Kazakstan: The Business of Smuggling

As bureaucratic obstacles grow on the Kazak-Uzbek border, local smugglers do their best to circumvent the rules.

Kazakstan: The Business of Smuggling

As bureaucratic obstacles grow on the Kazak-Uzbek border, local smugglers do their best to circumvent the rules.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

A man wearing the traditional Uzbek robe wandered through the yard, and went out via the gates on the opposite side. "Is this Kazakstan or Uzbekistan?" he asked some passers-by. "Kazakstan," they replied. He thanked them with a nod, and went back to his own country.


Such loopholes remain common on the border between Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, despite official attempts to impose rigid passport and customs controls.


Gaps in the frontier defences have fostered a burgeoning industry: smuggling.


But the illicit business has created growing tensions between villagers living near the border and the officers charged with patrolling it. IWPR has previously reported on trouble on the Uzbek side; it is now apparent that similar difficulties within the Kazak sector have tipped over into violence on more than one occasion.


In the village of Yntymak, the temptation to branch out into smuggling must be irresistible. The border runs right through the village, with streets in Uzbekistan and others on Kazak territory.


As a result, some people in Yntymak have found that their houses ended up in one country and their garden plot in another.


This strange system has arisen because of the formal demarcation of a previously unclear border, and the imposition of stricter controls in place of the lax arrangements that had existed since Uzbekistan and Kazakstan were part of the Soviet Union.


Until January 2003, the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan was open, with checkpoints only on major routes. Then Tashkent decided to close its border with its neighbour to stop Uzbeks rushing in their thousands to buy at much lower prices over the border in Kazakstan, following a hike in customs duties which made consumer goods very expensive at home.


Since early 2004, the frontier has been marked out with signposts and there are more checkpoints and patrols on both sides, leading to more frequent encounters between local people and the border guards.


Tougher controls have hit Uzbek farmers, who used to bring their produce to Kazak markets where they could get better prices than at home. But people continue to engage in small-time smuggling since consumer goods are much cheaper in Kazakstan. Uzbek border guards enforce customs regulations strictly as part of their government's import-control policy, and anyone trying to bring in more than three pairs of jeans is treated as a smuggler.


Villages like Yntymak offer a natural crossing-point, since simply by crossing a road or walking through someone's house, traders can achieve substantial mark-ups in their goods.


Residents whose property straddles the frontier collect informal "transit fees" from people who walk or drive through their land, evading customs controls.


The most visible evidence of this is that the closer you get to the borderline in Yntymak, the more prosperous the houses look.


But many locals involved in the illicit trade say it allows them to survive, not get rich. "You might call it smuggling, but for me it's the only way to feed my family," said 36-year-old Madi, a father of three who was once a farm worker but has been officially unemployed for the last decade. "I understand that I'm breaking the law, but my neighbours and I simply have no other means of avoiding dying of hunger."


In Jibek Joly, another village divided by the border, a local man who asked not to be named explained how the illegal traffic worked - and how he paid off officials on either side of the frontier to let it continue.


"My house is located in a position where one gate leads out to Kazakstan and the other to Uzbekistan," he said. "Three or four cars drive through my yard every day carrying flour from Kazakstan. I take 1,500 tenge [11 or 12 US dollars] from each car. And every day I give 1,000 tenge to the Kazak district policeman, and 1,000 tenge each to the Kazak and Uzbek border guards."


Residents of both villages said such payments were so universal that corruption had been standardised - the amount a property on the border must pay varies according to its money-making potential, and everyone knows the rates for bribing border guards and police in the two countries to get different favours.


Locals describe an atmosphere in which the law is ignored by all sides, as people feel they can buy their way out of any problem. They regard police and border guards not as enforcing the law, but simply preying on people to extract as much money as possible.


Kazak officials were unwilling to talk to IWPR about allegations their men were involved in a racket.


One border officer who wished to remain anonymous told IWPR that his force had to contend with, and detain, a constant stream of smugglers and illegal migrant workers.


Whatever the extent of official collusion with the smugglers, the increase in border patrols has also created frictions, which can quickly escalate into violence.


The head of the South Kazakstan region's migration police, Sagadil Erkebaev, insisted it was the smugglers' drive for profits that brought them into conflict with the law.


"For many people, this illegal work has become a good business, and they don't want to miss out on it. That is why these clashes take place. It will be very difficult to stop this," he said.


Locals interviewed by IWPR said such incidents were often the result of a dispute over the terms of a bribe, rather than honest officers trying to impose the law.


One violent incident in Kazakstan that happened in March has left locals still feeling angry.


Alisher Umbetov, 28, died after security forces faced a hostile crowd at the Sapar market, a popular trading place in Makhtaaral district eight kilometres inside the frontier.


The regional office of Kazakstan's National Security Committee told IWPR that 16 border guards were sent into the market to check passports, but traders and customers obstructed them and began throwing stones at them. The NSC - which controls the border guard service - said its officers were forced to fire warning shots in self-defence. It is unclear how the shots hit Umbetov. Two of the border guards were also injured.


Accounts by locals who witnessed the incident differed. One man told IWPR that the clash occurred after the patrol tried to detain a group of people from Uzbekistan, and negotiations by the locals to secure their release broke down. He believes the violence happened because the two sides in the dispute failed to arrive at an acceptable deal.


"Life has never been peaceful on the border," said another local who did not give his name. "The Uzbek border guards have shot at us on several occasions, and people have been killed and wounded. But for them [Kazaks] to shoot at their own people - we don't remember anything like that."


After the clash, the provincial government called a meeting of residents and law-enforcement officers to find out what could be done to prevent a repetition. The Kazak border guards also promised Umbetov's relatives help with arrangements for his funeral.


Kazak border officials appear to resort to firearms infrequently in such encounters, unlike in Uzbekistan where officers take a tougher approach to anyone who refuses orders to stop. In July, IWPR reported that a villager was shot dead after Uzbek forces chased a vehicle into a populated area on their side of the border. A driver who got into an argument with Uzbek frontier guards was also shot and killed a few weeks earlier.


In mid-July, Kazak police in Jibek Joly stopped a Lada car which was attempting to cross the border without going through customs controls. As they checked the papers of the four passengers, the driver sped off. With the police in hot pursuit, the car drove into a local farmyard, believed to belong to relatives of the driver.


The farm owner and his neighbours are alleged to have beaten the officers and locked them in a barn.


The captive police were only rescued when they used a mobile phone to call in the local flying squad. The farmer was arrested and is likely to be tried.


There have been other cases where border guards have faced violence. On July 21, a sergeant in the Kazak frontier service was hit by a car whose owner refused to obey orders to stop. He sustained damage to his leg, while three weeks earlier another servicemen had received a spine injury in a similar, apparently deliberate, incident involving a car.


Migration police chief Erkebaev said the smuggling problem was exacerbated by the traffic in illegal migrants. Most are workers from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, seeking casual work on building sites or farms in the more prosperous Kazakstan.


Since the beginning of August, police in South Kazakstan region have been conducting a campaign to check all migrants' documents.


But even tough police action will do nothing to tackle the simple economics that make it worth the risk of crossing the border to work illegally in Kazakstan, or to smuggle a carload of goods back to Uzbekistan.


Daur Dosybiev is the editor of the Rabat newspaper in Shymkent.


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