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

Kazak Smugglers Flourishing

The closure of the Uzbek border with Kazakstan has spawned a thriving new trade.
By Olga Dosybieva

Kazak village of Jibek Joly , near the border with Uzbekistan.
Smuggling across the canal, near the village of Jibek Joly.

The closure of the Uzbek side of the Kazak-Uzbek border late last year has done little to stem the flow of traffic between the two countries, as unofficial crossings have produced a lucrative new trade for locals.

Commentators say Tashkent's move last May to increase taxes on imported food and manufactured goods to 50 and 90 per cent respectively led to the December closure of customs and border posts.

As markets closed in Uzbekistan due to the high import duties, residents rushed across the frontier to buy products in southern Kazakstan and ferried them back into the country.

Kazak traders in the markets of Shymkent are thought to have sold four million dollars worth more goods than usual during this period.

Tashkent closed the border with its neighbour to try to halt the traffic, but to no avail.

Beyond the immediate vicinity of the customs and border posts, the frontier is open, according to local residents. Officials turn a blind eye, they say.

When this reporter tried to cross the frontier officially at Jibek Joly, the Kazak border guard asked me what documents I was carrying. When he saw I only had a personal identification card, he waved me through but his Uzbek colleagues on the other side demanded more documentation and refused to let me cross.

But not far away from the customs post, I found five separate unofficial crossings, where work as a border guide is providing much needed employment for impoverished families living in the vicinity.

On the Kazak side, they have less and less income as their traditional trade of cattle breeding falls prey to theft. On the Uzbek side, salaries are so meagre that even those in work need to supplement their incomes.

Guides, who charge between one to six dollars, warn their clients where they may be stopped by Uzbek police and how much they should expect to pay guards to reach the other side unhindered.

In the village of Jibek Joly, the border takes the form of a canal, so locals with boats are in great demand by those trying to smuggle themselves across into Uzbekistan.

A young man called Jimmy told IWPR that he charges around 5 dollars to ferry passengers over in his rubber dinghy. He seemed unperturbed by the spectre of border patrols. "They are our people," he said, brandishing a large wad of banknotes, clearly implying that he bribes them.

Those whose land backs onto the border can make an income without leaving home. After school, ten-year-old Karlygash sits in her parent's back yard collecting about a dollar from each person who passes through. Her family use the money to buy food and clothes.

After crossing the border, I was stopped by Uzbek border guards. After checking my documents, they ordered me to leave the country. When I asked what kind of people use the unofficial crossings, one of them blurted, "They are all smugglers."

After the Uzbek side of the border was closed, the authorities demanded that the Kazaks should close all the markets and currency exchanges in their frontier region. Kazak deputy minister of interior Ivan Otto rejected the demand as unreasonable. "What do our currency exchange outlets have to do with them?" he exclaimed.

The closure of the border has led to widespread discontent among communities on both sides of the border who are losing patience with the travel restrictions. In an effort to diffuse the tensions, both sides met in Jibek Joly to try to come up with a compromise solution - but to no avail

For the moment, Kazakstan is benefiting from the harsh Uzbek tax regime.

But the Almaty authorities fear that their markets may be flooded by inferior Uzbek goods, which would previously have had to undergo quality inspection checks at border posts.

Another concern is that the traffic across the border could soon become one-way. If living conditions in Uzbekistan continue to deteriorate, immigration police in southern Kazakstan anticipate that the estimated one million ethnic Kazaks living across the frontier may seek to emigrate.

Olga Dosybieva is an Interfax correspondent in South Kazakstan

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