Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karakalpak Traders Flourish

A remote region on the border between Karakalpakstan and Turkmenistan has become a stop on the flourishing – if unofficial – trading route between China and the Gulf states. The situation could change as the Uzbek and Turkmen authorities are taking steps
It is hard to imagine the Karakalpak-Turkmen border, located in an expanse of semi-desert, as a crossroads on the east-west trade route. But as the London-based IWPR reports on the basis of information coming out of Turkmenistan, that is exactly what this place has become. DVD players and cheap jackets may not carry the aura of the legendary Silk Road, yet this us where western and Chinese consumer goods cross paths.

Traders from Turkmenistan pass through the border at various unofficial crossing-points, bringing televisions and high-quality equipment, computers, and car parts to sellin neighbouring Uzbekistan. These goods have mostly been imported from Dubai or Iran. The Uzbeks, or Karakalpaks, bring a range of clothing and other consumer items like cheap kitchenware which have made the long westward journey from China.

One businessman who had come to the border from Tashkent recalled how he used to import electrical equipment from Dubai himself but found he did not turn a profit as he spent large amounts getting his goods through customs. On the advice of friends, he decided not to make such a big journey and instead started buying his goods already imported from Turkmenistan to Karakalpakstan and the Khorezm region.

Border trade has become an important part of the local economy. According to one resident of Kipchak, a village in Karakalpakstan, six out of ten people there earn their living that way. There are no jobs, so they have to become cross-border traders.

There is always the risk of arrest, of course. But as one veteran trader from Dashoguz (in Turkmenistan) said, many customs officials turn a blind eye to the business as they get a cut of the income. The only problem is when one customs officers are dismissed or transferred, and their replacements come in and start confiscating goods, even arresting people whohave crossed the border illegally.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are gradually demarcating their long shared border, erecting high barbed-wire fences to stop people crossing anywhere except the designated customs checkpoints.

The demarcation will undoubtedly make life harder for people living on either side of the border, especially if high fences are put up. It is not just the border trade – many people have relatives over the border and travel to see them frequently. As a woman living in a Turkmen village put it, people lived in the same country for years as members of one big family. She would be happy if people on either side of the frontier were able to keep up the same ties as before.

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