Tajikistan Looks to the East

Dushanbe is hoping the opening of a frontier crossing with China will transform Tajik fortunes.

Tajikistan Looks to the East

Dushanbe is hoping the opening of a frontier crossing with China will transform Tajik fortunes.

Business has rarely been better for Dushanbe shuttle-traders who’ve been stocking up with bargains in the western Chinese town of Kashgar since the opening of Tajik border with China two months ago.

“I used to buy goods in Bishkek, but the same goods are 20-30 per cent cheaper in Kashgar, and the selection is better,” said Mokhina, one of many Dushanbe traders going on regular shopping tours across the country’s eastern frontier.

Mokhina said she used to go to the capital’s market to sell her goods, but since she started buying them in China other stall- holders have protested that she’s undercutting them. Now she sells directly from home, and locals placed orders with her for Chinese goods, such as shoes, toys and sweaters.

With bus services now operating regularly between Tajikistan and Kashgar, ordinary Tajiks too are heading west for low-cost Chinese goods.

Rukhshona Alimshoeva, a mother of three from Khorog whose husband works in Russia, told IWPR that she was on the first bus from her town to western China. With 300 US dollars she borrowed from friends and 200 from her husband, she bought a range of Chinese goods, which she sold at profit when she got back home. “Everything is very cheap there. My neighbours bought almost all the goods. I didn’t even have to go to the market to sell them,” she said.

The Kulma Pass frontier crossing, sealed since Soviet times, was opened on May 25 in a ceremony attended by state officials from Xinjiang province in western China and the prime minister of Tajikistan Aqil Aqulov.

With China fast becoming an economic powerhouse, the Dushanbe authorities hope the trading link with their eastern neighbour will help to establish Tajikistan as an important conduit for the transport of Chinese goods to the rest of Central Asia, where they are in great demand.

Political commentator Tursun Kabirov likened access to Chinese markets as an “epoch-making” event in the history of sovereign Tajikistan. “It can be compared with Russia opening a ‘window on Europe’ in the 17th century,” he said.

The bazaars and markets of Tajikistan have been brimming with Chinese goods for some time, but until the border opening they had mostly come via Bishkek or Osh in Kyrgzstan.

Majid, a wholesale trader four Dushanbe, said, “Now we’ve started buying from traders who travel directly to China. In the past, traders who went to Bishkek sold their goods at quite high prices. But people who bring the same goods from Kashgar sell them for much less. It’s profitable for us. Now the Bishkek traders will have a hard time - I don’t know who will buy their goods.”

A regular stream of vehicles is now trundling across the frontier with China, high up in the Pamir Mountains, with travellers apparently having few qualms about using a road, which appears to be little more than a treacherous track along some sections.

“The road is a difficult one, it goes up to 4,000 metres above sea level. It is narrow in parts and very windy. The asphalt is broken up and it’s hard to drive,” said minibus driver Murodbek Alididov. “There are very few places so far where you can rest and get something to eat, but some residents bring out food to the side of the road, and some provide meals in their homes, very cheap and tasty.”

The opening of the frontier crossing will lessen Tajikistan’s dependence on Uzbekistan, which has historically had tense relations with Dushanbe. Tajik exports, such as cotton and aluminium, have to transit through Uzbekistan to reach other CIS countries and western Europe. Tashkent has in the past restricted this flow as a means of exerting pressure on its neighbour.

Some estimates suggest that Uzbekistan might lose in the region of 20-30 million US dollars worth of revenue now that Tajik freight traffic can cross into China and connect up with the Karakorum highway, running south to Pakistan, whose southern ports are important regional trading outlets.

Islamabad is keen to do business with Dushanbe. Indeed, in July, a senior trade and industry official in Lahore, Anjuman Nisar, returning from an official trip to Tajikistan, told the media that he expected that the turnover in goods between the two countries would increase by 25 times, and could reach 50 million dollars a year.

Dushanbe is hoping that its access to Chinese markets and Pakistan’s southern ports will turn Tajikistan into a major transit country through which hundreds of thousands of goods will be transported annually to the rest of Central Asia.

“Before opening of the Tajik-Chinese border, Tajikistan was essentially a dependent state,” said Kabirov. “ It was dependent on Uzbekistan, through which most goods passed. Road access to China will significantly strengthen the country’s independence.”

Observers caution, however, that it will be a while before Tajikistan will be able to fully exploit the Chinese frontier crossing, as its main highway, which runs through the south of the country, is in such bad condition.

Currently, parts of the Kulyab-Khorog section of the highway in the Shkev-Shagon-Zigar are being upgraded by Turkish companies with loans from the Islamic and Asian development banks. Work is not expected to be completed for several years.

For the moment, though, many ordinary Tajiks are simply happy that they have an opportunity to make some cash selling Chinese goods. Alididov, who comes from impoverished Gorny Badakhshan, told IWPR, “ It’s a good thing that this road has been opened, now the people in our poor region will be able to earn money.”

Zafar Abdullaev is the director of the internet agency Avesta and Lydia Isamova is IWPR’s project director in Dushanbe.

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