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

Red Tape Marks Kyrgyz-Uzbek Border

Travellers complain that bribery and harassment continues unchecked on the frontier, whatever regulations are supposed to be in place.
By IWPR staff
Bureaucracy and corruption make crossing the border between southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan such a headache that the written rules are often the least of a traveller’s problems. Visa requirements were dropped on February 12, but by the time the Uzbek authorities tightened the rules again a month later, few people had even got to grips with the changes.

The Uzbeks put their open-border agreement with Kyrgyzstan on hold because they would not accept the ID cards that many Kyrgyz now carry instead of passports. They objected to the cards since they do not have pages that can be stamped on entry and exit.

Tashkent has asked the Kyrgyz government to come up with a solution, which is likely to involve an additional set of blank pages which can be stamped at the border.

In the meantime, Kyrgyz and Uzbek nationals once again need to obtain visas before travelling to each other’s country.

Uzbekistan first imposed the visa requirement when guerrillas of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, appeared in southern Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000. The Kyrgyz authorities then followed suit.

There are around one million ethnic Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan. Most live in the south and have relatives in Uzbekistan.

There were hopes that a new agreement between Uzbek president Islam Karimov and his Kyrgyz counterpart Kurmanbek Bakiev to ease cross-border movement would help reduce the number of people risking their lives by illegally crossing the river that forms much of the frontier. Approximately 90 people have died over the last two years, according to official figures.

Gulnara Aripova, a resident of the Kyrgyz frontier town of Karasuu, said the brief visa-free period made it safer for her to visit relatives in Uzbekistan.

“We used to risk our lives wading the 20 metres across the deep river,” she said, explaining that the river sometimes flows very rapidly.

Travellers interviewed by IWPR said the visa relaxation actually did little to stop the widespread corruption and routine harassment that they suffer on the frontier. The only thing they noticed was that the bribes demanded by border guards to let them pass were reduced during that period.

“The border guards still demanded money. Not as much as before, but smaller amounts,” said Aripova.

She at first refused to pay when Uzbek guards asked her to hand over a bribe in return for issuing a visa on the spot, telling them this was no longer required. But the guards then changed tack, saying her young daughter needed her own passport to cross the border.

“In the end, I paid 500 Uzbek soms [40 US cents], and they let me through,” she said.

Fellow Karasuu resident Alimbek Kuchkorov agreed that unscrupulous guards – Kyrgyz as well as Uzbek – will always find an excuse for a bribe.

“Every day, several thousand people pass through the Dostyk checkpoint to get to the Karasuu market,” he said “Everyone who crosses leaves behind a bribe of 200 Uzbek soms.”

The sprawling wholesale market in Karasuu is a magnet for traders in the region, and an estimated 30,000 people arrive there from Uzbekistan every day.

Many people at the market told IWPR that the visa-free travel rules did nothing to curb the border guards’ behaviour. Some wrote it off as a populist gesture by the two presidents which in reality did nothing to make their lives easier.

“Nothing changed during that visa-free month,” said Adakham Baltabaev, from the Kurgantepe district just over the Uzbek border. “Corruption is endemic at the border posts, and no one obeys the law.”

Though corruption is rife on both sides of the frontier, Uzbek nationals appear to be worse off, often paying multiple bribes in the course of a single trip.

“The Kyrgyz border guards don’t take bribes from their own citizens. As for us, we have to give handouts to both Uzbek and Kyrgyz border guards,” said Zokirjon Hashimov, from the Uzbek town of Khanabad.

He explained that Uzbeks pay 200 soms to be let out of their own country. The Kyrgyz frontier guards let them in for nothing as long as their documents are in order, but target them as they leave carrying goods bought at the Karasuu market. Then the Uzbek border guards hit them for another bribe, and local police will stop them and extort more money on the pretext of checking their documents.

“That’s how life is for us,” sighed Hashimov.

There are other ways to force travellers to hand over money. Azizbek Ashurov from Fergana Valley Lawyers Without Borders, a non-government group based in Kyrgyzstan, said that if travellers fail to register with local police within five days of arriving in either country, they have to make another illicit payment to be allowed to leave.

Travellers also face demands for money if they do not have the requisite entry stamp in their passport. Sometimes border guards deliberately avoid providing the stamp so as to give a pretext for extorting a payment later, but Kyrgyz nationals who are frequent travellers often choose not to use up all their passport pages with stamps, as acquiring a replacement document is currently a nightmarish procedure.

“Of course, border guards will satisfy that request for a certain amount of money,” said Ashurov.

As a result, Ashurov said, traders commonly smuggle their goods across unguarded parts of the border rather than collect all the right documents and pay bribes.

As Osh-based journalist Sherzad Yusupov explained, this hampers the growth of trade since there is a limit to how much any one smuggler can carry.

Adyl Ismailov, who heads the Lawyers Without Borders group, said that from a purely economic point of view, it was vital for the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments to restore the visa-free travel arrangement. “It will create great impetus for the growth of border trade, which provides a living for millions of people,” he said.

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