The sex trade is booming in Bishkek, and authorities are struggling to respond. Prostitution is not a crime in Kyrgyzstan, and with no legal measures in place to regulate the industry, overburdened Bishkek police are proposing to either legalize prostitution or, alternatively, outlaw it once and for all.
Bishkek police claim that some 3,500 prostitutes work in Kyrgyzstan's capital, while unofficial estimates put that number at 1.5 to 2 times higher. Officials claim that sex workers from neighboring countries account for the vast majority of the number, with Kyrgyzstani prostitutes making up a mere 2 to 3 percent of the total. In addition, the capital offers some 169 saunas, 177 hotels and more than 1,000 private apartments with sexual services, police say.
Prostitution is not a crime in Kyrgyzstan, and prostitutes say that popular attitudes toward their work are more understanding than in neighboring Uzbekistan. But that welcome has its limits. Violent crimes involving prostitutes such as murders or assaults are on the increase. With less than adequate control over migration streams into Kyrgyzstan, police fear that cycle of violence could only worsen.
To fight back, some city officials are suggesting a solution that at first glance would seem radically at odds with Kyrgyzstan's conservative culture: legalization of prostitution. "If we legalize prostitution, we will have a record of everybody and know who is involved in it," said Internal Affairs Administrative Department Deputy Director Pyotr Tyablin. With legalization, clients would shy away from brothels whose activities were on the public record, and medical services could be more easily provided to sex workers, Tyablin forecast.
"We shouldn't be afraid of prostitution legalization, because, in this case, the state will control the health of the nation," he said. "But I am not sure if the majority of the population of our country will approve it. We live in the East."
In a country where sex education textbooks were recalled in 2003 as a demoralizing influence, the legalization battle will face an uphill struggle. Observers doubt that legislators would even broach the topic in public. Instead, an alternative solution might prove more attractive: Bishkek police chiefs want legislators to stiffen legislation governing the sex trade, and introduce criminal liabilities for prostitution, pimping or the management of hotels and saunas providing sexual services. Under this initiative, clients would also be subject to prosecution.
A general lack of public interest has already hindered other options for slowing the industry's growth. Legislators defeated a draft law for vice squads, and the work of a group of policemen formed in the mid-1990s to register prostitutes sputtered to a halt in 2002.
Some observers point to a more immediate obstacle for fighting Kyrgyzstan's sex trade: the police themselves. Many of those Bishkek law enforcement officers tasked with registering sex workers actually ended up providing protection for the prostitutes they were meant to regulate, police sources speaking on condition of anonymity stated.
Some prostitutes argue that legalization, in fact, will only allow police and public officials to make use of their services for free. "The state is unlikely to evaluate our work at our worth," said one procurer who gave her name as Jyldyz-eje. "They can't even provide war veterans with decent pensions, and what about us? They'd better catch real criminals and leave us alone."
Others object to the prospect of seeing their profession made public. "I don't want to be called a prostitute officially," said one 23-year-old sex worker who gave her name as Gulnara. "I don't want everybody to know what I do. Let everything stay as it is."
Ultimately, the chances are strong that everything will, said one independent social welfare expert. "The problem of prostitution in Kyrgyzstan has been discussed for more than one decade, but still no radical measures were taken to combat prostitution," said Baktybek Junusov. "Groups of prostitutes work under the patronage of law enforcement authorities or people in power. The solution of the problem is being dragged out artificially."
Abdan Shukeev is a freelance journalist based in Bishkek.