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Kyrgyz Teachers Strike Spreads Nationwide

  • Farangis Najibullah

(WATCH: 500 secondary school teachers protested outside the governor's office in Kyrgyzstan's northern Talas Oblast)

Thousands of Kyrgyz teachers are taking to the streets demanding an immediate pay increase and threatening open-ended protests if their demands are not met.

But with officials saying that their demands are impossible to meet, teachers are now threatening to take their protests nationwide.

The protests began in early December in the southern provinces of Osh and Jalal-Abad. This week, teachers in the northeastern provinces of Talas and Issyk-Kul joined the protest.

Fatima Batyrbaeva, head of the teachers' union in Talas Province, said on December 15 that teachers are struggling to make ends meet.

"We can't wait anymore. Our patience is wearing thin," Batyrbaeva said. "We don't trust [the authorities] anymore. We are here to demand salary increase."

Meager Wages

The average monthly salary for a teacher in Kyrgyzstan is about $30 to $40, according to the country's Education Ministry. That figure already places schoolteachers among the lowest-paid public-sector workers in the country, and opposition politicians say some teachers make even less -- as little as $20 a month.

That is a dismally low salary in one of the poorest countries in Central Asia. In 2009, per capita income in Kyrgyzstan was $183 per month. The country's economic situation has soured considerably amid the political and social unrest seen this year, and inflation has led to higher prices for food, energy, and other necessities. The country's Consumer Price Index market basket, which measures the price of a select group of essential consumer goods and services, is $70.

Turgunbek Sarybaev has been working as a teacher in the southern city of Uzgen for 32 years. "I make around $30 a month. With this money you can only buy a sack of flour," Sarybaev said. "I have five children and two of them are university students. Now you work out how I can feed my family with this kind of salary."

Teachers in the southern Kyrgyzstan, while striking earlier this month, said they want their salaries increased to $200 to $250 a month, which would put them roughly on par with the country's average salary. They also want a 50 percent discount on utility costs.

Desperate Measures

Seeking to find an acceptable solution, Education Minister Kanat Sadykov has offered a step-by-step plan that would raise teachers' monthly wages by 30 percent as of January 2011.

Authorities have also promised to provide allowances of rice, flour, sugar, and vegetable oil to ease teachers' financial burden. However, the country's Finance Ministry says that the proposed solution will put strains on the cash-strapped government, and that it cannot afford to meet strikers' salary demands in full.

"We need $25 million to implement this plan" in its first stage, said Aida Abarbekova, of the Finance Ministry office of social spending. "Such this money wasn't foreseen in our budget, and we have to cut spending in other spheres to raise funds for teachers' payment."

To save money in "other spheres," the ministry suggests that government employees should restrain from using official cars.

Teachers' unions have not yet responded to the Education Ministry's offer of a step-by-step pay increase. But protesting teachers say that if their demands are not met, strikes will spread nationwide, as they have the support of the majority of the country's 60,000 teachers.

Nurila Jumakanova, a veteran Russian-language teacher in the remote, mountainous village of Uzgorosh in central Naryn Province, said she hasn't joined the strike but fully supports the wage demands.

Jumakanova says "life is very difficult for teachers who struggle with meager wages."

More Social Unrest?

Mukash Bazarkulov, a former education minister, says teachers are in a desperate situation, working for miserable salaries and retiring with meager pensions. Bazarkulov says many teachers have to work even beyond retirement age.

"Teachers' wages should go up, there is no other option," Bazarkulov says. "Up to 30 percent of our teachers are pensioners who are forced to work because they have no other way to earn a living. Some of them get so exhausted that they even take mild sedatives after working two shifts."

"Because of their small salaries they volunteer for extended shifts, and it has a negative impact on the quality of their performance. This situation is simply unacceptable."

Small salaries have forced many teachers to leave their profession. Some teachers leave to Russia for months to earn extra cash.

Many ordinary Kyrgyz are concerned that if teachers' demands are not met, their protests could lead the already unstable country to more social unrest. Some residents in the capital Bishkek have already braced themselves for another spring of street demonstrations next year.

Kyrgyzstan is known for street protests and public uprisings. In January, a government plan to increase utility prices led to demonstrations in numerous provinces that contributed to the popular uprising in Bishkek that toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiev in April.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Torokul Doorov contributed to this report

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