Kazak Parliament Probes Border Security

Violent incidents highlight gaps in Kazakstan’s supposedly watertight southern frontier with Uzbekistan.

Kazak Parliament Probes Border Security

Violent incidents highlight gaps in Kazakstan’s supposedly watertight southern frontier with Uzbekistan.

Two years after the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan was formally marked off, local residents continue to slip back and forth between the two countries. But although most are engaged in nothing more than small-time smuggling, they risk being shot by the soldiers posted along the frontier.

Two incidents in which a young man and a 13-year old boy, both Kazakstan nationals, were injured by Uzbek border guards hit the national headlines in Kazakstan last month and prompted the country’s parliament to send a mission at the beginning of June to see for themselves what was going on.

In the first of these incidents, Baurjan Akhmetov, 24, a resident of the village of Kuanysh in the South Kazakstan region, was injured when he resisted arrest by Uzbek border guards at the end of April. Akhmetov said afterwards that he had been grazing livestock inside Kazakstan at the time, while Uzbek frontier guards said he had stolen several metres of barbed wired from the border fence.

Akhmetov remains in hospital in the Kazak border town of Saryagash, where doctors said he was in “serious but stable” condition following a cranial injury.

The second incident occurred a few days later, on May 2, when an Uzbek border guard allegedly assaulted 13-year-old Janibek Medeubekov, who like Akhmetov is a national of Kazakstan. Relatives said they witnessed the boy being hit in the face with a rifle butt while he was taking a donkey cart to collect water from a well in the border village Dostyk.

The official border runs right through this village, and although the well is technically in Uzbekistan, border guards from both countries have continued to allow everyone in the village to use it.

Doctors said they stitched up a cut on Medeubekov’s forehead and treated him for mild concussion, but said he would be fine.

The two incidents led to Uzbek ambassador Turdikul Butoyarov being summoned to the Kazak interior ministry where he was issued with a formal note of protest.

The Kazak parliament then called in the head of Kazakstan’s border guards, Bolat Zakiev, to give an account of what was going on along the border. Zakiev said that since the demarcation process began in 2003, his force had shot dead one person and injured four, while their Uzbek counterparts had killed one and injured six.

Uzbek officials say they are simply trying to deter people from smuggling, and this activity does seem to account for much of the illegal traffic of people crossing the border. So blatant is the practice that it is common to see clusters of donkey or horse-drawn carts waiting near the border whose owners are waiting to ferry smuggled goods to the nearest town.

The commander of the Kazak border guards’ southern zone, Murat Majitov, accompanied the members of parliament on their fact-finding trip. Majit assured his guests that his men had arrested over 20,000 people and confiscated hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of smuggled goods in the last six years.

But the deputies were unimpressed, with one of their number, Valikhan Kalijanov, saying “The state border of Kazakstan is full of holes! Which way are our border guards looking? Anyone can enter our country illegally without hindrance.

“Why have the border guards kept quiet about this for so long? If journalists hadn’t made a fuss, this problem would remain hidden.”

Until a few years ago, Kazakstan’s 2,350-kilometre southern frontier with Uzbekistan was unmarked, with checkpoints operating only on the main roads. However, from the late Nineties onwards the two governments began the process of creating a formal border. First they had to decide exactly where lines drawn on maps actually ran.

Once that process finished in 2002, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan began trading the remaining disputed and unclear territories, including homes and farmland. When the frontier was finally demarcated in early 2004, people living on or near it had to pack up and leave their houses. Some villages like Dostyk were left with the border cutting through them.

Local officials admit that border guards turn a blind eye to small-scale smuggling in return for bribes. Residents of border areas will act as guides for 2,000 tenge, about 16 US dollars. Many of the conflicts that arise seem to happen when there is no financial arrangement with the frontier guards

“There are rumours that border guards take bribes from people who want to cross the state border and give the money to their bosses, the officers and even higher-up people,” said delegation leader, Serik Abdrakhmanov, who heads the parliamentary committee for international affairs, defence and security. “So there is corruption. Have any of the [border guards] military been charged with extortion?”

A senior border guards commander, Marat Alimjanov, said that in recent years, 35 Kazak border guards had been arrested for taking bribes. They were all dismissed but not prosecuted.

Deputies also hauled local prosecutor Abtulatip Mustafaev over the coals after he tried to downplay the alleged assault on Akhmetov by listing his past record as a smuggler.

“You made all that up,” said an angry Saurbay Eszhanov, a member of the parliamentary delegation. “When we did our own investigation, we found no such facts.”

A local government official in Saryagash district, who asked to remain anonymous, said smuggling was a product of the general poverty in the region, as well as of price discrepancies between Kazakstan and Uzbekistan.

“There are almost a quarter of a million people living in our district. Unemployment is very high - and the standard of living is even worse on the Uzbek side,” he said.

“In addition, as a result of our countries’ uncoordinated economic policies, goods imported from third countries are much cheaper in Kazakstan than in Uzbekistan. The prices of fruit and vegetables – especially early on in the season – are far cheaper in Uzbekistan than they are here. How can people not smuggle goods in such conditions?”

Another reason why people regularly cross the frontier without permission is that demarcation left some communities cut off from facilities such as schools, or the well in Dostyk. Elsewhere in Saryagash district, ethnic Uzbek families send their children to schools over the border in Uzbekistan, because there is no Uzbek-language education in their own villages.

The Saryagash official who spoke to IWPR said the border would only begin to operate properly when there were more forces to patrol it and modern surveillance equipment was installed. He said more jobs must be created to offer alternative livelihoods to smuggling, and the authorities needed to conduct public education so that people understood what living next to an international frontier meant.

Until that happens, the official predicted further incidents and more deaths.

Daur Dosybiev is an IWPR contributor in Shymkent.
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