist in the city. They have flooded the capital, moving in with relatives, or living in groups in overcrowded apartments. With huge unemployment rates, many of these people have turned to theft. Crime in Bishkek has skyrocketed.

Those with jobs often work in the import/export business. With the Soviet trade system gone, a new but still terribly inefficient system has replaced it. Cheap plastic Chinese-goods flow in trucks past what was once a high-voltage fence separating rival communist empires. In the other direction, trucks filled with scrap metal -- the rusting remnants of the Soviet economy -- flow into China to be melted down into low-quality consumer goods. Countless buyers and sellers ride on public busses carrying small bundles of merchandise that is worth slightly more on one side of the border or the other. The fact that prices for consumer goods in Central Asia are lower than those for identical goods in the West is indicative of the pitiful margins earned by these traders.

For all these problems, there is plenty of reason to hope for Central Asia. The countries are well educated and more Western-oriented than ever. It is all up to the educated young Turkics who think that post-Soviet buildings are old. If they leave Central Asia for greener pastures, then hope for the future may be lost. If they stay put to rebuild their countries, Central Asia may yet emerge from the Soviet ashes to join the developed Western world.