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

Petrol Smuggling Rife on Turkmen-Uzbek Border

People living on either side of the Turkmen-Uzbek border are reaping the benefits as increasing amounts of petrol are shifted illegally from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan. The volume has increased threefold in the last two years.
Hundreds of tonnes of petrol are being smuggled every month from Turkmenistan to the Karakalpak Republic and Khorezm region, both of which are parts of Uzbekistan. The trade provides virtually the sole livelihood of many residents living along the frontier.

Cross-border trade between the two countries became more difficult when diplomatic relations deteriorated sharply following the assassination attempt on Turkmen president Saparmurat Niazov in November 2002. He accused the Uzbek authorities of sending in terrorists over the border.

But while the two presidents rage at each other, border residents have gone ahead with creating a sort of prototype common market.

Uzbekistan has been unable to make itself self-sufficient in fuel. Its domestic oil production falls year after year, and fuel shortages have become almost the norm.

Many items are cheaper in Turkmenistan than in Uzbekistan. Two years ago, foodstuffs accounted for a substantial percentage of illegal exports, and later it became profitable to smuggle domestic appliances to the Uzbeks.

But the petrol trade has always been popular, for reasons easy to understand when one considers that petrol costs just 10 US cents a litre in Turkmenistan while it can be sold for twice that amount over in Uzbekistan, and that is still it can be sold for 20 cents, which is still one and a half time cheaper than the real prices on petrol in the country.

The region in the border zone of Uzbekistan proudly bears the name of “Kuwait”. There are no fields of “black gold” there, but enterprising people live there who sell petrol. The volume of business is small, but there are a lot of traders. In the past, fuel was sold openly, but now there are plastics bottles on the side of the roads with “76”, “95” and even “Dies” written on them.

Customers are offered petrol of different brands, and diesel fuel. As soon as a car approaches, teenagers come running out. They name the price, and deal with the petrol tank themselves. Additionally, they swear that it is the best petrol in all Uzbekistan. If you doubt them, you will hear: “Man, it’s Turkmen petrol, imported!” Local police officers don’t pay any attention to these entrepreneurs – the petrol dealers fill up their cars for free.

There are numerous ways of taking Turkmen petrol across the border. Petrol containers are sent abroad through numerous channels. There are also more subtle smuggling methods. People stretched a plastic pipe over the border and pumped petrol across quite easily.

Dashoguz resident Mukhammed says he transports petrol on a boat, up to 50 10-litre canisters each time. He pays both Turkmen and Uzbek border guards. According to Mukhammed, the authorities, knowing about the fuel business, frequently change the border guards. On one trip Mukhammed was unable to reach an agreement with a new detachment of border guards. And he only avoided a long prison sentence by giving them a bribe of $1,000.

According to residents of border regions of the Dashoguz province, in the past they used to be able to raise the barbwire in certain places and give people waiting on the other side canisters of petrol, and immediately get the money for them. Now there are secret watches around these areas, and sometimes they set ambushes and put up barriers. Traders have to change their tactics and find new ways of selling smuggled fuel. Some put canisters into ditches, and their colleagues on the other side of the border fish them out.

It is not surprising that people have to resort to such extreme measures. Border trade is the only way they can feed themselves and their families.