Twenty years after the newly-independent states of Central Asia began marking off their borders, residents say they avoid travel to neighbouring countries whenever they can, as the experience is so stressful and unpleasant.
IWPR asked people in various countries to describe what the journeys they make involve. Across the region, common themes emerged – massive bureaucracy, obstructive behaviour, extortion and harassment by frontier officials.
The atmosphere at crossing-points is tense at the best of times, and whenever two governments fall out, innocent travellers suffer the consequences. Apart from feeding a sense of injustice and powerlessness, the hostile treatment of travellers tends to reinforce negative stereotypes about neighbouring nations.
In practical terms, obstructive practices and corruption have had a dampening effect on the movement of people and goods, and thus on economic prosperity in the region. Many traders either buy off customs officers or turn to smuggling.
This willingness to turn a blind eye and wave people and goods through unchecked in return for a bribe is also bad for security – the very reason that Central Asian governments give for imposing ever more rigorous controls.
Despite the many obstacles, Central Asians continue to put up with the difficult business of crossing borders to engage in trade, to travel in transit to other states, or just to visit relatives on the other side.
EXTORTION RACKET AT CUSTOMS
Akbar Matislamov from Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan travelled to the Uzbek capital Tashkent at the end of October, after his elder sister fell seriously ill there.
He was relieved to be able to cross into Uzbekistan at all, since the country had only recently reopened border crossings with Kyrgyzstan, after a clampdown imposed after ethnic violence in and around Osh and Jalalabad in June 2010.
However, he did not have an easy trip.
Flying would have cost him 600 US dollars return, so he went overland to the Dustlik checkpoint, not far from Osh.
While queuing for passport control, a young man in civilian clothing came up to him and told him he would have to pay 100 soms, about two US dollars, just to go through the check.
“I thought he must be some kind of fraudster. But he was right. The Kyrgyz border guard standing by the passport control window wouldn’t let me go up to it. I recalled what the other guy had told me and discreetly slipped him 100 soms. He refused to accept it and looked at the guy without a uniform who was standing nearby, so I approached him and gave him the 100 soms. Then I was allowed into the passport control area,” Matislamov said.
“At passport control, I spotted another guy, also not in uniform, who was collecting passports with 100 som notes stuck inside them. He put the money in his pocket and handed the passport to the Kyrgyz border guards, who allowed people through. I gave him 100 soms, too.”
Once Matislamov reached Uzbek controls, staff there asked for 5,000 Uzbek soms, about three dollars.
“It goes without saying that the money went into their own pockets,” he added.
On returning to Osh at the end of his trips, Matislamov found he had been lucky to get into Uzbekistan at all. Friends and relatives said they had been turned back when they tried to visit relatives in the country.
“They said the Uzbek [authorities] allowed only 200 or 250 out of 600 or 700 people to cross,” he said. “Neither Uzbek or Kyrgyz border guards would explain the reason for these restrictions.”
SMALL-TIME TRADERS HARASSED
Shirmanay Sharipova lives in Andijan, on the Uzbek side of the border, and often comes to Kyrgyzstan for the giant wholesale market at Karasuu. She too is grateful that the border is no longer sealed off, but said even when it was, traders were still sneaking across by bribing border officials. The only real difference was that traders had to pay more to cross.
Occasionally the central authorities in Tashkent would dispatch a team to check that border officials were enforcing the closure. When that happened, she said, “ the border guards wouldnt allow anyone near the border. Anyone who risked it was shot at, beaten up and had their goods seized”.
Further north, Kyrgyzstan also has a border with Kazakstan, and customs controls there have also been tightened up – in this case because of changes to bilateral trade regulations. In July this year, Kazakstan changed the customs rules for trade with Kyrgyzstan, imposing levies on goods weighing more than 50 kilograms. The changes stem from Kazakstan’s accession to a customs union with Russia and Belarus, of which Kyrgyzstan is not a member.
Kyrgyz traders who earn a living by shifting cheap Chinese consumer goods into Kazakstan suddenly found trading a whole lot more expensive.
At the main crossing-point, called Ak Jol, IWPR editor Timur Toktonaliev watched as Kyrgyz traders tried to get across.
“On my way to the bridge [that forms the crossing], I passed a group of around 30 women sitting on their goods. There were several dozen people crowded around the first checkpoint in the middle of the bridge. I saw a woman putting on several dresses [to conceal them],” he said. “I witnessed border guards meting out rough treatment, pushing back women and young people with big backpacks, kicking their bundles and throwing them away.”
Toktonaliev saw how people were getting round the customs limits. Traders divide up their goods and pay ordinary travellers to take smaller amounts across for them.
Jyrgal, a woman from a village outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, comes to the border especially to fill this new role. She waits for traders to arrive in cars loaded with goods, and then ferries their items across on foot, piece by piece.
On this occasion, she paid the relatively small bribe demanded by Kyrgyz border officials and the larger one the Kazaks asked for, and got two packs weighing about ten kilograms each into Kazakstan safely. The trader paid her 1,500 Kazak tenge – 11 dollars – for carrying the consignment, of which she earned seven dollars net, after bribes.
“The controls were tightened [again] in September, but the situation hasnt really changed,” she said. “Sometimes you can cross with big packs or cartons weighing several dozen kilograms, or divide them into smaller bundles and go across several times. Whether or not you get through depends on how much of a bribe you offer.”
From their position of strength, Kazak officials are meaner, she said.
