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Sales have been plummeting recently at the Dordoy Bazaar in Bishkek. (file photo)
There is a fierce debate in Kyrgyzstan about the merits of the country joining a customs union with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, but for merchants at two of Kyrgyzstan's biggest bazaars the answer would be "yes" and the sooner the better.

Sales at the Dordoy Bazaar in Bishkek and the Kara Suu Bazaar near Osh are down -- way down.

The reason is some 75 percent of the goods sold at the Dordoy Bazaar and some 85 percent of the goods sold at the Kara Suu Bazaar come from China and the two bazaars' main customer, Kazakhstan, is a member of the customs union, which has strict rules on the reexport of goods.

The chairwoman of the Dordoy trade complex, Damira Doolotalieva, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Azattyk, that Kazakhstan bought some 70 percent of the goods from the Dordoy Bazaar last year.

She said that, after Kazakhstan introduced limits on the purchase of goods from Dordoy, "trade at the market fell significantly."

Doolotalieva said the merchants at Dordoy do not know what to do. Many, she said, have taken out loans from banks to run their stalls at the bazaar and with drastically reduced sales the merchants have no way to repay the loans.

"Because of this, merchants are ready to support Kyrgyzstan's entry into the customs union," she said and added, "If the Cabinet of Ministers keep ignoring the demands of the merchants, more than 60,000 of them are prepared to go out and rally for their rights."

If the current situation continues much longer, Doolotalieva said, the bazaar might have to close.

The owner of Dordoy Bazaar, Askar Salymbekov, said the only way to keep the bazaar running is for Kyrgyzstan to enter the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

Kazakhstan implemented customs union rules in 2011 but much of the problem at the Dordoy Bazaar started later when Kazakh border guards stopped allowing people to carry goods across the border on foot.

PHOTO GALLERY: Bishkek's Dordoy Bazaar

The situation at the Kara Suu Bazaar in southern Kyrgyzstan is equally grim.

The bazaar is located right on the border with Uzbekistan but that border, which is the gateway to Uzbekistan's 30 million potential customers, is almost always closed and has been for years now. Adding to the problem, recent heightened tensions on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border south of Kara Suu have led to a large drop in trade between the two countries during the crisis.

Kazakhstan's enforcement of customs union rules means the Kara Suu Bazaar has lost its last major market for its goods.

Kyrgyzstan's Prime Minister Joomart Otorbaev was just in Moscow discussing his country's entry into the customs union. He indicated that Kyrgyzstan's membership is still months away but he mentioned the importance of the two bazaars where "tens of thousands of people are working" and said his government is considering measures to keep the bazaars functioning.

Some aren't convinced that joining the customs union will provide salvation for Kyrgyzstan's bazaars. Since most of the goods at the bazaars come from China, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, the customs union's regulations on the reexport of goods would probably still apply.

Kyrgyz economic analyst Azamat Akeleev told Azattyk that merchants are in a difficult situation and have little choice but to support Kyrgyzstan's entry into the customs union. But he said Russia and Kazakhstan would likely view the products at bazaars such as Dordoy as being "contraband goods."

-- Bruce Pannier, based on reporting by Bakyt Asanov with contributions from Gulaiym Ashekeeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service
Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (left) and Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe on May 5 -- new best friends forever?
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov visited Tajikistan on May 5-6 in the latest sign of what's becoming the best bilateral relationship in Central Asia.

The focus of Berdymukhammedov's meeting with Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon was energy and transportation. Those two topics are the basis for the growing friendly ties between Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

Construction of Line D of a network of natural-gas pipelines from Turkmenistan to China is scheduled to start soon and new line, unlike the previous three lines, will transit (after Uzbekistan) the territories of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will not receive any gas from the pipeline but will receive transit fees, which Chinese officials have assured Kyrgyzstan, at least, will amount to some $1 billion annually.

