Transition Proves Hard for Ex-Soviet Republics Resource-Rich Region Lacks Structures to Support Private Enterprise
Yalman Onaran, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
YURA and Sasha, both 12 years old, wait near the exit of the Shaggie's fast food restaurant every day. Their eyes are fixed on customers eating hamburgers and French fries. When a patron gets up to leave, they rush inside to claim the leftovers before the waiters can get to the table to clean up.
Although they get food regularly at the state orphanage, Yura and Sasha say they like hamburgers and Pepsi a lot. So they go for the "Western leftovers." Moreover, they say, in the last two years the strict rules in the orphanage have not been enforced, and the quality of the food there has deteriorated tremendously.
The two orphans' daily visits to the only Western-style fast food restaurant in town point to a key problem faced by Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.
Food is scarce in parts of the region due to the collapse of Soviet distribution mechanisms. Where food is available, people lack the ability to pay for it.
Triple-digit inflation has eroded customers' buying power. Old rules, which were swept aside with the fall of communism, have not been replaced by new regulations that would allow private enterprise to accommodate needs. Desire to become "Western" economically and culturally is common, but very few people know what they have to do to accomplish that.
While the world carefully watches the region's embrace of Islam, its ethnic conflicts, and halting steps toward democracy, there is only one thing on people's minds here: how to get through the next day.
"The economy is the most important problem right now," says Matluba Sattarkizi, an Uzbek doctor in Tashkent.
She echoes the sentiments expressed by many people interviewed recently throughout Central Asia. Freedom with hunger
"Independence has brought us freedom and the right to use our own language and practice our religion," she says. "But food is more important than all those things."
Pointing to her stomach, she adds, "When there is nothing in here, who cares about language or religion?"
Dr. Sattarkizi earns 2,200 rubles ($70) a month working for the state hospital. Meanwhile, a not-so-fancy woman's dress sells for 1,500 to 1,800 rubles ($50-60).
While prices have gone up by 300 to 2,000 percent in the last two years, wages have only increased by 35 to 50 percent.
In Tashkent, one also needs to have the same amount of rubles in coupons to purchase something from the state stores. Coupons are not necessary at the booming open markets on the streets, but prices are even higher there.
Food and other basic supplies such as soap, toilet paper, and pens are scarce in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
In Kazakhstan's capital, Alma-Ata, prices are lower than in Tashkent, but there is not much to buy. Shelves are mostly empty. Even the open markets on the streets have little to offer. …