YURA and Sasha, both 12 years old, wait near the exit of the Shaggie's fast food restaurant every day. Their eyes are fixed on customers eating hamburgers and French fries. When a patron gets up to leave, they rush inside to claim the leftovers before the waiters can get to the table to clean up.
Although they get food regularly at the state orphanage, Yura and Sasha say they like hamburgers and Pepsi a lot. So they go for the "Western leftovers." Moreover, they say, in the last two years the strict rules in the orphanage have not been enforced, and the quality of the food there has deteriorated tremendously.
The two orphans' daily visits to the only Western-style fast food restaurant in town point to a key problem faced by Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.
Food is scarce in parts of the region due to the collapse of Soviet distribution mechanisms. Where food is available, people lack the ability to pay for it.
Triple-digit inflation has eroded customers' buying power. Old rules, which were swept aside with the fall of communism, have not been replaced by new regulations that would allow private enterprise to accommodate needs. Desire to become "Western" economically and culturally is common, but very few people know what they have to do to accomplish that.
While the world carefully watches the region's embrace of Islam, its ethnic conflicts, and halting steps toward democracy, there is only one thing on people's minds here: how to get through the next day.
"The economy is the most important problem right now," says Matluba Sattarkizi, an Uzbek doctor in Tashkent.
She echoes the sentiments expressed by many people interviewed recently throughout Central Asia. Freedom with hunger
"Independence has brought us freedom and the right to use our own language and practice our religion," she says. "But food is more important than all those things."
Pointing to her stomach, she adds, "When there is nothing in here, who cares about language or religion?"
Dr. Sattarkizi earns 2,200 rubles ($70) a month working for the state hospital. Meanwhile, a not-so-fancy woman's dress sells for 1,500 to 1,800 rubles ($50-60).
While prices have gone up by 300 to 2,000 percent in the last two years, wages have only increased by 35 to 50 percent.
In Tashkent, one also needs to have the same amount of rubles in coupons to purchase something from the state stores. Coupons are not necessary at the booming open markets on the streets, but prices are even higher there.
Food and other basic supplies such as soap, toilet paper, and pens are scarce in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
In Kazakhstan's capital, Alma-Ata, prices are lower than in Tashkent, but there is not much to buy. Shelves are mostly empty. Even the open markets on the streets have little to offer.
If you want to buy something to eat in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, it takes a long search from one restaurant to another to find any food. Influence of Iran, Turkey
Prices go up, and more and more goods are available as one moves west from Kazakhstan. In Ashkabad, the capital of Turkmenistan, clothing and food are abundant, but prices are the highest in the region as well.
Turkmenistan borders Iran and has only the Caspian Sea between itself and Baku, Azerbaijan's booming trade capital.
Goods from Syria reach the country through Iran, and from Turkey through Azerbaijan.
Although the four Turkic republics of Central Asia are rich in resources, the collapse of the centralized Communist distribution system run from Moscow has left them without the means to trade their resources for much needed basic goods.
While Kazakhstan's rich oil reserves have attracted interest from the West, it is difficult to find gasoline to run vehicles in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Thus, most taxis in Bishkek have a second tank in their trunks for natural gas and run on that most of the time.
The inability to move goods between different areas means that food grown in the countryside surrounding Alma-Ata rots in the fields while people in the capital fight each other over a pound of tomatoes.
In a recent visit to Karagayli, a villge 23 miles north of the capital, an abundant variety of food was found in every home. This stood in stark contrast to the sparse tables of Alma-Ata residents. Sugar, bread, and tomatoes make only rare appearances in the Kazakh capital.
In addition to oil, Kazakhstan is rich in many metals, coal, natural gas, and minerals. Agriculture in the northern regions of the republic formerly produced 28 percent of the Soviet Union's total wheat crop.
In their transition to capitalism and free markets, all the Turkic republics are looking to the Western world, especially Turkey.
Turkish and other Western businessmen have been flocking to the region in the last six months, but uncertainty about the future has slowed investment. Additionally, the lack of laws and regulations to guarantee the functioning of a market economy makes it harder for Western companies to invest. Yearning for better days
As the transition puts ever increasing burdens on the people, there is a longing for the state-controlled days of centralized Soviet power.
Yet on the positive side, the existing infrastructure in the Central Asian republics is a strength. In addition to the abundance of raw material and relatively cheap labor, the region's roads, airports, and railroads have been relatively well maintained.
The subway system of Tashkent, for example, with its immaculate marble floors, bright chandeliers, air-conditioned stations and cars, is impressive by Western standards.