Turkmenistan is anxiously trying to sell its gas in all directions, particularly a direction that doesn't lead through Russia. Unfortunately Turkmenistan does not have many options and the Trans-Afghan (TAPI) and Trans-Caspian pipeline projects remain on paper.

When Line D, the last of the four, is completed Turkmenistan will be exporting some 65 billion cubic meters of gas to China annually. That is more gas than Turkmenistan has ever exported in a year.

Rail Transit Around Uzbekistan

Another topic of the Berdymukhammedov-Rahmon meeting was the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway project, which Tajikistan is keenly interested in.

Former Tajik railroad chief Amonullo Hukumatullo summed up the importance of the new railroad at the end of January when he said: "Uzbekistan is creating all kinds of obstacles to transit transportation of our goods. If this road is built, there will not be such problems. We will not have the problem of blocking of the railway by Uzbekistan...and we will also not have to pay Uzbekistan for transit of our goods at the high price set by Uzbekistan." *

All railway routes to Tajikistan pass through Uzbekistan. For several years, Uzbekistan has been stalling railway traffic from Russia and particularly from Iran from entering Tajikistan. Iran has been supplying, or attempting to supply, Tajikistan with construction materials for hydropower plants, one of which an Iranian company is building. Uzbekistan opposes the plants, claiming they would reduce water to Uzbek fields downstream.

The railway from Turkmenistan would give Tajikistan a route that does not transit Uzbek territory.

China is also backing a plan to extend that railway line at both ends, westward in Iran and eastward into China. There is an existing railway (Mashhad-Serakhs-Tejen) line built in the mid-1990s between Iran and Turkmenistan, which lies several hundred kilometers west of the new line.

Though the railway appears to benefit Tajikistan the most, Turkmenistan also stands to gain, as one of the topics during the meeting of the two presidents was mining. Mountainous Tajikistan has an abundance of mineral resources while the largely desert terrain of Turkmenistan offers little.

Tajikistan has also been anxious to again receive electricity from Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan was exporting electricity to Tajikistan via transmission lines that ran through Uzbekistan. Uzbek authorities shut those lines down several years ago, at first citing the need to repair the lines. They haven't worked since.

Turkmenistan's state information agency reported that Berdymukhammedov offered to supply electricity from power stations being built in Turkmenistan's Mary and Lebap provinces to Tajikistan during the autumn and winter months.

Like the railroad, the power lines would run through northern Afghanistan. Some electricity would also go to Afghanistan.

Autumn and winter are critical times for Tajikistan, since the country's hydropower plants are running at reduced capacity.

The railway and the electricity lines are dependent on stability in Afghanistan and that may be another reason Berdymukhammedov is warming ties with Tajikistan. Ethnic Tajiks have been key players in the Afghan government before and after the Taliban was in power and Tajikistan's government has traditionally had good relations with the Tajiks of Afghanistan.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have never had bad ties since independence. Several thousand Tajiks fled to and were taken in by Turkmenistan during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war.

There simply has not been much opportunity for interaction between the two countries. Until Berdymukhammedov came to power in late 2006 both governments had bad relations with the country that lies between them, Uzbekistan.

Berdymukhammedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, did not get along with Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, whom Niyazov accused, with good reason, of being behind a plot to kill him. Tajikistan's President Rahmon has not been on good terms with Karimov for more than 15 years for a variety of reasons.

It is, perhaps, therefore natural that this newfound friendship is built in part on cooperation that avoids Uzbekistan.
* Ironically, the importance of the railway to Tajikistan was underscored when Hukumatullo was dismissed a few days later, in part to assuage the anger of the Turkmen government.

Hukumatullo mentioned in those late January comments that he spoke with Afghan counterparts about altering the railway route at the Turkmen-Afghan border. Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry quickly issued a statement complaining, "The approval of the section of the railway track with exit to the Turkmen-Afghan border without the participation of Turkmenistan is tendentious and absolutely unacceptable for the Turkmen side."

-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Salimjon Aioubov, Iskander Aliyev, and Tohir Safarov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Muhammad Tahir of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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