“You get insulted and sworn at, and they demand bigger bribes of five to 12 dollars. If the ‘porters’ refuse to pay, they don’t get allowed through and their goods get confiscated,” she continued. “A couple of times, I saw conflicts when a group of women whose goods had been seized wouldn’t let the minibus containing their things move off.”
POLITICAL TENSIONS TRANSLATE INTO AGGRAVATION
The Kazak-Kyrgyz border trouble is a result of trade arrangements, made worse by petty corruption. In other cases, though, the issues are really about politics.
The Tajik and Uzbek governments have long had a fraught relationship, with tensions over water, energy and other points of difference. This plays out on the way travellers are treated.
Rustam works for a computer company in Tajikistan, but as a Russian passport holder, he does not need a visa to enter Uzbekistan. Tajikistan nationals have a tougher time of it.
“I’ve saw how people with Tajik passports have lots of problems crossing the border. There is a buffer zone there.... Those 200 metres take two hours to get through,” he said.
Like hundreds of thousands of Tajiks, Iftikhor Sherov spends much of the year working in Russia. The only practicable overland route is through Uzbekistan, and that leg of the train journey is always eventful.
“Everywhere else, there are the normal border checks – they verify your ID check and that’s it. As soon as we cross into Uzbekistan, the trouble starts,” he said. “They check everything. I brought a lot of magazines and newspapers [from Moscow] and they confiscated them. Maybe they are just bored and killing time. But crossing the Uzbek border takes a long time.”
Often, officials just exploit all the formal powers at their disposal to give travellers a hard time and extract illicit payments.
Aset Narimanov, from Almaty in southeast Kazakstan, described his “nightmare trip” to Uzbekistan.
Perhaps unwisely, he ignored the advice of friends that flying, at first sight the costlier option, would work out cheaper than going overland in the end.
As with many travellers, he found it easier to get out of his own country than to enter another.
Arriving at the crossing 100 kilometres south of the Kazak city of Shymkent, Narimanov found himself in the midst of chaotic scenes.
“As soon as I got off the minibus, I was surrounded by crowds of people offering various kinds of services – to exchange my money, sell me fruit, drive me to Tashkent, get me to the front of the passport queue or help me take banned items over the border. But my documents were in order so I refused,” he said.
“I passed through the Kazak side relatively quickly, because they let their own people through with virtually no fuss – as long as you don’t give them a reason, that is. [At the Uzbek crossing] the first thing you face is medical controls, where you have to undergo health checks. With no hint of embarrassment, the doctor would openly pass anyone who offered a bribe.
“Last was the customs controls. I filled in a customs declaration, putting down the amount of money I had on me while entering Uzbekistan. The customs official opened my wallet and counted the cash. ‘What’s this?’ he asked as he put several coins on the table. ‘By the law, these are smuggled items as you haven’t declared them. You will have to stay here.’”
Such tactics are designed to “scare people and force them to pay a bribe”, Narimanov added.
“My Uzbek friends later told me that if you annoyed customs officials in Uzbekistan, they might plant drugs on you... They told me that as Kazaks are seen as citizens of a wealthier country, they are subjected to particular rigorous checks so as to find an excuse to squeeze out more money out of them,” he added.
Narimanov pointed out that while it was officials in Uzbekistan who mistreated him, he could see the same thing happening to Uzbek nationals entering Kazakstan.
“I saw [Kazak] border guards obstructing an Uzbek man, saying he hadn’t obtained registration upon arrival. He protested that he didn’t need to, as he had a migration card. They took him away somewhere.”
Regional Director for Central Asia, Abakhon Sultonnazarov, described his own experience of travelling between Kyrgyzstan and eastern Tajikistan, where the difficult mountain drive is made even harder by the bureaucratic hurdles along the way.
“This is the stretch of border that refrigerated vehicles and KAMAZ trucks use to take goods from Bishkek to the Pamirs [eastern Tajikistan]. I’ve seen how the drivers are required to pay bribes. It can be a substantial amount of money, depending on how much their freight weighs and whether the supporting documents are in order,” he said. “Various offices need bribes – the border guards, the customs officials, the environmental unit ... If you don’t pay, you’ll find your ecological certificate is held up for no reason.”
Many of those interviewed for this report were able differentiate between their bad experiences on the border and attitudes in neighbouring countries generally, but others are less generous – particularly younger people, who never knew the Soviet period when everyone was living in the same country.
“We’re all neighbours living in the same region. But once you cross the border, you feel as though you’re entering enemy territory,” Zebo from Tajikistan said. “Of course, once you’re in the country – for example in Uzbekistan – you feel comfortable enough. You understand that your relatives live here, and you understand the language. People are the same as back home. So why create difficulties? I just don’t understand it.”
Karim Khushvakht, also from Tajikistan. admitted that the difficulties he faced travelling in transit through Uzbekistan had coloured his view of the country.
“I was never a chauvinist nationalist but to be honest, ever since then, I’ve hated the Uzbeks,” he said.
Narimanov enjoyed his stay with friends in Uzbekistan, he had a nice time there enjoying sightseeing.
“Although I don’t believe Uzbek border guards and customs officials are chauvinists, their unchecked behaviour and the cheek with which they force ‘rich’ Kazak citizens to pay them big bribes make my blood boil,” he said.
Lola Olimova, Almaz Rysaliev, Inga Sikorskaya, Timur Toktonaliev are IWPR editors in Tajikistan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan respectively. Askar Aktalov is a reporter for the K-News agency in Bishkek.
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