- - Friday, June 15, 2012

BISHKEK, KyrgyzstanKyrgyzstan’s online forums have buzzed with angry discussions about Economics Minister Akylbek Japarov since he told parliament in April that $100 is enough to live on for a month.

Now three university students in the capital, Bishkek, are documenting their attempt to live on Mr. Japarov’s recommended budget in a blog (survival.kloop.kg) they launched on June 1.

“The idea came to me when two of us were having a lunch at a cafe and the bill turned out to be quite big,” says Zarema Sultanbekova, 19. “Then I remembered that I bought breakfast that morning and was going out that night with friends. I realized that I was spending too much.”

Kyrgyz citizens have criticized the government for failing to reform and boost economy since Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov came to power in December 2011, following an interim administration that ran the country after former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s ouster in 2010.

Charges that the current government is out of touch with its citizenry are rife.

“I think it’s almost a disconnect between the central government and the rural regions, especially in the south, that are seeing a decline in living standards — a lack of understanding of how difficult things are for people,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst with IHS Global Insight in London.

“Of course, it has caused a negative reaction because people had high hopes for the new government following the revolution,” she said.

According to the World Bank, 33.7 percent of the population of Kyrgyzstan lives below of the poverty line — in some rural areas that figure is more than 50 percent — and 21.7 percent have to survive on less that $2 a day.

Amid such poverty, Mr. Japarov’s $100-a-month budget still seemed an unrealistic goal, which prompted Eldiyar Erkebayev, 19, to think twice about joining the survival.kloop.kg experiment this month.

“Now I have to cut my spending almost on everything,” says Mr. Erkebayev, who already has lost weight. “I am trying to buy cheaper products at the local market. I started cooking and eating at home, and my packed lunch is always with me.”

Less than halfway through the month, he has about $45 left — and has yet to pay utility bills of up to $20.

“Plus, Euro 2012 [soccer] games have started,” he said. “You cannot watch football without eating or drinking!”

Ilya Karimjanov, 22, who joined the experiment three days after its start, says he bought all the items in a monthly “consumer basket” that is used to calculate the living costs and is faring even worse: He had gone through $80 by day 11.

“I bought the products for one month in advance, strictly according to the ‘consumer basket’ list,” he says. “I stopped spending money on entertainment. No more movies, no more parties, no more Chinese restaurants. And the products I bought are almost finished.”

Jumakadyr Akeneyev, a Bishkek-based economic analyst and president of the Association of Oil Traders in Kyrgyzstan, says that to live comfortably for a month in the capital one needs about six times Mr. Japarov’s recommended $100.

“Maybe the minister wanted to say that a lot of people in Kyrgyzstan, especially in remote areas, have to live on no more than $100,” Mr. Akeneyev says. “Maybe he wanted to comfort those who cannot spend more than $100. It is not a secret that many people in the country are living below the poverty line.”

Kyrgyzstan’s economy relies heavily on gold exports, but remittances sent home by migrant workers, mostly employed in Russia, make up more than 20 percent of GDP.

“That Kyrgyzstan is struggling to meet the basic economic needs of its population is clear — because people are voting with their feet — with mass migration of young men to Russia as labor migrants,” says Ben Judah, a Moscow-based analyst with think tank the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Analysts say that corruption, poor living standards and high unemployment were major causes behind the popular uprisings that overthrew Mr. Bakiyev in 2010, and his predecessor Askar Akayev, who was ousted in 2005.

“Statements [such as Mr. Japarov‘s] are quite dangerous in a country like Kyrgyzstan that has seen two revolutions in the last decade and has developed a culture of protests and forced change of government,” said Ms. Gevorgyan.

Ruby Russell contributed to this report from Berlin.