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Wednesday, 10 April 2002

A DEMOGRAPHIC UPHEAVAL IN KYRGYZSTAN?

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By Rafis Abazov (4/10/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: During the second half of the 20th century Kyrgyzstan, like other Central Asian republics, had among the highest population growth rates in the former Soviet Union. Its population doubled between 1926 and 1959 from 0.9 million to 2.

BACKGROUND: During the second half of the 20th century Kyrgyzstan, like other Central Asian republics, had among the highest population growth rates in the former Soviet Union. Its population doubled between 1926 and 1959 from 0.9 million to 2.06 million and again between 1959 and 1989 from 2.06 million to 4.2 million. By 1991 its population was one of the youngest in the USSR, with almost 26 percent below the age of 14, and only 9 percent over 65; in 2001, 35 percent of the population is estimated to be under 14. By international standards, the overall population size is still not great for a country of 198,000 square kilometers, with an average population density of about 22.2 people per square kilometer. However, only 7 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s territory is arable land, the rest is mountainous. Most of the population lives in two major areas – the Chui Valley and the northern part of the Ferghana Valley – two of the most densely populated areas in Central Asia. During the Soviet era, Kremlin policy makers encouraged population growth in the hope that young Central Asians would join the labor force in sparsely populated Siberia and the Russian north. The Soviet government provided generous health care, social welfare and maternity benefits for large families, and invested in infrastructure and education. However, most of the population growth was in rural areas where young people were traditionally bound by a myriad of family and tribal relationships. They were trapped in underemployment and miserable social conditions. Few young people moved from the overpopulated rural areas into the cities, where housing conditions were inadequate and where they lacked the needed industrial skills.  The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and subsequent cutting off of Russian subsidies to Kyrgyzstan in 1993 hit the country hard. It left a huge hole in the national budget that forced Kyrgyzstan to slash expenditure dramatically in health, family support, education and social services. Rampant privatizatsiya, dubbed prikhvati-zatsia (take all-you-can-grab), accompanied by a decline in trade with the former Soviet republics,  reduced the number of available jobs in many sectors of the national economy. Between 1990 and 1996 the manufacturing sector lost almost 127,000 jobs (48%), the mining sector lost 10,000 jobs (51%), and construction lost 88,000 jobs (65%). Unofficial estimates of unemployment figures, including those of the Economist Intelligence Unit, placed unemployment as high as 20-30%. Against this background of steep economic decline and mass unemployment, the country’s population increased by another 600,000 during the 1990s, as a sizable proportion of young Kyrgyzstanis attained reproductive age. The high population growth was, however, offset by a high emigration rate, as many skilled working-age people chose to leave for Russia, the Ukraine, Germany and the OECD countries. 

IMPLICATIONS: The population growth in Kyrgyzstan, as in all other Central Asian republics, presents the national government with a number of challenges, and the implications go far beyond the regional level. There are four issues of major concern. First, if unchecked, population growth brings additional pressure on the scarce financial resources of the state for maintaining the education system, healthcare and social services, and it also leads to a decline in standards of living. Although the official literacy rate remains at around 98 percent, functional illiteracy has been rapidly growing, and the quality of education is in steep decline. This may affect the republic’s attractiveness to foreign investors. In 1990 the Korean Gold Star Corporation had no trouble hiring local staff for its electronics assembly plant in Kyrgyzstan; in 2000-2001 several foreign investors raised concerns about availability of local skilled staff for their potential projects. Second, in the context of a failing economy, high unemployment and an appalling business environment, high population growth pushes impoverished young people into the black economy, which since the mid-1990s has included trafficking of illicit drugs from Afghanistan to Russia and Western Europe. There have been unconfirmed reports that farmers in remote Kyrgyzstani and Tajikistani villages also recently began illegal planting of opium.  Third, socially marginalized and unemployed young people, acutely aware of social injustice and of corrupt politicians siphoning wealth into their accounts and dachas, have the potential to become extremists and become involved in Taliban-style purification movements. In 1999, the Vechernii Bishkek newspaper ran the story of a captured member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who had entered Kyrgyz territory and fought against Kyrgyz defense forces in the summer and fall of 1999. This young man from a small remote village explained that he had joined a religious group in order to escape poverty and unemployment, and later joined the IMU fighters for the promised monthly payment of around US$200.   Finally, the population growth, especially in the rural areas, creates an additional pressure on the fragile mountainous environment of Kyrgyzstan. In order to feed their large families, the peasants are often forced to cultivate technical crops such as cotton, tobacco and others, which leads to soil degradation. They extensively exploit the vulnerable alpine forests in the Tian Shan Mountains area, source of several major Central Asian rivers. Soil deterioration and water shortages could lead to a major environmental catastrophe with the potential to leave the republic unable to feed its population.

CONCLUSIONS: Population growth is here to stay. At the current birth rate of 26.18 births per 1,000 population, the number of people living in Kyrgyzstan could double within the next 23 to 28 years. So far the government has failed to establish a positive business environment attractive to foreign investors, or to encourage local businessmen to begin new industries and create new jobs, especially for young people. Hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid and credits have been wasted on so-called ‘structural changes’, ‘reforms’ and ‘macroeconomic rehabilitation’, yet during the last 10 years few new enterprises opened and very few farmers or small and medium businesses received real assistance. Kyrgyzstan needs to establish a competitive business environment and present competitive products to the international market utilizing the existing local labor force and the comparative advantage of highly educated local workers. If the economic, social and educational needs of the rapidly growing population are not effectively addressed soon, one may assume that there will be many radical groups eager to recruit the local youth, offering them their only escape from unemployment and poverty. 

AUTHOR’S BIO: Rafis Abazov, PhD, is a visiting scholar at the Harriman Institute at the Columbia University in the city of New York. He is an author of  The Formation of Post-Soviet International Politics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan (1999), Freedom House report on Kyrgyzstan (2002) and co-author of the forthcoming Historical Dictionary of Kyrgyzstan (2003).

Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved

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