At a February 14 session of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh, deputy Irina Karamushkina questioned the choice of transportation the government planned to purchase for the Border Guard Service to use for patrolling the country's mainly mountainous frontiers.
"Why has it been decided to buy bicycles, not horses, for border guards to patrol the border?" Karamushkina asked. "Horses are more suitable for such terrain as ours," she added.
At that point, fellow deputy Erkin Sakebaev said, "If horses are bought for these border guards, then they will eat them."
Sakebaev had a point to his cold humor. "This is because only 60 soms [about $1.16] a day is allocated for food provisions for them," he added.
It's an interesting comment considering Kyrgyzstan's border guards are tasked with defending the frontier against militants who have trained at terrorist camps abroad, the sort many believe will be making their way into Central Asia from Afghanistan in the coming years.
They are also expected to apprehend smugglers, often narcotics smugglers who might be armed but probably at least have sufficient funds to offer hungry border guards enough money to buy some good dinners in exchange for looking the other way for a few seconds.
Kyrgyz border guards are unlikely to get much help from the guards on the other side of the border. Kyrgyz border guards have exchanged fire with their Uzbek and Tajik counterparts a few dozen times over the last decade and there have been fatalities.
Just last month there were two serious incidents along Kyrgyzstan's borders -- one that saw five Kyrgyz border guards in the south wounded in a shoot-out
with Tajik border guards and another that resulted in one Kyrgyz border guard wounded and 11 intruders from China
killed in the country's northeast.
The duty is hard and, as Sakebaev noted, the reward is not great. And the meager food budget is only one of the difficulties of life in the border guards.
Before moving to comments from Kyrgyz officials about the state of the border guards, I wanted to add some personal comments about who the border guards are.
I've had many chances to speak with the border guards of all the Central Asian countries, sometimes even of my own volition. Central Asian border guards in general tend to be rural kids and most are stationed in areas well away from their homes. They are usually in their late teens or early 20s. Depending on the size of the post there might be as many as three older, low-ranking officers who are in charge. They're the ones who always check my documents. Very often there aren't many signs of civilization near border posts areas, maybe a few villages. There is not much to do during free time.
RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Azattyk, contacted the Border Guard Service find out some things about the guards, like how much the job pays.
Border Guard Service spokeswoman Gulmira Borubaeva told Azattyk the average border guard earns some 10,000 to 12,000 soms per month (some $200 to $230). Officers and contract servicemen can earn 15,000 soms or more, and those serving in remote mountainous areas get additional pay. Borubaeva said the guards' wages had been increased twice recently.
That's actually not bad money in Kyrgyzstan, but it doesn't seem to attract enough candidates.
Last November, parliament member Asiya Sasykbaeva told parliament there were 300 vacancies in border guards in the southern Batken Province, which borders Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. She cited the low wage of (then) 8,000 soms (about $165) as being the reason.
Zakir Tilenov was the border guards' commander from 2006 until 2013 and was a career border guard. The "Vecherny Bishkek" newspaper published an interview with Tilenov in late May 2011, in which he said: "I will say honestly that in some places the recruits leave much to be desired. But we have to use the available resources. Most of the conscripts have not completed their secondary education." The border-guard commander continued, "There are some underweight young men among them, with various diseases that do not allow them to serve in the army, and those who require special additional training."
In August that same year, Tilenov said the suicide rate among border guards was increasing.
I wrote earlier about Central Asia's borders and mentioned Tilenov's comments that Kyrgyz border troops were greatly outnumbered by the border guards of neighboring states. I'll add that their Uzbek counterparts are much better funded and their Tajik counterparts have vast experience in border shoot-outs, which are weekly occurrences along the Tajik-Afghan frontier.
So, if the Kyrgyz border guards received horses, and ate one, it would not be a big surprise. Kyrgyz culture does not have an inhibition toward consuming horse meat. The Kyrgyz eat horse, and I've sat down and eaten it with them (and a welcome break it was for me after weeks in a row of mutton for breakfast, lunch, and dinner).
What the border guards really need is better funding and training, but Kyrgyzstan's cash-strapped government is in no position to give them that. Right after Sakebaev made his comments, Defense Minister Taalaybek Omuraliev addressed parliament on the shortage of funds for the armed forces.
-- Bruce Pannier, with Gulaiym Ashakeeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service