Kyrgyzstan’s New Nomads

March 14, 2013, 06:00

A generation of skilled and ambitious people pack their bags, leaving a talent vacuum back home.

In filmmaker Ruslan Akun’s Salam New York! (Hello New York!), a young Kyrgyz man goes to New York with dreams of attending Columbia University. When his plan fails, he stays on in the city, looking to support himself however he can. He eventually meets an assimilated Kyrgyz woman and they fall in love.

The movie, released last month, is a hit with audiences in Kyrgyzstan, perhaps because it touches a nerve with so many young people here who yearn to seek their fortunes abroad.

From 2005 through 2011, nearly 300,000 people left Kyrgyzstan to become permanent residents abroad. Net migration – which takes into account those entering the country – is lower, but Kyrgyzstan has still seen the flattest population growth over that period of any Central Asian country, according to World Bank statistics. Researchers say emigration is a major contributor to the stasis and is costing the country its best and brightest.

At the current rates of emigration, “pretty soon we’ll end up losing another 300,000 citizens,” said Sergey Masaulov, head of the Center for Perspective Studies, a Bishkek think tank. “But considering their young age and mindset, they’ll settle in countries other than Russia,” the most popular destination heretofore.

Masaulov might have been talking about 23-year-old Ak-Maral Arzybaeva, who left Kyrgyzstan in 2012 shortly after graduating from the prestigious American University of Central Asia. Arzybaeva headed for Boston, where she is studying fashion management. She’s starting her own clothing business and recently presented some of her designs at shows in Massachusetts.

Arzybaeva said she chose the United States because it offered better opportunities to advertise and sell her clothes and to work with others in her field. She does not yet know if she will go back to Kyrgyzstan to live, although she plans to open boutiques in her native country as well as in the United States. “In the meantime, I’ll keep selling my clothes online and participating in fashion shows across the United States,” she said.

Across Kyrgyzstan, the effects of multiple waves of emigration are being felt. The country has never recovered from the mid-1990s exodus of managers, teachers, professors, factory workers, and even musicians, said Pavel Dyatlenko, an analyst with the Polis Asia Research Center in Bishkek. Most were non-Kyrgyz who found themselves ethnic minorities in a foreign land after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The loss of skilled people “changed the country’s economy from industrial-agrarian into agrarian-service,” Dyatlenko said.

That wave was followed by a mass departure of skilled and unskilled workers, primarily to Russia and Kazakhstan, that began in the early 2000s. Counting them is notoriously difficult, given their mobility and the fact that many of them work illegally. But about 64 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population of 5.5 million receives money transfers from migrants each year, according to Nurbek Omurov, a program coordinator with the International Organization for Migration in Kyrgyzstan. Such transactions brought in $1.4 billion in the first three quarters of 2012, mostly from Russia, Omurov said.

In all, about 1 million people have left Kyrgyzstan since it gained its independence in 1991, according to the National Statistics Committee.

More recently, those leaving tend to be educated, multilingual, and young. They constitute a mostly urban minority, but their departure is keenly felt, Dyatlenko said. Major corporations have trouble finding managers, and candidate searches can go on for months, he said.

“Media can’t fill vacancies with competent editors. There is an ongoing catastrophic need for doctors and teachers in rural areas,” Dyatlenko said.

Provinces across Kyrgyzstan are short hundreds of doctors. About 1,200 physicians left the country last year, according to Health Ministry statistics cited by a member of parliament at a Bishkek city council meeting this week. The biggest shortages are in the Naryn region, which needs 146 doctors, and the Issyk-Kul region, which needs 165, according to Talant Omurbekov, a Social Democratic lawmaker. Both regions are hours distant from the country’s biggest cities, Bishkek and Osh.

Bishkek, meanwhile, needs 150 more pediatricians and nearly 200 of some types of emergency physicians, Omurbekov said.

