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Uzbekistan/Kyrgyzstan: Tashkent And Bishkek Head In Different Directions

Prague, 7 October 1998 ((RFE/RL) -- When independence came to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1991, the capitals of the two countries appeared to any visitor to be remarkably similar.

There were some differences, of course. The Uzbek capital, Tashkent, had many more inhabitants, was far older, and sat at the entrance to the western desert. The Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, had the Tien Shan mountains in the background and the majority of its buildings were Soviet-era constructions. But in most other respects, they had much in common.

In the seven years since independence, however, the differences have become significant, with both cities changing in unexpected ways. Tashkent is a city under construction. The "center" of the Uzbek capital is a vast area, and within it, so much has been and is being built that it little resembles the city it was in 1990 or 1992.

Once the home of modest hotels with not much to offer, Tashkent now has many new and very stylish hotels. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), for example, recently held an environmental conference there.

The new construction isn't limited to hotels. Government buildings have been either leveled and rebuilt or have undergone serious reconstruction. There is a new national museum, new tennis courts to host the international "President's Cup" tennis tournament, and the airport is receiving a face lift. Many new glass and steel bank buildings have also been completed.

The street which runs between Tashkent's statue of Temir the Great (which "replaced" Karl Marx in 1994) and Mustakklik Maidoni, where government ministries and the presidential palace are located, has also seen major change. Once, Soviet-era buildings lined the sides of this street. Stores of dubious hygienic consideration occupied their ground levels, offering ice cream or local cuisine. Outdoor vendors cooked shashlik, plov, shurpa and other national dishes along the roadside. The vendors turned up the volumes on their tape players in a constant battle between modern and more traditional music.

Today, as before, the street is closed to traffic. The outdoor stands are still there, and offer the same food. But now they also serve cold drinks from the bottlers of Coca Cola. The buildings alongside the street have been torn down, making the pedestrian area wider. In the evenings, well dressed young people stroll the brightly-lit street. By turning up side streets, they can walk past the Levis Store or Benetton. It the "see and be seen" place for residents of the capital. And those who drive from the outskirts of town to reach this street probably are driving new Daewoo cars produced at the Uz-Daewoo plant in Uzbekistan.

The language on the street is definitely Uzbek, though there is a sufficiently large Slavic population to guarantee Russian is not likely to soon fade away completely. Almost all new street signs and advertisements are in Latin script, at least when they are in Uzbek.

Some 600 kilometers away, the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, had its own construction boom in the first four years after independence. The hotel "Dostuk" is one example. It was built in 1992 with help from the Chinese and until 1994 was the only new hotel in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Since then, however, few others have been built.

Five years after its opening, the hotel is an example of modern Bishkek. Though it is adequately maintained, it shows the signs of aging. Inside, some walls are cracking, carpets have accumulated several years of dirt, and furniture is slowly coming apart.

Much of Bishkek's center is succumbing to a similar process. Not many new buildings have been built. The outsides have little to distinguish them from six years ago. Even the statue of Vladimir Lenin still stands in the main square, something neighboring countries were quick to dispense with. Another noticeable difference is that at night, even in the center, the city is poorly lit. Outside the center there is almost no lighting other than that from roadside stands and houses. Soviet-made cars still occupy the roads.

But in another way, the Kyrgyz capital may be ahead of Tashkent. There is far less black market activity in Bishkek. That is apparent when it comes to hard currency speculation. In Tashkent, the official rate of the Uzbek "sum" to the U.S. dollar was 117 to 1. The bazaar rate was more than double, at 240 to 1. In Bishkek, if there is a bazaar rate for the Kyrgyz "som", it is extremely difficult to find anyone willing to engage in such a practice.

In addition, the language on the street is still Russian, often, even among the ethnic Kyrgyz themselves. Signs and advertisements are still in Cyrillic.

All these differences, while apparently superficial, may point the way to the fundamentally different directions the two countries appear to heading. Those directions may ultimately matter more than the language on the street signs or the name on the statuary.