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

Petrol Smuggling Rings Lure Kyrgyz Women

Unemployment and rising poverty have driven thousands of Kyrgyz women into the clutches of the petrol cartels
By IWPR Central Asia

Rakhima steals out of the house at the dead of night, long after her husband and three daughters have gone to bed. Though exhausted after the household chores of the day, she harnesses herself to a heavy wooden cart and sets out across the fields. She heads for the Uzbek frontier.


"It's terrifying," said Rakhima. "I've twice been caught by the border guards. I had to give them all the money I had on me. But I've got to feed my family somehow."


Rakhima is a smuggler - one of the many Kyrgyz women who haul illegal consignments of petrol and oil by-products across the border from Uzbekistan. It is gruelling, dangerous work and the rewards are pitiful but, for women like Rakhima, it is the only means of survival.


"My husband is a village teacher," she said. "His monthly salary hardly lasts a week. His mother's pension buys about half a bag of flour. His relatives disapprove and say, 'What kind of a wife are you?' But my husband keeps quiet. He's come to accept my nightly expeditions."


The smuggling boom began in the settlement of Tepe-Kurgan, in the Aravan region which borders Uzbekistan. Then the women smuggled cotton-seed oil into Kyrgyzstan, bribing customs officials and truck-drivers before selling the contraband at markets and bus stations.


The Uzbek authorities clamped down on the illegal trade but the cartels soon found new channels across the border and gradually branched out into engine oil, flammable liquids, lubricants and petrol.


The potential profits are immediately apparent. In the Andijan and Fergana oblasts of Uzbekistan, bordering the Osh province, petrol costs 3-4 soms less per litre than in South Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan is able to keep prices at a lower level because it has its own working oil refineries.


Smuggling has now reached epidemic proportions. Gangs of smugglers hire private buses and load them with canisters of petrol containing between 20 and 40 litres. A single bus can carry up to half a tonne of contraband.


It's a risky business. The air inside the buses is thick with petrol fumes while the vehicles themselves are battered and poorly maintained. A single spark could cause a tragedy.


Other women carry their contraband by cart or even by hand. At the Shakhrikhansay River in the Kara-Su region, smugglers pay 2 Kyrgyz som (or 20 Uzbek sums) to have their canisters winched from one bank to the other.


Although corruption is rife in the customs service and officers can often be bribed, many smugglers cross the border through deserted cotton fields in a bid to avoid the checkpoints.


Khilola, a young Uzbek smuggler, said, "I put the canisters in a cart and make my way to the road by night. My husband and son are asleep, so are the customs officials. Early in the morning, I hitch a lift to Osh."


Even when they reach their destination, the women's hardships are not over. In the town markets, they are forced to run the gauntlet of the police and the "fences" who work for the petrol cartels.


"Sometimes I try to sell the petrol myself but this is hard," said Khilola. " It's easier to sell it through a boss. It may be less profitable but I won't get any trouble that way."


The contraband is then distributed through illegal outlets - most of which are located on the main highways leading into the big towns. The rash of roadside stalls has been blamed for a sharp rise in road accidents, fires and pollution.


The stalls are often raided by the police in joint operations with the fire department, the tax inspectorate and the president's National Commission for Protecting and Developing Trade.


In December 2000, 62 roadside outlets were closed down in Osh alone and police confiscated around 900 litres of petrol and diesel.


However, the authorities are hard pushed to put a stop to the illegal trade in petrol and oil products. Major Kanybek Aidarov, head of the Osh tax police, recently told a local newspaper, "In the current market economy, any entrepreneurial activity is permitted and businessmen are free to conduct their affairs as best they can. But they still have to pay taxes to the state treasury and not everyone is prepared to do this - hence the smuggling boom."


Makhamatjan, a Kyrgyz businessman who plays by the rules, commented, "When I bring a consignment back from Uzbekistan, I have to pay the border guards and the customs officials at each checkpoint. Then there's the traffic police - they won't let me go without paying a bribe. Then I pay my taxes and, in the end, I'm left with practically no profit at all."


Meanwhile, the women smugglers have neither the time nor the energy to consider whether or not they are breaking the law. They are only concerned with feeding their families.


Alla Pyatibratova is a regular IWPR contributor


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