In an October discussion of health reform, member of parliament Saidulla Nyshanov said medical workers were heading to Russia and Kazakhstan to escape the miserly wages of Kyrgyzstan, which average out to 7,000 soms ($146) a month for a nurse and 10,000 soms for a doctor.

Kyrgyzstan’s busiest online forums are full of foreign job listings – dozens of new ads can appear in a single day – and advice on working abroad.

Along with meager salaries, widespread corruption, and political upheaval – Kyrgyzstan has seen two revolutions since 2005 – clan and regional loyalties that elbow out merit in creating social mobility are sending talented youngsters across the border, Dyatlenko said.

“Our society is now being re-traditionalized; the clan system is spreading. Candidates for high government positions are being asked what region of Kyrgyzstan they come from first, and only then whether they have the necessary experience to do the job,” he said.

For those left behind, the results are not surprising.

“The social competition among the young has lowered dramatically. As a university lecturer I notice more and more freshmen who can’t read very well,” Dyatlenko said.


Maksim Stepanenko, 22, was born in the village of Khaidarkan in southern Kyrgyzstan, but he now lives and works in San Francisco. He was one of four Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates who founded Locu, an online menu-management system for restaurants, then took it out west.

Stepanenko talks like a man with many options. He wants to stay with Locu for now but might start another company eventually. He’s excited to be in Silicon Valley.

“I don’t plan to go back to Kyrgyzstan in the near future, but I do want to help develop our IT ecosystem, which is already growing pretty fast,” he said. “In my opinion, Kyrgyz people who live abroad can have as positive an impact on the country’s development as the people who live there.”

That is something Roza Otunbaeva, Kyrgyzstan’s president in 2010 and 2011, knows about. Having held several foreign diplomatic posts, she was barred from running for parliament in 2005 on the grounds that she did not meet the residency requirement.

Otunbaeva runs an eponymous foundation that counts among its priorities strengthening ties between Kyrgyzstan and its diaspora, alongside supporting education, art, culture, women, youth, and diversity at home.

She said the exodus of skilled people is no reason to panic: “If people need more knowledge, experience, or money, why not let them [get it]? When they feel ready to help their country, they will.”

In fact, that diaspora can bring dividends to Kyrgyzstan, Otunbaeva said, recounting examples of Kyrgyz expatriates with top-flight foreign educations who have come back and invested in the country – Harvard graduates or surgeons in Germany who want to build a hospital back home to rival the one where they work now.

But others say the country needs to hold on to its thinning talent pool, and woo back those who’ve left. One way to do that is to adapt the education system to the work force to increase the chances that someone who attends school in Kyrgyzstan can find a job there, said Masaulov of the Center for Perspective Studies.

“It’s not enough to provide people with education. We need to identify what kind of specialists the country needs. And these particular ones should be educated,” he said. “In other words, if we need highly skilled construction and technical workers for Kambar-Ata [a hydroelectric power plant in northwestern Kyrgyzstan], why do we produce an army of lawyers and economists who can’t find well-paid job inside the country?”

The most popular areas of study for those entering college in Kyrgyzstan last year were law, management, finance, accounting, medicine, IT, and English, according to administrators of the national testing system.

Agriculture, which Education and Science Minister Kanat Sadykov last year called a national priority, went begging. So much so that testing officials were forced to drop their standards and offer free university spots to students with historically low scores in that subject, as well as in pedagogy – those who would teach the country’s teachers.

Daniyar Derkembaev lives in Germany, where he works repairing industrial measuring devices and writing about food. He also directs Manas, an association for members of the Kyrgyz diaspora in Europe. He regularly comes back to Kyrgyzstan to teach cooking classes and to consult with government agencies and private organizations that help Kyrgyz migrants abroad.

Derkembaev said politics, too, plays a role in keeping people away, as politicians find it easier to appeal to expatriates as a voting bloc, often represented by groups like his. “Thus, creating opportunities for their return is rarely on the agenda,” he said.

Dina Tokbaeva is a Kyrgyz journalist in London. She tweets at @div0202.