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Central Asia: The Greening Of Democracy's Grassroots

  • Sonia Winter

Washington, 2 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Six years into independence, the farther reaches of Central Asia are beginning to sprout small private businesses and independent services in innocuous areas permitted and sometimes encouraged by authoritarian governments.

"We are the grassroots of democracy," says a philosopher from Tajikistan -- Yakuban Abdulkhalikov.

He spoke to RFE/RL with pride of a philosophical society he founded in 1994 with five others in the northern city of Khodjan (formerly Leninabad). It now has 30 members, mostly scholars and academics. Their mission -- to teach young people about democracy.

Abdulkhalikov was in Washington with a group of fellow Central Asians from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, to move the process along.

He said he wants to learn more about the organization, structure and operational planning of private, volunteer groups -- a previously unknown and still rare phenomenon in Abdulkhalikov's part of the world.

The Central Asians were invited for a month-long stay in the U.S. by Counterpart, a private Washington-based organization which dispenses funds and practical help to develop non-government groups in what used to be the Soviet Union.

In July, Counterpart brought 24 Kazakhs and Kyrgyz to Washington to attend lectures and seminars about volunteer activities and get some practical experience working with American groups. In August, Abdulkhalikov and 20 others, including two Turkmens, came on a similar trip. RFE/RL's Washington correspondent spoke to some of them in separate interviews about their interests and plans.

Abdulkhalikov's Philosphical Center, like most non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in Central Asia, got its start with a grant from the U.S. and advice from a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer.

Now, Abdulkhalikov says the Center has a board of directors, as well as a computer. It lists among its accomplishments a translation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights into the Tajik language.

He says more translations are planned, as well as conferences, seminars and lectures in the countryside to discuss human rights problems. "There is a lot of interest -- 50 people, sometimes 100, come to our events," he says.

But Abdulkhalikov adds quickly that the disussions have nothing to do with politics. "Our group is educational, not political ... we talk theoretically, not about practical issues," he says, noting that "we want to work with peoples' hearts and souls, raise peoples consciousness, and we direct our attention almost exclusively to young people."

He says peace in his country is relatively new and fragile after a protracted civil war, and that it is no easy task to strengthen the rule of law and improve the human rights situation in Tajikistan.

'We look to the future, " Abdulkhalikov said. "We don't expect a speedy transformation of Tajikistan into a free economy and democracy, it will probably take decades."

Learning the value of self-help and conflict resolution

Another Tajik in the Washington group, Saodat Kamalova from Dushanbe, is concerned with the more immediate future -- helping war invalids and the elderly, surviving on tiny pensions, remain as healthy and active as possible.

She started a humanitarian group called Odomiyat last year, providing mostly medical services and some social care such as bringing fruit to patients in hospital.

Kamalova, a geronontologist, says she has a full-time job as a doctor in Dushanbe's institute of medical sciences and works at Odomiyat afterwards with several other volunteer doctors and nurses. "As many as 20 people visit our center every day," she says.

Kamalova is full of plans inspired by the Washington tour. She wants to set up a reading center for pensioners, publish a pamphlet and provide hairdressing, pedicure and other services for the elderly, as volunteer care-givers do in America.

But she says right now basic food and medicine are what is needed in Tajikistan. 'When our standard of living gets higher, we can provide better services, but we cannot do it now," Kamalova says.

Meanwhile, she said she will try one innovation she has observed in America -- self-help. "My group is not all invalids...they can help each other shopping, doing hair and nails, I will introduce that concept," Kamalova said.

A businesswoman from the fabled city of Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Raisa Gareyeva, told RFE/RL about her plans to organize the little private entrepreneurs in her town into a western-style association.

Gareyeva runs her own travel agency that organizes specialized tours for foreigners in Bukhara. She says her business and seven other private travel agencies together with ten private bed-and-breakfast inns want to form a tourist association. "It is better in a bigger group to deal with government, negotiate taxes, those things," she said.

Gareyeva was interested in learning how to set up a board of directors and was happy to find out that "everyone can be represented."

But the thing that intrigued her most she said was a lecture on how to resolve conflicting interests, without violence. "Conflict resolution," she said in English, "there are no words for that in the Uzbek language." Gareyeva said she knows now how to negotiate with business partners and government officials and will pass on her knowledge to others in Bukhara's growing private business community.

As a shrewd entrepreneur, she has also spotted a way to make money and boost Uzbekistan's trade. Under the Counterpart program, Gareyeva went to an annual exhibition of arts and crafts and tourist souvenirs in New York City last week.

Eyes shining, she said that for the first time this year, there was a stall showing samples of Uzbek embroidered caps, vests and such from Shakrizabz city. Gareyeva said the most popular items were Christmas stockings embroidered Uzbek style. "At home that's nothing special but in New York, they sold 1,000 Christmas stockings and have orders for more," she said.

