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

Winds of Change on Kazak-Kyrgyz Border

Kazakstan may be less jumpy about security in its smaller neighbour, but new customs arrangements could mean lax procedures are a thing of the past.
By Ainagul Abdrakhmanova, Yaroslava Naumenko

Although the authorities in Kazakstan have reopened the frontier with neighbouring Kyrgyzstan following recent unrest in that country, they are likely to keep a much closer eye on cross-border activity from now on. 

After Kazakstan closed all crossing-points in April, its frontier forces intensified their patrols of border areas. The emergency security precautions have now been relaxed, but analysts predict that Kazakstan will continue efforts to clamp down on smuggling now that its customs union with Russia and Belarus has fundamentally changed the way it trades with Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakstan closed the border in April after demonstrations in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek left at least 80 dead and forced the departure of president Kurmanbek Bakiev. After further trouble in May, this time in the south of the country, the Kazaks agreed to reopen a limited number of crossings for human traffic and essential goods as Kyrgyz officials complained that the lack of trade was strangling the economy.

Kazakstan remained cautious about restoring traffic completely, especially in the wake of ethnic clashes on a massive scale in mid-June that left 330 or more people dead and caused wide-scale population displacement in the south of Kyrgyzstan.

It was not until July 20 that Kazakstan finally reduced the security alert level and allow traffic to start moving normally again.

The decision was taken despite two incidents a week earlier in which Kazak frontier guards intercepted groups of intruders from Kyrgyzstan.

One of these confrontations, on July 13, ended in a shootout which left two Kyrgyz nationals dead and a Kazak border guard badly wounded.

The deputy head of Kazakstan’s border service, Amangeldy Abylkanov, told a press conference the next day that his men had come across a group of men driving moving a herd of horses through the Sut-Bulak mountain pass towards Kyrgyzstan. When challenged, the intruders opened fire, and the Kazak troops shot back in self-defence. One arrest was made and 20 horses and three firearms were seized.

Cholponbek Turusbekov, deputy chief of Kyrgyzstan’s border protection force, confirmed that the Kyrgyz citizens had entered the neighbouring state illegally.

But he said it was not clear who had fired first. He said a local man who escaped from the firefight later told the Kyrgyz authorities that he and his friends were bringing the horses back from summer pastureland, and they were armed as they were planning to hunt marmots.

In the second incident, which happened 15 kilometres away the same day, Kazak frontier forces detained five people who were driving livestock into Kazakstan.

Turusbekov confirmed that Kazakstan scaled back its security measures such as reinforced patrols this week, and said things seemed to be getting back to normal.

Nevertheless, eight of the 12 border checkpoints still remained closed, and Turusbekov said his agency had contacted its Kazak counterparts to ask when the border would be fully open.

Nur Omarov, a political analyst in Bishkek, told IWPR the border had always been porous and ill-defined, and the two confrontations probably only occurred because the Kazaks had deployed more men on the ground.

“The Kyrgyz-Kazak border has always been regarded as the most peaceful of frontiers, and has acquired a reputation for being easy to cross,” he said.

Omarov said people living in border areas remained largely oblivious of changing realities, and in many cases there were no signposts to tell them which country they were in when they moved around mountain areas.

“I think it’s possible that the Kyrgyz were moving their herd from one ‘jailoo’ [summer pasture] to another, and just got confused and strayed into foreign territory,” Omarov said.

Eduard Poletaev, an analyst and journalist in Almaty, Kazakstan, told IWPR that scrutiny of cross-border activity was likely to remain rigorous from now on, not because of perceived security risks in Kyrgyzstan but because of the requirements imposed by the new trilateral customs union.

An agreement signed by the presidents of Russia, Kazakstan and Belarus on July 5 formally introduced a single customs regime for all three countries. It forms a significant part of the regulatory architecture for a customs union which has been in place since January, and which is intended to lead to a common market with a combined population of some 170 million.

One direct consequence is that Kyrgyzstan is now an outsider, and will face higher customs duties for trade with Kazakstan.

“As a customs union member, Kazakstan will have to intensify checking procedures on the border with Kyrgyzstan so as to prevent smuggling,” Poletaev added.

Until now, Kyrgyzstan has benefited from its position as trade intermediary between Kazakstan and China. The large Dordoi market outside Bishkek has served as a clearing-house for consumer goods from the east, helped by the fact that Kyrgyzstan and China are both members of the World Trade Organisation, unlike Kazakstan. The arrival of the customs union is likely to slice into the profitability of shifting goods onwards from Kyrgyzstan to markets in Kazakstan, which used to take place relatively unhindered.

The head of Kyrgyzstan’s Association of Markets, Trade and Service Businesses, Sergei Ponomarev, says exporting to Kazakstan has become tougher ever since the customs union came into force at the beginning of the year.

One positive effect, though, is that Kazak customs officials are much less likely to let undeclared goods pass in exchange for a bribe.

“There used to be much more covert trading, whereas since January the amount of smuggling has gone down,” Ponomarev said.

Bishkek-based analyst Orozbek Moldaliev agrees that a new era has arrived and people will have to adjust to it.

“People here [in Kyrgyzstan] were accustomed to crossing the border wherever was most convenient for them. Now they’re going to have to cross only where they are allowed to,” he said.

 Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is an IWPR-trained reporter; Yaroslava Naumenko is a journalist in Kazakstan.

 

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