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Kyrgyz Traders in 'Customs Hell'

Relentless harassment on the Russian border has reportedly driven ruined Kyrgyz businessmen to suicide
By IWPR Central Asia

When Kyrgyz train conductor Kanybek Adiev was found dead at Petukhovo Station, on the Russian-Kazak border, his fellow travellers immediately suspected foul play.


For the past three years, Adiev had also worked as a "shuttle-trader" - one of an estimated 500,000 Kyrgyz who bring consumer goods up from Central Asia and sell them at Russian markets. Like many of his fellow businessmen, Adiev had often complained of indiscriminate harassment from Russian customs officials and border guards.


In fact, shortly before his death, Adiev had had $800-worth of goods confiscated by customs officers at Petukhovo. Since the merchandise had been bought on credit, the shuttle-trader found himself 40,000 soms in debt. On his return to Bishkek, however, Adiev borrowed a further $1,000, bought another consignment of goods and set off for Yekaterinburg.


Again the goods were confiscated and again Adiev returned home empty-handed. On the third occasion, as he approached the Russian border, the trader told his brother he was going to try to recover his confiscated stock and left the train. When Adiev failed to return, his brother went to investigate.


An official report on Adiev's death found that he had died of a heart attack complicated by tuberculosis. However his wife, Djarkyn Ashymova, and fellow traders demanded an inquiry. It was only after Kyrgyz security council secretary Bolot Djanuzakov and interior minister Omurbek Kutuev intervened that doctors admitted there was no evidence to support the post mortem verdict.


Bishkek continues to lodge official complaints with the Russian authorities - but the shuttle-traders themselves say there has been no change in the ruthless attitude of the federal customs officials.


One Kyrgyz trader, Arapbek Abdygulov, told IWPR, "We've been suffering the torments of hell for the past two years. When the train stops at the border station of Petukhovo, our hearts sink. The customs officials burst into the carriages with their Alsatians and shout, 'Sit down, everyone! Don't move an inch!' Then they begin to rummage through our bags."


"No one's interested in the declarations we've bought for 90 soms. We pay $4 for every kilogramme over the legal limit. We can't work out which of them are border guards and which are customs inspectors.


"They hit us with sticks and hurl abuse at us. They confiscate any bag that takes their fancy. It's impossible to say how many Kyrgyz women have suffered nervous stress and even heart attacks as a result of this treatment."


Another trader, Malik Dodonov, added, "In the middle of October, the Russian customs officials launched an official clampdown and confiscated around $2 million-worth of goods from 32 train carriages. People who had taken out loans or mortgaged their houses to buy the goods were suicidal."


According to the traders, at least three Kyrgyz men have hanged themselves rather than face financial ruin whilst a fourth threw himself from the ninth floor of an apartment block.


Ainura Bostonova, a mother of seven from Bishkek, committed suicide after repeated attempts to recover her confiscated goods failed. Bostonova had borrowed $3,000 to buy the merchandise, using her brother's flat in Bishkek as security for the loan.


Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy Bolot Sherniyazov said, "Last year alone, they brought the bodies of six Kyrgyz shuttle-traders back from Yekaterinburg. What about the other 20 Russian cities which our traders visit?


"They beat them and call them 'sheep' or 'darkies'. And why do you think they insult them? Because their own government in Kyrgyzstan doesn't respect them. State officials aren't concerned with the fate of ordinary citizens."


The shuttle-traders are demanding swift action from the Kyrgyz government. Last autumn, a group of them picketed Government House whilst, in November, bereaved relatives staged a protest meeting outside the Russian embassy in Bishkek.


Georgy Rudov, the Russian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, said that urgent measures had already been taken to tackle the problem and he had personally asked Eduard Rossel, governor of the Sverdlovsk oblast, to look into the complaints.


In reply, the head of the Customs Directorate for the Urals wrote, "The customs service has recently tightened up controls on the Russian-Kazak border, especially with regard to train No. 205 from Bishkek to Yekaterinburg. Kyrgyz traders are using the train to import large quantities of Chinese-made merchandise in direct contravention of existing legislation."


"In general, these are uncertified goods which, in accordance with customs regulations, are temporarily stored in warehouses. There have been cases of a single passenger carrying up to 1,000kg of merchandise when the current limit is 36kg. These incidents are partly due to an ignorance of Russian law."


After appeals to Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Askar Akaev, apparently fell on deaf ears, the shuttle-traders sent a telegram to the Assembly of People's Representatives in Bishkek.


The deputies have since resolved to open a Kyrgyz consulate in Yekaterinburg which will work to protect the traders' rights and investigate individual complaints. They have also decided to send a special commission to the Sverdlovsk oblast in a bid to recover confiscated goods.


However, Askar Chukin, a senior official on the Kyrgyz Customs Committee, said a team of delegates sent to Russia last year to solve the problem had made little headway.


The delegation included Byubyuaisha Arstanbekova, who founded The Road of Justice - an organisation to support the shuttle-traders - shortly after the recent tragedies were reported in Yekaterinburg. Arstanbekova believes the government is powerless to protect the rights of its citizens abroad.


Cholpon Orozobekova is a regular IWPR contributor


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