Gareyeva is now considering tapping into the western demand and selling Uzbek-made Christmas stocking souvenirs to her customers.

Planting volunteerism in poorer, non-Western societies

Her compatriot, Makset Atanyazov from the city of Nukus in Karakalpakia near the dying Aral Sea, cares passionately about the environment. He started a group in 1995 to educate young people about ecology.

"I want everyone to love nature and treat the environment the same way they care for themselves -- brushing their teeth, cleaning their clothes," he says.

Atanyazov says his education program targets children because "they are our future" and he wants to teach them to automatically consider in every decision how it will affect the environment, whether it will it be good or bad.

Atanyazov has met with educational experts in America and went to Philadelphia to talk to environmental specialists about television education programs. He says his group has no equipment and no camera but he dreams now of making a video film on the environment.

"It is a dream, but I will make it come true, I will do it," he said.

Latofat Kendjaeva, poet teacher and artist from Dushanbe, burns with a similar enthusiasm for helping talented children develop their full potential. Her group called "Istiqbol" was founded a year ago, to identify gifted children and foster their talent.

She says ten members work at centers for the children fulltime in Dushanbe and two other Tajik cities "It was very difficult at first to get people to work without pay, just from the heart," Kendjaeva said, adding "but our effort is for children and now we have people who want to contribute to our future."

The two Turkmens, Timur Berkeliev and Nikita Barsuk from Ashgabat, echoed some of the Tajik and Uzbek frustrations of adapting the concept of what Americans call "volunteerism" to poorer, non-Western societies. Their chosen field is combatting water pollution in Turkmenistan, parts of which are arid and severely polluted because of the shrinking of the Aral Sea.

Berkeliev said that in his country people like the volunteer idea: "there is great interest, we could attract one thousand, maybe two or five thousand -- but keeping people is another matter. They don't stay very long because they are preoccupied with work and putting bread on the table."

Barsuk points out that in America volunteers are often people who have plenty and want to share with others. "In our country, volunteers are motivated more by a desire to improve life -- we want our children to drink clean water, so our volunteers work in the evenings whenever they can," he said.

Barsuk is a hydrogeologist and makes environmental assessments for a private non-profit group called the "Social Laboratory of Modelling of Geo-Ecological Processes."

He and Berkeliev travelled under Counterpart auspices in the American Midwest to learn about rural water systems in the United States, the techniques of improving the water supply and community involvement in environmental decisions.

Berkeliev heads the ecology umbrella organization Catena in Ashkabat which has eight fledgling member groups.

He says public opinion polls show "environmental pollution is the number one concern for people -- ahead of food, education and employment, it is the most serious issue."

Harnessing the power of email and information

Catena began work in 1994 disseminating information about environmental pollution that the group got on its computer through electronic mail.

Berkeliev said: "it was very difficult after the collapse of the Soviet Union to get newspapers, books, any kind of information from abroad. But through email we began to get information...and now we have a network and a system in place...even a library where people can come to read newspapers and books." Barsuk added that email remains an important means of communication, especially with ecology groups in Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Central Asia. "We all have rich contacts and exchange information we get from abroad through email," he said.

They said that since the ecology groups got a permit from the Ministry of the Environment last year, it has been much easier for them to operate. "When we were not registered, it was very difficult," Berkeliev said.

Now, he says the biggest problem for contact with the West is language because there are not enough people to teach children English. Berkeliev says teachers tend to leave education for better paying jobs in business and industry "so there are now very few teachers of English and it is a big problem."

He and Barsuk, along with the Tajiks and Uzbeks in the Counterpart group will return home this week with a vocabulary enriched by Americanisms for which they seem to have no native equivalent.

Those interviewed by RFE/RL were mostly Russian speakers -- such as Gareyeva who delighted in the expression "konflikt resolyushin." There was frequent mention of "endzhiyos," the abbreviation NGO for non-government organization used routinely by their American hosts, as well as the word "voluntyirism." although its meaning in Central Asia seems a little different.

All the Central Asian NGOs must register with the government, in effect operating only with government permission, unlike the U.S counterpart which bears the NGO designation to show it is politically independent. Registration in the U.S. is mostly to determine a group's tax and financial status.

Similarly, volunteerism in the U.S. is taken mostly to mean a service that is free and is offered freely without compensation to workers. Whereas, several of the Central Asians said they get a salary from the U.S. and European grants that finance their groups. In the U.S. that would be called "non-profit," to indicate that the group's activity is not aimed at making money to enrich its members.

But definitions aside, the Tajiks, Turkmens and Uzbeks all said the private sectors in their countries are growing and that "endzhiyos" are expanding fast in the areas of health, education and social services. For Western observers that is a grassroots beginning of the democratic greening of Central Asia.