Batken is Kyrgyzstan's southernmost province. It is also the poorest. Batken Province has a population, officially, of more than 400,000. Per capita, a higher proportion of people from Batken Province have left the country looking for work abroad than any of the country's other six provinces.
"There are three main problems in Batken," former provincial Governor Sultan Aijigitov tells me: "Roads, borders, and water." We're sitting in an empty conference room along one of the "main" roads in the city of Batken. There's no one else there, the lights are off, and there is no evidence anyone has been using the room lately.
Ajigitov is a candidate from the Ata-Meken party, one of 14 parties participating in October 4 parliamentary elections. He sums up the problems of the region as well as any of the people I've been able to speak to so far.
Roads are an important issue for the people here because of the Tajik and Uzbek exclaves in Batken Province. Roads built through these exclaves during the days when Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were fraternal Soviet republics have become a source of great friction since the three became independent. Ajigitov says in areas where Kyrgyzstan has built detours around these exclaves tensions have decreased. He adds locals, voluntarily and at their own expense, were responsible for seeing some of these roads completed.
Large sections of the borders in this area where the three countries come together are still not demarcated and in some places where the borders are officially demarcated it is not readily apparent where the dividing line actually is.
As for water, I've traveled the road to Batken a half dozen times, at least, over the years and it is obvious the land is parched, despite the fact the Pamir Mountains (the Alay Range) loom not far from the city of Batken. Water use has been another source of problems between the Kyrgyz and Tajik populations but I'm going to the border soon so I won't get into that yet.
The scarcity of water, Ajigitov says, is also one of the causes of the exodus of working-age people from Batken. He says with proper supplies of water the land here could sustain agriculture and "people would return, maybe people would even migrate here."
Speaking with people while walking around the city of Batken (population approximately 26,000), dropping into stores, and sitting at the chaihana (teahouse) it is apparent that Ajigitov is absolutely correct about what voters here consider to be important. Everyone I spoke to named one or more of these three issues as priorities for Kyrgyzstan's government to address, though many added the need for better support for the ailing economy in Batken was important.
I walk into a store on a dusty patch on the edge of town. As I grab a bottle of Coca-Cola from the refrigerator, the woman working there flashes a look that says, "of course." Since my appearance has got her attention I explain why I am here and ask if she plans to vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections. "Yes," she says, but when I ask if she has chosen a party to vote for she tells me "not yet." Interestingly, of the more than 30 people I've asked so far, that was the most common answer.
When I was doing sociological work in Central Asia in 1992-1993 I learned quickly that people often told me what they thought I wanted to hear. So I'm not surprised when I drop by the Batken Youth Club, an initiative group that currently is focusing on trying to get local voters to go the polls on election day, and they tell me they estimate only 35 to 40 percent of the Batken city population will actually cast ballots.
The leader of the organization is Murat Altynbek and, like the other three youth club members present, Altynbek appears to be in his mid-30s. He explains that the new biometric registration system to be used to identify voters by their fingerprints has been met with apprehension by many here in Batken and they have been unwilling to undergo the process.
Altynbek and his club have been conducting meetings and going out to speak with the public "almost every day" for the last many weeks as they try to raise enthusiasm for elections -- not only the October parliamentary elections but local elections coming up next year.
There is one issue about the parliamentary elections that seems to particularly bother Altynbek and his fellow club member Janybek. "There is not one candidate from Batken district in the top 10" on any of the 14 parties' lists of candidates. They point out, and repeat more than once, that the Leylek district of Batken Province does have such a candidate, which does seem strange since Batken city is the provincial capital.
They then raise one of the allegations that are haunting this election -- that only people with money are candidates. There have been reports about this in Kyrgyz media and a group calling itself Taza Oppozitsiyalyk Kyymyl (the Clean Opposition Movement) demonstrated outside the office of Kyrgyzstan's president in August making exactly that charge.
When asked which of the parties seem to be most active in Batken, Murat names Ata-Meken, Respublika-Ata-Jurt, Bir Bol, and the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK).
The good news from my conversations with all these people is that there appears to be no interference whatsoever in the ability of parties or candidates to campaign here, which is a huge difference compared to Kyrgyzstan's elections in 1990s and in the last decade, and something opposition parties in other Central Asian countries, those where they are allowed to exist, cannot say.
Next stop; two Kyrgyz villages along the border with Tajikistan.