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

Uzbekistan: Kazak Border Shut After 'Hygiene Scare'

Tashkent claims it is sealing the frontier in the interests of hygiene, but many believe it merely wants to stop imports from Kazakstan.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Uzbek citizens have been cut off from their Kazak neighbours after Tashkent closed the border, citing the need to impose new "quarantine" procedures.

The move has deprived Uzbeks of the chance to shop in the neighbouring country and compensate for the growing shortfall of goods available in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek border protection committee said it received orders late last year to close the frontier in connection with the "growing frequency of cases of food poisoning among Uzbek citizens from food products bought in Kazakstan".

Few people believe this is the real reason. It is not known for how long the frontier will be shut. The border committee said it would remain sealed until it received "orders from the leadership".

The negative side effects of the closure are already visible on the Uzbek side in the form of rising prices.

Jahongir Shasolimov, of the Independent Organisation for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, said the cost of many industrial goods and products was climbing fast, as Kazak imports had previously satisfied much local demand.

"People are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the government's actions," he said. "They have begun to directly link daily falling living standards, poverty and unemployment with the policies of President Islam Karimov. They say Karimov first closed the markets in Uzbekistan, and now has deprived them of the chance to buy goods in Kazakstan, where they are cheaper."

Rights activists doubt the border closure will trigger popular protests among Uzbek citizens, even if it accelerates a drop in their living standards. But they warn it will worsen the climate of pessimism and despair, deepen hostility to the authorities and strengthen a widespread conviction that the government is ignoring ordinary people's concerns.

Uzbek health officials dismiss government talk of the need to counter food poisoning. Sanat Shoumarov, medical chief of the state sanitary and epidemic station, SES, told IWPR that no mass outbreak of the latter had come to their attention. "There have only been isolated cases," he said.

The Tashkent SES said it had not registered even a single case of food poisoning linked to products bought in Kazakstan in recent months. The head of the epidemiological department of the Tashkent SES, Tamara Eliseeva, said Uzbekistan was not at risk of epidemics.

She said there's even been little evidence of routine illnesses such as flu, "There have been no outbreaks of this illness this year, not to mention other diseases, such as typhus or plague. So I see no reason to introduce quarantine. The border is not going to stop influenza anyway."

The real reason for the quarantine measures appears to be the Uzbek government's mounting displeasure over the number of citizens who have been crossing over to Kazakstan to shop and the amount of money they spend there.

A trickle of shoppers turned into a flood after the Uzbek government last May imposed a punitive 90 per cent customs duty on most imported goods. Earlier, President Karimov had publicly complained that imported goods were draining the country of its resources.

The high duties promptly bankrupted most local importers, known as shuttle traders. One even committed suicide setting fire to himself with petrol.

As protests over empty Uzbek markets grew, the government backed down last autumn and reduced the duty to 70 per cent, but this was not enough to repair the damage. Goods brought into Uzbekistan still remained uncompetitive, as regards prices.

Uzbek shoppers began heading en masse to Kazakstan for goods and products. Astana officials say in November 2002 alone at least 30,000 Uzbek shoppers visited southern Kazakstan daily, boosting the country's revenues by several million dollars a day.

Tashkent's measures against would-be shoppers in Kazakstan have been enforced with great severity. Patrols have been increased on all road and land crossings with Uzbekistan's neighbour.

At police cordons a few kilometres from the border, documents are checked and travellers quizzed about their reasons for travelling to Kazakstan, before being ordered back.

To ensure Uzbek citizens do not sneak across the frontier to Kazakstan, about eight police posts have been set up on a single stretch of main road to the Kazak border, with around 10 policemen on guard at each one.

They deal harshly with Uzbeks who claim they have a right to go to Kazakstan, and who say the quarantine measures infringe their freedom of movement. The police push them and almost knock them over, if need be, and tell them to get lost.

"I have to go to Shymkent urgently as I have a contract with a Kazak firm," one unhappy trader, Nuriddin Kurbanov, of Karshi, complained. "They won't let me out of the country, what can I do?"

His complaints avail him nothing. The police and border guards are under strict instructions to let no one except Kazak or foreign nationals cross over. Uzbeks can return from Kazakstan to Uzbekistan without hindrance, but can only head in the other direction if they are permanent residents or have long-term work permits in Kazakstan.

They grant exceptions to Uzbeks passing through Kazakstan in transit, or attending funerals of close relatives, but insist on seeing documentation to prove such cases are valid.

Kazak diplomats complain that the Uzbeks closed the border without warning, contravening a frontier agreement that both governments signed in July 2000 in Astana.

The agreement allows either side to close the border in the interests of national security, or for health reasons, but says an explanation must be given through diplomatic channels within 72 hours of such a decision being passed.

The Uzbek interior ministry admitted it had still not formally notified Kazakstan of the border closure 10 days after the move was made.

Analysts scoff at the Uzbek measures as economically counterproductive. They say that as Uzbekistan does not produce enough consumer goods to compensate for the loss of Kazak imports, there will be only one result: shortages.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR director in Uzbekistan

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