Monday, June 20, 2005

Moving Forward/Backward

Reading the Kyrgyzstan Kid's observations about the post-Soviet Kyrgyz countryside reminded me of Mongolia:

Outings into the Kyrgyz countryside provide mini-adventures into the past. But the chapters of Kyrgyzstan’s recent history read more like vignettes after the apocalypse than epic tales of nomadic clans warring for land. Although the curtain never fully closed on the genetic memory of the Kyrgyz during last century’s Sovietization, the re-emergence of their own culture plays out on an eerie stage—as if the props from the previous play were only partially removed and the set director for the new show decided to work around them.

Relics of the modern world anachronistically litter Kyrgyzstan’s landscape. Shepherds bring their sheep to pasture under power lines that have long ceased to illuminate their homes. A driver training course cracks like drying mud, submitting pavement to the encroaching field. Foundations of buildings no more than fifty years old whisper out of the ground—crumbling ghost towns of a lost civilization.
If Kyrgyzstan is anything like Mongolia, the people who witnessed the encroachment of Russian influence didn't share Russia's fascination with the "modern world" and its acoutrements. Mongolians were largely nomadic when Russia rode in, and the only skills shared broadly among Mongolians were the nomadic arts of herding and the like. The new and modern Mongolia that sprang from the steppe did so exclusively because of the Russian bulldozer, Russian engineer, and Russian city planner. When Russian influence and financial support slipped away as their empire crumbled, so did those bulldozers, engineers, and city planners. What was left was a shell of a modern infrastructure with people who little knew how to sustain it and build upon it. Rarely has so much been invested and so little immediately "returned" as in the former Russian satellites.

When old and new meet: The first Russian bulldozer that came to Erdenet in 1976, the year that the Russians and Mongolians decided to build what is now one of the five biggest cities in Mongolia (pop. 80,000).

This is not to say that Monoglia does not want to stay on a modernizing trajectory. Au contraire. But it is a comment on the social and technolocialy environment in which modernization must take place. When you give a nomad a hydro-electric dam, what exactly is he supposed to do with it? When you give a herder a telephone grid, can we realistically expect him to maintain it? Mongolians are bravely doing their best, and the next generation of Mongolians looks to be more savvy in the ways of city-life and technological advance. In the mean time, it's good for those of us in the west to appreciate just how far Mongolia and other countries like it have to advance for them to take flight as as modern nations in the modern world.

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Anonymous yan said...

OTOH, some of that infrastructure that looks incredibly run-down is still in use. e.g. many of those ruin-like heating-plants.

And they have actually been building new cross-country power lines (I've seen them last year) to create something resembling a power 'grid'.

But of course it's no use giving someone things he can't or doesn't want to use. For a not-that-much related example, just look at how the classical script has fared since the 1990s.

6/21/2005 8:18 AM  
Blogger nabetz said...

Yan, great points.

As you probably well know, part of the reason Mongolia was left in such a tight spot is that Russia purposefully made Mongolia dependent on Russian know-how and technical experts. When Russia pulled out, there was, to put it somewhat infelicitously, a brain-drain in Mongolia as the Russians left. Monglia has done an admirable job of keeping things moving forward, but not without understandable difficulties as they learn how to run the country for themselves.

6/21/2005 10:09 AM  
Blogger mongol said...

Some of my American friends who have visited Mongolia could not believe how well Mongolians dress, while these same Mongolians allow their houses to fall apart inside and out. To my knowledge, many Mongolians will go out and eat or buy a new pair of cloths instead of fixing thier old houses. Different mentality!

6/21/2005 6:47 PM  
Blogger Jaruul said...

Yan, is it me or not. . but most of your postings seems more like critical about Mongolia. Mongolian infrastructure is in bad shape, same with many pro communist countries. As you know, there is very little interest in terms of foreign investment toward Mongolia with exception of mining. Plus, we just do not have any human capital to attract foreign investors that’s why our growth rate is bellow China. Indeed, we need to change our mentality and you can’t change it over night.

6/28/2005 5:38 PM  
Anonymous yan said...

No, I like Mongolia, and I think they have been (and are) making a lot of an incredibly difficult situation. It's very obvious if you look to other ex- (or still) communist countries in the region, like most of Central Asia or North Korea. I think that Mongolia's infrastructure is quite OK for a post-communist country and a population density of around 2 people/km², actually. What is probably more important is that the education sector seems to improve again, and that learning is seen as the key to a better future.

However, I do think it is worth pointing out that there are problems, and also (I guess that was nabetz' intention) that just sending in (or receiving, respectively) aid in form of money, construction work, goods, or foreign experts does not equate development. If one really wants to help and not to waste much money for nothing, one needs to make sure that what is provided is actually useful to the people.

Sorry for sounding so censorious, I'm afraid that is one less admirable part of German mentality.

6/29/2005 3:18 AM  
Blogger samraat said...

4/04/2010 10:25 PM  

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